A friend of mine contacted me to say he had read my post and found China’s practices of censorship pretty startling. You’ll find no disagreement from me on that point. That said, I still think Pat Klein and his group were quite stupidly in the wrong. Let me expand.
I will grant that the situation seems complicated. Upon rereading the LAT story, it’s not entirely clear whether or not Klein knew in advance that the bibles’ entry would definitely be banned, but even if Klein didn’t know in explicit, it’s certainly no secret that China has been hostile towards religious expression. If I were spending a great deal — as Klein claims his group has — to bring over bibles to another country, I would probably do a little bit more research into the legal feasibility of doing so. There’s just no excuse for his surprise.
That understood, China probably, and rightly, perceives Klein’s demands as an affront to their sovereignty. Regardless of your personal religious convictions, what Klein hoped to do was against the law. China knows this, and doesn’t want to cede the precedent that their laws are subject to the whims and personal beliefs of every foreigner who comes to China of their own volition . Ethics notwithstanding, it is China’s prerogative to set the standards for entry, and the enforcing of such standards, especially for a quasi-autocratic government like China’s, is imperative to maintaining its legitimacy. Klein tried to call their bluff, and for now, they’re not budging.
You could make the argument that from a public relations perspective, it would behoove China to acquiesce to Klein’s requests. But this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of China. The Chinese have often been ridiculed for their lack of public relations efforts, but their disengagement with public (really foreign) relations stems not from lack of resources, but because of lack of necessity. Again, the ethics are debatable, but the Chinese government enjoys widespread popular support from within, and accordingly, their obligation lies with their people, not Western sensibilities. So long as Western sensibilities don’t start causing trouble for Chinese people (i.e., Western rebukes impede on China’s economic growth — an unlikely possibility), the Chinese will likely continue to act on perceived national self-interest. In this sense, the Chinese are asserting the power that a global economy has conferred. That is, it’s easy to impose sanctions or rebuke on countries who don’t figure prominently in our own economy, but China’s legitimate economic strength preempts any such notion. And apropos of nothing, this precedent of acting to preserve perceived national self-interest in spite of tepid international support is hardly unique to China.
Lastly, China is officially atheist. From this perspective, why would it occur to them that limiting foreign proselytizing is wrong? Again, I’m not suggesting I agree with their policies, but I certainly believe China has every right to enforce its own laws, and those who choose to go to China to violate its laws shouldn’t be surprised when they are not merely allowed to do as they wish.