Four years ago while vacationing in the Central American nation of Belize I noticed that the preponderance of grocery stores in the coastal and interior towns I visited were operated by Chinese immigrants. How come?
Few of the adults appeared to speak any Spanish or English, Belize's two most important languages, indicating to me that they were recent immigrants. Their children, it seemed, handled all their business translation needs, a not uncommon occurrence among first-generation immigrants everywhere.
I concluded that Belize, a small, seemingly unimportant geopolitical player with a polyglot population and limited infrastructure, had become another object of Chinese government economic imperialism meant to gain influence and create financially dependent allies across the developing world.
China, as one New York Times writer put it, engages big time in "buying loyalty." It does so by showering needy governments with loans and investments and sending its people to establish economically Important footholds.
I may be reaching here, but my gut tells me that, given China's miserable human rights record -- and in particular its treatment of religious movements -- that Beijing's ever-spreading tentacles is an issue to which American religious groups should be paying more attention.
Yes, that means that this is also a topic to which religion-beat journalists should be paying more attention.
What I mean by more attention goes beyond what various church groups regularly have to say when China cracks down, as it does over and over, on Chinese Christians. Here's a recent piece from the South China Morning Post detailing Beijing's latest bit of behavior designed to further control its state-approved churches.
China's house, or underground, churches, which ostensibly operate outside of official control, of course fare no better.
Nor am I referring to religious and state criticism of China's treatment of Tibetan Buddhists or its restless Muslim population living in its far western provinces.
What I'm referring to is the morality of China's global and hyper-aggressive financial influence peddling.
I bring this up because I think high-quality religion coverage should be about more than just following internal denominational politics, interfaith theological squabbles and feel-good features about faith helping someone overcome personal tragedy or inspiring them to throw a football further.
It's also about reporting on complex moral issues, an area in which I view China woefully and dangerously lacking but which impact lives on a profound and daily basis.
A masterfully crafted Times piece on China's virtual takeover of the Ecuadorian economy published last week expertly points this out. Here's a link to the nearly 4,000-word piece, part of a series the newspaper of record is running on China's growing economic reach and its accompanying disregard for local populations and their long-term concerns.
Note that the piece was produced by the paper's business section.
Business sections are a fruitful source of stories for religion-beat and other journalists concerned about the moral values that dominate international finance, both private and state-sponsored, in this age of hyper-free market, economic globalization.
Let me stipulate that I'm well aware that China is far from being the first nation to throw its financial weight and know-how around for self-serving and exploitative reasons.
Just in my lifetime, the Soviet Union did it and so does contemporary Russia. The West has used the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in similar fashion. Israel does it in Africa (but no where near the degree to which China is active in Africa). The Saudis do it, as does Qatar and other Gulf Arab petro-monarchies.
And of course there's the United States, no slouch by any means when it comes to dolling out foreign aid to buy and placate friends and keep them from switching sides in the great global political chess match. The U.S. also uses financial aid to lobby for cultural changes in nations, seekIng to promote policies more in line with current White House doctrines.
It's simply how it's done. Capital rules. Money talks but also buys silence, in particular at the United Nations and other international bodies with the power to criticize and take selective action against governments.
I realize there are reasons why what I'm suggesting may be considered beyond the scope of most religious groups, not to mention journalists working at financially squeezed outlets paying diminishing attention to foreign issues other than terrorism and how they impact the money markets.
Perhaps only someone with the worldwide following and influence of Pope Francis, backed by the Vatican's vast logistical and communications abilities, is capable of such an undertaking. Moreover, as Francis is learning (check his latest ratings) vocal opposition to the world's love of the material comforts that capitalism brings (for some) wins you few friends in the West -- including among those still sitting in the pews.
Then there's the reasonable fear that widespread criticism of Beijing's unethical political character might only make it worse for Christians in China, which tends to circle it's wagons when challenged. And what might happen if churches in Ecuador and elsewhere speak up? Will China press Quito and other governments to quiet its religion dissenters or risk losing Beijing's bribes?
Bottom line: I know this may be too complex for religious groups already weighted down, in the West at least, by shrinking finances, shrinking congregations, Social Gospel infighting, and exhaustive gender and sexuality issues. But I wonder.
What do you think? You can use the comments section below.