By Bruce Einhorn On a recent afternoon in Bombay, I had a free moment and visited a local synagogue. With a striking baby-blue exterior and an airy interior lit by stained-glass windows, the Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue stands out amid the faded grandeur that is the city's old colonial district. The shul is a relic from the days of the British Raj, when Jewish traders and businessmen traveled from Iraq to India.
It wasn't just Bombay where the Middle Eastern Jews erected houses of worship: From Singapore to Hong Kong to Shanghai, Jews from old Babylonia followed the British, building beautiful, Sephardic-style synagogues in Asia's major colonial cities. Some of the synagogues, like Knesset Eliyahoo, are still active.
The door was open, so I strolled inside, nodded to two elderly Jewish men, and silently prayed before heading off to my next appointment.
CLOSED HOUSE. That's something I've never done in China. Although I travel to Shanghai far more often than I visit Bombay, I've never stopped by the local shul. Like Bombay, Shanghai still has an old Sephardic-style synagogue standing. But most of the time it's shut. Before the Clintons' trip to China in 1998, the government tidied up the place in time for a visit by Hillary. But aside from a few days a year -- the Jewish New Year and Passover -- the Chinese government doesn't allow it to be used as a house of worship.
You might think that the Chinese government had a lot more important things to worry about than a handful of Jews meeting in an old shul. But Beijing regulates religion as it does most everything else and keeps religious groups on a tight leash.
I thought about this the other morning when I read in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post that Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa of the government of Hong Kong was thinking about clamping down on the Falun Gong, the religious group whose adherents have become the subject of a fierce crackdown in China. While admitting that the Falun Gong group in Hong Kong had not violated any local laws, Regina Ip, the Security Secretary in Tung's government, said Hong Kong is "keeping a close eye" on the organization, the newspaper reported.
DARING PROTESTS. At first, this idea seemed to make no sense. After all, the backlash would surely be great if the local government made any attempt to put pressure on the Falun Gong, a relatively new movement whose charismatic leader has fled into exile and whose followers in China have suffered widespread persecution. Despite the intense opposition of the Chinese government, Falun Gong adherents have daringly staged periodic protests, not only in Beijing's Tiananmen Square but even in front of Zhongnanhai, the compound in the capital adjacent to the Forbidden City that's now the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party.
How would Hong Kong's leaders, who talk so often of turning this city into a New Economy nirvana of cyberports and science parks, justify a move that would seem to whittle away at some of Hong Kong's freedoms?
Let's give Tung and his advisers the benefit of the doubt for a moment. Maybe by making threatening noises against the Falun Gong followers, Tung & Co. figure they'll score points with Beijing without causing any loss of confidence among the foreign business community in Hong Kong's government. But think about it: Can a place that wants to develop itself as an information-technology paradise and attract investment from local businesses as well as Silicon Valley afford to give the impression that it values the sanctity of contracts but not that of religion?
INALIENABLE RIGHTS? As an American, who as a child memorized the preamble to the U.S. Constitution (including the part about ensuring "...the blessings of liberty for ourselves and posterity..."), I like to think that, of course, freedom of religion matters. Freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press are considered inalienable rights by everybody in the U.S., including businesspeople. But as an American who lives in Asia, I know that's a naive global view. Which country is better off: Democratic India or authoritarian China? Freewheeling Thailand or rigid Singapore? When you make such comparisons, the issue becomes more murky.
Recently, I compared the Indian software industry to would-be rivals in China (see BW Online, 1/16/01, "Where India Trumps China: Software"). I got some interesting e-mails from readers, including this one from Manish Sharan: "In your article, you forgot one very important area where India trumps China: Freedom, including the right to dissent without being run over by tanks or the right to pursue religious convictions without being imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Western investors need to realize that every dollar invested in China is a dollar spent to subjugate human rights."
India allows far more religious and political freedom than China. India is now in the midst of a huge religious gathering, the Kumbh Mela, which is attracting tens of millions of Hindus to cleanse their sins in the Ganges. At the same time, China is in the midst of a fierce crackdown on the Falun Gong. But I don't need to tell you which country attracts more interest from foreign multinationals.
WHO'S BETTER OFF? Look, too, at Singapore, which doesn't restrict religious freedom but does have a timid local press and a government that prides itself on promoting the benefits of the community over the rights of individuals. How does it compare economically to more tolerant places like Thailand or the Philippines?
Certainly, the reasons for China's and Singapore's ascendancy over India, Thailand, and the Philippines in the multinational beauty contest have to do more with openness of markets, sophistication of infrastructure, and weakness of labor unions than with individual freedoms or the lack of them. And with the "knowledge economy" now becoming the buzzwords du jour across Asia, maybe governments and businesses will pay more attention to certain freedoms. At least that's something we can hope for. Maybe even pray for. Einhorn covers technology for
BusinessWeek from Hong Kong. Follow his column every week, only on BW Online