If you've been following the story of Bob Fu, the Chinese human rights activist and evangelical who describes his mission in a piece for FP this week, you might have noticed an odd geographical detail. It turns out that Fu runs his campaign for religious freedom in the People's Republic of China out of the town where he and his family have been living for the past eight years. That would be Midland, Texas, population 100,000.
Wait. Where was that again? The state of Texas boasts several big, cosmopolitan cities -- Houston, Dallas, San Antonio -- but take a look at the map and you'll see that Midland is a long way from all of them. How would a Chinese democracy campaigner end up in a place that far from anything?
Actually, though, the name of Midland is rather more familiar in international human rights circles than you might expect. Bob Fu's sudden notoriety is just the latest twist in a tale that vividly illustrates how even the most unlikely places can leverage globalization to become big players in issues of international import.
I know Midland well. I grew up there, and have many fond memories of the place. Still, I couldn't help feeling bemused when, a few years back, my reporting on underground churches in North Korea led me straight back to my own hometown. It turned out that evangelical Christians there had joined forces with Korean-American churches to lobby the U.S. government to lobby for legislation promoting religious freedom in the North. At one point, Midland's popular Christian rock concert, "Rock the Desert," even included a "North Korea Genocide Exhibit."
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This all came as a bit of a surprise. When I was a kid in Midland, North Korea was not a subject that would have drawn the attention of many people there. The town is located smack dab in the middle of the vast emptiness of West Texas, which consists of hundreds of miles of arid prairie sitting atop some of the richest petroleum reserves in the United States. After World War II, Midland gradually evolved into the business headquarters of the oil-producing region that surrounded it, becoming home to oil entrepreneurs, corporate executives, geologists, and lawyers. It's an unabashedly white-collar community that has long boasted a disproportionate number of PhDs and self-made millionaires. Thanks to the petroleum business -- a thoroughly globalized industry long before the concept of globalization became fashionable -- Midlanders have a habit of turning up in unexpected places around the world. If a place has oil, someone in Midland has been there.
The town has also long been a place with a solidly conservative ethos, and Midlanders were voting overwhelmingly Republican even back when this was by no means a given. (Yes, hard to imagine, but there was once a time when Texas had a thriving Democratic Party.)
Among the people who gravitated there in the years after the war was George Herbert Walker Bush, the scion of a patrician New England family who wanted to show that he could make his own way in the unruly West. The Bush clan presence in the town continued right up until George W. Bush and his wife Laura (like her husband, a native Midlander) departed for the White House in 2001. At least two prominent Bush-era policymakers, General Tommy Franks and Commerce Secretary Don Evans, also hailed from the town.