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Bush's Chance to Press China on Religious Freedom

Wednesday, 20 February 2002 12:00 AM

Campaigners are hoping in particular that Bush will tackle the thorny issue of religious freedom with his Chinese hosts.

Washington's key concerns include China's arms buildup, proliferation of missile and non-conventional weapons technology to rogue states, threats toward Taiwan and human rights.

Irritants to the relationship in Beijing's view include the U.S. missile defense proposals, the arming of Taiwan, and what China regards as American "hegemony" and interference in its domestic affairs.

Where the two governments are more likely to find common ground, analysts generally agree, are the areas of terrorism and trade.

Flying in from South Korea, Bush will meet President Jiang Zemin for talks and, later, for dinner. On Friday, after breakfast with Premier Zhu Rongji, the president is due to make a speech at Qinghua University, and then visit the Great Wall before flying home.

Religious freedom advocates have in recent days turned up the pressure on the administration to use the visit to raise concerns about religious persecution by China's communist government.

It is during his speech to the Chinese people, made at Qinghua University, that they hope Bush will address the issue squarely.

In a letter to the president earlier this month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom urged him to use the opportunity to inform the Chinese people directly why the U.S. government is concerned about human rights practices in their country.

Commission chairman Michael K. Young recalled an address President Ronald Reagan gave to students at Moscow State University in 1988, in which he detailed Americans' commitment to democracy and fundamental human freedoms. The speech had been well received among Russians, he noted.

"The commission urges you to follow this precedent and address the Chinese people directly in similar fashion to express why the U.S. government, on behalf of the American people, is concerned with violations of internationally recognized human rights, including religious freedom," Young wrote.

He also asked Bush to raise these concerns in his talks with Jiang, as he began to do during discussions with the Chinese leader at an Asia-Pacific summit in Shanghai last October.

Bush told reporters in South Korea Wednesday that he would during his China visit continue discussions he began in Shanghai over religious freedom.

"I can tell you that in my last visit with President Jiang I shared with him my faith," he said. "I talked to him on very personal terms about my Christian beliefs."

Bush said he hoped that Jiang, "as a president of a great nation, would understand the important role of religion in an individual's life."

China tolerates a "patriotic" Protestant and Catholic Church, while millions of underground believers, including Catholics loyal to the pope, meet in secret, risking harassment and arrest.

Persecution against adherents of other faiths has included a massive crackdown on the Falun Gong meditation sect and actions taken against Muslim Uighurs in China's far west as well as against Tibetan Buddhists.

In the weeks leading up to Bush's visit, China bowed to U.S. and other outside pressure in a case of a Hong Kong businessman accused of smuggling Bibles into the mainland.

Authorities first amended the charges faced by Li Guangqiang from one carrying the death penalty to a far less serious one. After he was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, Li was granted medical parole and allowed to return home.

But religious freedom campaigners have been unimpressed by the gesture. Several days ago, the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House released secret Chinese government documents revealing that religious repression is harsh, systematic and authorized at senior levels.

Meanwhile, Senior Republican Senator Jesse Helms warned Bush not to be taken in by the Chinese, writing in the Washington Times Tuesday that actions such as those taken in Li's case were mere "fakery."

After referring to the recently-revealed secret Chinese documents, Helms concluded that "Business as usual with the Chinese government must be unthinkable unless and until Beijing allows true religious freedom by, for just one of many examples, allowing Vatican-approved Catholic churches, bishops and priests in China to hold services."

In annual reports, the State Department said in 1999, 2000 and again in 2001 that respect for religious freedom in China has deteriorated.

In recommendations for U.S. policy on China released this month, the Commission on International Religious Freedom said China must take effective steps in four crucial areas: end the current crackdown; reform the repressive legal framework; affirm the universality of the right to freedom of religion and belief; and foster a culture of respect for human rights.

Ties between the U.S. and China have improved somewhat since the terror attacks on New York and Washington last September.

Before that the relationship, which was never easy, had been hard hit by the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during NATO's Kosovo war, and the downing last year of a U.S. surveillance plane after a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter jet.

After Sept. 11, however, the U.S. found some support from Beijing for its war against terror, while China has used the anti-terrorism focus to justify its clampdown on Muslims fighting a six-year campaign in Xinjiang, in western China. Beijing claims the militants have links to Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks.

The U.S. also supported China's entry into the World Trade Organization late last year, and granted it permanent normal trading relations status - a move which put an end to annual congressional reviews of China's tariff privileges, which sparked debates over rights abuses and weapons proliferation.

Bush's visit comes on the 30th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's groundbreaking trip to China, which ended two decades of open hostility between the world's most powerful nation and its most populous one.


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Campaigners are hoping in particular that Bush will tackle the thorny issue of religious freedom with his Chinese hosts. Washington's key concerns include China's arms buildup, proliferation of missile and non-conventional weapons technology to rogue states, threats toward...
Wednesday, 20 February 2002 12:00 AM
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