China Still Keeping Tight Reins on Religion

Despite Promising Reports, Beijing Doesn´t Seem Ready to Bend

HONG KONG, MARCH 23, 2002 ( In recent weeks there has been speculation that China is adopting a softer approach toward religious freedom. “China Rethinks Religious Policies in Effort to Avoid U.S. Criticism,” the Wall Street Journal reported Feb. 6.

The article suggested that the regime is rethinking its hard-line policies. Late last year, China´s leadership ordered a reassessment of its attitude toward religion, a review that is apparently still under way, the newspaper stated.

The Communist leaders hope a more-conciliatory policy would prompt religious believers to adopt a less-hostile posture toward Beijing. The reconsideration has been forced upon China due to a resurgence in religion in the country. Even though authorities only recognize five established religions, and the faithful may only worship in registered places, a religious revival has swept China in recent years.

Estimates say the official Protestant church in China has up to 15 million members, while the state-controlled “patriotic” Catholic Church has about 10 million, the Boston Globe reported March 3. Membership in the underground churches is believed to be double those figures, and growing rapidly, religious scholars told the Globe.

If those tallies are accurate, the Christian population of China already may exceed the Communist Party´s membership of 50 million, observed the Globe.

In addition to this internal pressure, China is coming under increasing international criticism for its failure to respect basic freedoms in religious matters. Its ongoing campaign to wipe out the Falun Gong movement has received continuous attention, and condemnation, in the world press.

But according to Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Zen of Hong Kong, expectations of a policy change are not likely to be fulfilled. Bishop Zen, in an interview published in the March 2 issue of the Tablet, a British Catholic weekly, confirmed that those working in religious affairs had a high-level meeting with the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party.

Says Bishop Zen: “I had a visit from some friends from the United Front branch of the Public Security in Shanghai and I asked them: ´Is there a new policy and a new openness?´ They replied: ´Sorry to disappoint you; there is nothing new. Two results came from that meeting: One, that the evil cults should be suppressed; secondly, that traditional religion should be controlled.´ The Chinese Communist Party is nervous about anything secret or underground.”

Yet, the Hong Kong bishop observed, even within the Communist Party there are voices prepared to accept change. Allowing a free-market economy makes it harder to deny people other freedoms, he noted.

Repression continues

Even if China´s leaders are reviewing their policy, this has not stopped them from continuing a harshly repressive policy. Documents smuggled out of China disclosed official orders to police chiefs to torture women members of Christian churches, the Times newspaper of London reported Feb. 11.

Jubilee Campaign, a British human rights group, obtained evidence of the women being abused with electric cattle prods, sexually assaulted and beaten into falsely claiming their religious pastors raped them.

Jubilee Campaign showed the Times some of the leaked documents from the Ministry of Public Security. Among them is one that orders a ban on a variety of “cults” which they consider a “crawling danger to domestic security and defense. Cults are identified as any group which has refused to register with the government and includes Catholic and Protestant missions as well as Falun Gong groups.

Another text is of a speech by Sun Jianxian, a leading security official, telling his officers to intensify the crackdown which they must keep hidden from “hostile Western powers hastening to continue their strategies of ´westernizing´ our country.”

Another set of official documents detailing a campaign of religious persecution was published Feb. 11 by Freedom House´s Center for Religious Freedom. The seven secret documents, issued between April 1999 and October 2001, detail an official crackdown against large, unregistered Christian churches and other religious groups nationwide.

“These documents provide irrefutable evidence that China remains determined to eradicate all religion it cannot control, using extreme tactics,” said Center for Religious Freedom director Nina Shea. “Normal religious activity is criminalized, and, as the December death sentences brought against South China church Pastor Gong Shengliang and several of his co-workers attest, the directives outlined in these documents are being carried out with ruthless determination,” she said.

Also in February, International Christian Concern declared that Chinese government documents reveal that as many as 23,686 Christians have been arrested since 1983; 20,000 have been beaten, and 129 have been killed in an effort to stamp out the underground churches. The documents were released by the Committee for the Investigation on Persecution of Religion in China. China experts have said the documents are authentic.

The Vatican-based agency Fides has also accused Chinese authorities of continuing to arrest bishops and clergy belonging to the underground Catholic Church that is persecuted because of its refusal to submit to government control. On Feb. 22, Fides published a list of 33 people in need of prayers, bishops and priests. Some of these have disappeared altogether; others are under strict house arrest. All are members of the underground Church.

Fides noted that the arrest and “re-education” of Catholics has continued since China joined the World Trade Organization. Officially these are considered measures to prevent “social disorder.” But some of the bishops are between 70 and 80 years old, and only engaged in works of charity in orphanages, schools and medical dispensaries, reported Fides.

The matter of religious freedom came up during U.S. President George W. Bush´s recent visit to China. In a press conference held by Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin, the latter claimed that his countrymen are free to worship as they choose, and that the Catholic bishops arrested must have broken the law.

Bush prodded Jiang on the issue, saying, “All the world´s people, including the people of China, should be free to choose how they live, how they worship and how they work,” the Associated Press reported Feb. 21.

The sensitivity of China´s leaders over this issue was demonstrated by the fact that Bush´s remarks calling for religious freedom in an address to university students were censored. The speech was transmitted live, and complete, but almost half of Bush´s remarks were edited out of the transcript released by the official New China News Agency, according to the Los Angeles Times on Feb. 23. Among the parts cut by authorities was praise for America´s status as “a beacon of hope,” Bush´s comments on his personal faith, and a call for an end to religious persecution in China.

That didn´t seem to faze Premier Zhu Rongji, who in a speech to the annual session of the National People´s Congress, China´s parliament, called for stronger controls on religion. Zhu called for stronger management of religious affairs and urged religious groups to adapt to socialist society, Reuters reported March 5. Hopes for a softening in Beijing´s policies, it seems, may be premature.

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