Spotlight on China

Human Rights and Religious Freedom Examined

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, MARCH 16, 2008 (Zenit.org).- China's human rights record is coming in for close scrutiny in the months preceding the summer Olympics. The attention is not pleasing to Beijing authorities and just last week Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told critics to back off, Reuters reported March 12.

Just the day before Yang's remarks the U.S. State Department released its "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2007." There was some comfort for China, as the country was removed from the list of the worst offenders.

The report, nevertheless, contained strong censure for China's record on human rights. The section devoted to China said that the government's record "remained poor" in 2007 and controls were further tightened in areas such as religious freedom in Tibet.

The State Department also accused authorities of tightening restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, and of increasing efforts to control use of the Internet. Among many other points mentioned, the report also accused the government of continuing its coercive policy on limiting births, resulting in forced abortion and sterilization in some cases.

As is customary, China reacted with hostility to the State Department criticism, reported the Associated Press on March 13. The Chinese government released its own report, documenting what it considered to be human rights violations in the United States.

Human rights groups, however, wanted a tougher critique and were dismayed that the United States had taken China off its worst offenders list, reported the Washington Post on March 13.

Olympic concerns

"We and others have documented a sharp uptick in human rights violations directly related to preparations for the Olympics," Phelim Kine, Asia researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch, told the Washington Post.

The article also cited the Paris-based organization, Reporters Without Borders, who declared that they would have preferred the United States obtain some positive action by China in the area of human rights before dropping the country from its list of worst offenders.

Regarding Tibet, the British newspaper, the Guardian, published an article last Wednesday reporting that hundreds of monks protested in the streets of Lhasa, in what was the biggest demonstration in almost two decades. The march took place on the anniversary of a failed anti-Chinese uprising in 1959, the Guardian commented. The article also said that between 50-60 monks were arrested.

Protests continued in the following days in what were the worst riots since 1989. Chinese state media reported 10 people dead during the protests, although opposition groups claimed it was 30, reported the BBC on Saturday.

When it comes to the pre-Olympic situation, human rights groups are protesting a recent surge in the arrest of dissidents. They accuse authorities of trying to shut down any opposition before the games start, reported the New York Times on Jan. 30.

The article noted that in recent times China has jailed 51 dissidents who had carried out their protests via the Internet. It also cited the group Reporters Without Borders, who say that last year authorities blocked more than 2,500 Web sites.

On Feb. 6 the group Human Rights Watch accused Chinese authorities of a "systematic crackdown on dissent."

"Beijing has given virtually no signs that it intends to keep the promises made to the international community in exchange for hosting the Games," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, in a press release.

Faith flourishing

Religious freedom is another contended area. A number of recent accounts point to a surge in religious faith in China. On Dec. 8 the Times newspaper of London reported that demand for copies of the Bible is soaring. The only authorized publisher in China for the Bible is Amity Printing, who has just reached the milestone of 50 million copies printed, according to the article.

According to a Jan. 20 report published by the Washington Post, Chinese leaders are opening up to religion, but still wish to contain it within official guidelines. A sign of official acceptance was the recent publishing of a front-page photo in the party newspaper, People's Daily, of Hu Jintao, head of the Chinese Communist Party, shaking hands with Liu Bainian, general secretary of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association at a New Year's tea party.

"We must take full advantage of the positive role that religious figures and believers among the masses can play in promoting economic and social development," Jia Qinglin, a member of the Politburo's Standing Committee, told a meeting of government-connected religious officials Wednesday, according to the Washington Post.

Therefore the opening-up to religion, the article commented, is limited to the extent to which it can be of assistance in promoting government-determined priorities.

This view was confirmed in data released by the group, China Aid Association. On Feb. 6 the organization, which is devoted to promoting the plight of persecuted believers, released its 2007 annual report.

According to the document persecution increased last year, with an increase in arrests compared to 2006. The report concentrated on the situation of the so-called house churches, small groups of mainly Protestant believers who gather in private dwellings and who do not follow government guidelines on religious practice.

The report observed that there was an increase in arrests of the leaders of these small groups. As well, a number of Christian missionaries from overseas were arrested and expelled from China. According to China Aid, 2007 saw the most extensive government effort against foreign Christian missionaries for many years.

Vatican relations

Relations between China and the Vatican also remain problematic, particularly over issues such as the appointment of bishops. It does seem, however, that efforts are under way to explore ways of improving the situation, even if it is difficult to obtain a clear idea of what is happening.

On Feb. 20 Reuters published an article reporting that according to an unnamed Vatican official a visit by Benedict XVI to China would be "unthinkable" given the lack of religious freedom.

At the same time, Reuters noted that the official also said that communications were improving on both sides. In fact, the next day Reuters published another article, saying that China had made a "rare public admission" that it had held talks with the Vatican.

"The Chinese side has had contact with the Vatican," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao during a news conference. No further details were given.

Press interest in the subject continued with a March 2 report by the South China Morning Post. The article said that a Vatican-China affairs commission would shortly be holding a meeting to discuss matters, including the theme of a possible re-establishment of diplomatic relations.

The newspaper commented that it would be the first major reassessment of Vatican policy following the publication last May of a letter by the Pope to bishops, priests and the faithful in China. As ZENIT reported March 10, the meeting was held from Monday to Wednesday of last week.

Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen, who was in Rome for the Vatican meeting, was interviewed by Italy's RAI state television during his stay. He said that the August Olympics offer China an opportunity to improve its human rights record, according to a March 12 report by the Associated Press.

While he did not go into details, in the interview, Cardinal Zen said he hoped the Holy See and China would soon enter a "new era" in their relations by means of some kind of a deal to improve conditions for Catholics in the Asian country. It remains to be seen if China will take the opportunity to open up a bit more, or if it will continue to repress human rights and religious freedom.