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U.S. Department of State

Department Seal Robert A. Seiple
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom

Statement Before the Human Rights Caucus
Washington, DC, April 6, 2000

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Religious Freedom in China

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Human Rights Caucus, it is indeed a pleasure to appear before you today to report on the status of religious freedom in China. China is a nation of ancient and modern religions whose governments historically have attempted to control the worship of its citizens and, at their worst, acted as if religion threatened their survival. What I would like to do this afternoon is give you a detailed assessment of where things stand in China with respect to religious freedom, and then describe to you how we are attempting to address the substantial problems that exist.

The Current Status

Religious freedom -- meaning the internationally acknowledged right of every human being to believe and practice as he sees fit -- does not exist in China. It is true that millions of Chinese citizens worship without substantial interference by the state, but they do so under carefully defined limits -- limits sufficiently burdensome that their very presence precludes the emergence of what we and the international community recognize as religious freedom.

Before I address these problems, however, let me sketch for you a bit of context and acknowledge the existence of certain positive elements in the Chinese political-religious structure. Fairness demands as much, but it is also important to recognize structures and practices that could encourage better policy should the Chinese Government decide to embrace and fully implement religious freedom.

Seeds of Hope

The Chinese constitution provides for freedom of religious belief, as well as the protection of what the constitution refers to as "normal religious activities." It thus appears to acknowledge the sanctity of conscience and belief on the one hand, but not of religious practice on the other. In fact, freedom of religious practice and expression are not protected in China. But the concept of religious freedom is there -- however imperfectly rooted -- to be exploited by the voices of democracy and civil society. Such voices are heard only faintly now, but they will not be silenced. Indeed, they are likely to continue growing as the great economic forces now at work in China loosen political restraints.

Nor should we ignore the voices of religious piety that are undeniably at work in this great and ancient land. Scarcely two decades ago, those voices were still, the victims of the general political terror and the ruthless religious persecution of the Cultural Revolution. Over the past 20 years, there has been a loosening of government controls. There has been a dramatic resurgence of religious activity. Today, most estimates suggest some 200 million Chinese people are members of some religion. They are Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists, and Christians, as well as adherents to other religious groups such as traditional folk religions often having connections to Buddhism or Taoism. And their numbers are growing. Despite the continuance of serious religious discrimination and persecution, more and more Chinese are thirsting for ultimate meaning and purpose beyond the decaying ideology of Chinese Communism. Many are turning to religion to address that universal, and very human, yearning.

Therein, of course, lies a fundamental dilemma for the communist authorities. On the one hand, the Chinese Government has, since the end of the Cultural Revolution, rebuilt or restored thousands of damaged or confiscated temples, churches, mosques, and monasteries. Chinese Muslims are permitted to make the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and in some cases the government even subsidizes the trips. Seminaries have been reopened, and occasionally seminarians are permitted to study abroad. Typically, however, Chinese seminarians must demonstrate political reliability in order to graduate and are viewed by the government as agents of religious management, rather than free agents of religion. The problem, Mr. Chairman, is that the Chinese Communists do not value religion. They fear it and tolerate it only insofar as it serves -- or at least does not in their judgment undermine -- the purposes of the state.

One gauge of religious fervor, and the dilemma it presents, is the growing demand for Bibles in China. We estimate that over 22 million are in print and available in many languages and dialects, as well as in Braille. Interestingly, the Chinese government approved the printing of over 3 million Bibles last year alone. And yet Chinese customs officials continue to monitor for "smuggled Scriptures," and local authorities sometimes confiscate Bibles in raids on underground churches -- those churches not registered with, and approved by, the government. What a bewildering and futile task it must be -- to let the "Word" go forth, so to speak, while simultaneously trying to rein it in.

It should also be noted that there are substantial regional variations in the actions of Chinese officials with respect to religion. As we note in the 1999 International Religious Freedom Report, some areas of China are reasonably free of religious persecution. These tend to be areas where there are fewer religious adherents or where Chinese believers do not directly challenge the controls imposed by the state.

The Structure of Religious Persecution in China

Despite these and other hopeful signs in China, it must be said that the overall picture for human rights, and for religious freedom, remains poor. Beneath the constitutional veneer of religious freedom lies a substratum of laws and regulations which provide a juridical basis for state control and, in some cases, persecution of religious believers. The driving force behind these laws and regulations is, of course, the Communist Party. It controls the top positions in government at all levels, as well as in the Ministries of State Security and Public Security, the People's Armed Police; the People's Liberation Army; and the state judicial, prosecutorial, and penal systems. Officially, no member of the Communist party may be a religious believer, much less practice religion. If their membership in a religious organization is discovered, they are expelled from the party, and from any official position they hold. While there appear to be some believers among local authorities, and at least one in the National People's Congress, these seem to be the exceptions that prove the rule. And the "rule" remains one of official hostility to religion -- the conviction that religion cannot be permitted to grow unchecked, that it must be adapted to socialism, and that it must be free of foreign influence which might destabilize the communist regime.

Undergirding this official atheism is a regulatory system designed to permit some religious activity, but also to monitor and control it. The centerpieces of this system are the Religious Affairs Bureau, the Communist Party United Front Work Department, and their local counterparts. Together with security police and prosecutors, these people -- most of whom are not religious believers -- are responsible for providing policy guidance and supervision over the implementation of religion regulations, and over the role of foreigners in religious activities.

There are five officially recognized religions -- Buddhism and Taoism; Islam, Catholicis, and Protestantism. There is also an expatriate Jewish presence in a few large cities. All belief systems beyond these are labeled "superstitions." Article 300 of the Criminal Law as amended in 1997 stipulates punishment for organizers and practitioners of superstitious cults or evil religious organizations. Amendments of the law late last year went even further, providing for harsh punishments against those the government labeled as "evil cults". These regulations provided justification for the severe persecution of the Falun Gong and the crackdown against "underground" Protestants and Catholics -- those who refuse to worship in government-controlled "official" churches.

The Face of Persecution

Let me focus on a few cases to illustrate the rather grim landscape for those who do not accept government regulation of religion. As I do so, we should keep in mind that tens of millions apparently either accept government controls and are able -- within those limits -- to worship without further interference, or, if they do not accept such controls, live in constant risk. In Tibet, the government's "normative" policy of controlling religious belief is intensified by a fear of separatist activity. This has resulted in a campaign of vilification against the most important religious figure of Tibetan Buddhism -- the Dalai Lama -- and against his adherents.

Within Tibet, there is an ongoing campaign of "patriotic re-education" of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns as well as strict government control of all Buddhist institutions. These policies have led to serious abuses, including torture of prisoners, arbitrary arrest, and lengthy detentions without public trial of Buddhist monks and nuns, and of other Tibetans for expressing their political or religious views. The "patriotic education campaign" continues to target supporters of the Dalai Lama for "re-education" or expulsion. Nearly 3,000 Tibetans fled Tibet in 1999. The government continued to detain 10- year-old Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the boy recognized by the Dalai Lama as the Panchen Lama. International appeals to allow credible international observers to see the boy and establish that he is safe and well have been ignored by Chinese authorities. According to credible reports, Chadrel Rinpoche, has been sentenced to 6 years in prison on charges that he betrayed state secrets while helping the Dalai Lama name the boy he recognized as the Panchen Lama.

In the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, there is continuing tight control on religious practices, and the government deals harshly with religious adherents accused of separatist activities. For example, four Muslim men have reportedly been held in detention since being repatriated forcibly to China from Kazakhstan late in1998. According to Amnesty International, two of the men are mullahs who refused to acknowledge publicly the merits of government policies in their mosques. Amnesty also reports that Ibrahim Ismael, a religious scholar, was arrested in 1997 and executed. Ismael taught private religious classes at his home. Chinese officials have said that he participated in illegal religious and terrorist activities, including a 1997 attack in which five persons died.

The Christian churches, as you know Mr. Chairman, consist of two generic types: the "official" church of controlled clergy and, in some cases, controlled religious doctrine and the "unofficial" Protestants and Catholics who stubbornly and increasingly refuse to accept government regulation of what they hear, where they worship, and how they order their religious lives. The division between official and unofficial believers is not, of course, absolute. There are wide regional variations: in some areas, Christians move easily among the two groups; in others, there is little communication and even strong enmity. But the norm is not one of easy accommodation between official and unofficial churches. In most provinces where Christians are congregated, some of those who resist the government are subject to severe retribution.

"Underground" Roman Catholic clergy are particularly vulnerable. The nub of the problem is, of course, that Catholicism is "Roman" in the sense that it embraces the authority of the Pope in matters of faith and morals. This is a core precept of Catholicism, and bishops throughout the world openly acknowledge that allegiance. While many "official" Chinese bishops have embraced the Pope secretly, those who do so openly place their safety at risk. One of the many who has paid for his beliefs is Bishop Su Zhimin, who was arrested in late 1997. When I visited China in January 1999, I inquired about Bishop Su's whereabouts and safety and was told that he was not under any form of detention. Now, 15 months later and some 2 ½ years after his arrest, he is still missing. While the government denies having taken any coercive measures against him, underground Catholics say he is still under detention. We have -- potentially -- a similar situation developing with underground Archbishop Yang Shudao of Fujian Province. On February 10, 2000, he was reportedly "invited" to come and discuss the religious situation with the local Religious Affairs Bureau, since then he has either been under detention or in the hospital. Human Rights Watch reports that the invitation came at midnight, delivered by some 150 public security officers. The Archbishop is 80 years old. He has already spent nearly half his life in Chinese prisons for practicing Roman Catholicism. The imagination struggles to understand the fear of religion which can engender such actions against an 80-year-old man.

And yet, Mr. Chairman, there is troubling evidence that the actions against these two bishops -- and the many other clergy and believers who have suffered similar fates -- are more than the excesses of local authorities. Several human rights organizations have reported on what appear to be official Chinese plans to take strong actions against the "underground" Catholic Church in the event diplomatic relations are established between Beijing and the Vatican. This reported plan outlines steps the government would take to prevent the "underground church" from emerging. Our experts have examined descriptions of the plan and believe it has the ring of authenticity. Such a plan would be consistent with current Chinese policy which aims to pressure the "underground church" to merge into the official church, regardless of whether official relations with the Vatican are established. That attitude is reflected in Beijing's decision to ordain five bishops in January in defiance of the Vatican and in continuing police actions against Catholic bishops and priests.

At the same time, we continue to see raids on Protestant house churches, and detentions of Protestant leaders. In April 1999, a house church service in Henan was reportedly raided by police, and 25 Christians detained. Protestant house church leader Xu Yongze is serving a 3-year sentence of reform through labor for disturbing public order. His colleagues Qin Baocai and Mu Sheng also are serving reeducation through labor sentences. Zhang Rongliang (aka David Zhang) of the Fengcheng Church group in Hebei Province was sentenced to re-education through labor for a term of 1 to 3 years, although we understand that he may have been released on medical grounds. Many detentions of Christians in Henan have been reported: 48 in January, 40 in August, and 8 house church leaders, also in August.

Finally, Mr. Chairman, I want to mention Falun Gong. Although this group does not claim to be a religion, its activities derive from elements of Buddhism and Taosim, among other things. Falun Gong has a spiritual ethic which has captured the minds and hearts of millions of Chinese. Clearly, this aspect of Falun Gong threatens the Chinese Government. Whenever thousands of people are attracted by a particular way of thinking about life and purpose, and are willing to manifest it publicly, the Communist Party of China is alarmed. As you know, Chinese authorities have detained for short periods of time thousands of Falun Gong adherents over the past 8 months, and Falun Gong leaders have been sentenced to prison terms as long as 18 years, or sentenced to "re-education." What a lousy synonym that is for the abuse of human dignity. We recently received a report of a 60-year old woman who died as a result of beatings administered to her for being a practitioner of Falun Gong.

U.S. Policy

Mr. Chairman, I know that people of good will can, and do, disagree over where this analysis of Chinese human rights abuses ought to take U.S. policy. Some believe that it should prevent the establishment of "Permanent Normal Trade Relations" (PNTR), or cause us to oppose Chinese entry into the World Trade Organization. I understand and respect this point of view. It is premised on the belief that we can change Chinese human rights behavior by withholding U.S. trade.

Diplomacy, of course, is not a science. I cannot prove that people who hold such views -- many of whom are my friends -- are wrong. I can only say, with great respect, that I believe we must increase our engagement with the Chinese, not decrease it. In order to influence Chinese behavior, we must have Chinese attention -- in both a positive and, if necessary, a negative sense. We must have a sustained relationship on many levels in order to help convince Chinese leaders that 80-year old bishops are a boon, not a threat, to the Chinese nation.

My job, and that of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the State Department, is to ensure that our trade relationship is not the only level at which we communicate, and that our diplomatic intercourse always includes the issue of human rights. I view it as my responsibility -- as does Assistant Secretary Koh -- to let the Chinese leaders know that China will never be considered a member in good standing of the world community until the day comes when they move beyond words and implement policies that protect human dignity.

One bellweather of such a day would, of course, be the full acceptance of freedom of religion and conscience by the Chinese Government. Such a policy would signal, as it does in other countries, that the Government of China recognizes a fundamental distinction between the individual and the state that is essential in any just society. It is the recognition -- as political scientists might put it -- that society precedes the state, not vice versa. Because religious freedom entails the inviolable right of every human being to seek the truth, no government should consider the control or management of that process within its province.

Quite frankly, Mr. Chairman, I believe that the Chinese Government will not come readily to the acceptance of these policies. Indeed, to the extent that the leadership is still under the influence of a Communist worldview, true religious freedom will be that much more difficult to attain. Communists consistently, have treated religion as a powerful and deadly enemy. Under Mao, they created a daunting propaganda machine to combat it and ruthlessly suppressed those clergy who were most committed to the proletariat and the peasantry. In the economic and social spheres, the Chinese have moved a long way from the deadening effects of Maoism. In the religious sphere, their continuing attempts to control religious belief and practice constitute an unstable half-way house between communism and religious freedom.

The real question for us is how to keep the train moving in the right direction. A policy aimed at isolating China through economic sanctions or the withholding of trade cannot work, if for no other reason than the international economy would quickly fill the void should the United States leave the field. But there is another reason -- one grounded in human rights -- for us to encourage trade. It is the need to encourage the spread of those economic forces which are broadening the entrepreneurial class in China and bringing pressures against the creaking post-Maoist structure of control and persecution.

However, a policy of engagement in trade must be complemented by a strong and consistent human rights policy. As our economic relationships with China broaden and deepen, we must press Chinese leaders ever harder to accept and implement human rights based on the universal dignity of the human person. We must hold them accountable on all fronts -- religious freedom, labor rights, freedom of association, free speech, rule of law, and the other core human rights. When China abuses these rights, we must hold its government up to the world in which it is increasingly engaged. We must do so swiftly and relentlessly.

This is our policy. As you know, Mr. Chairman, we have used the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 as one vehicle against Chinese human rights abuses. In October of last year, the Secretary of State designated China a "country of particular concern" for having engaged in particularly severe violations of religious freedom. This designation put China in very bad company. Secretary Albright also named Burma, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Serbi, and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The Chinese were very unhappy with this designation; it stigmatized them, in effect, as among the worst religious persecutors of today. The Human Rights Caucus is also aware that the Administration has introduced a resolution on China at the current UN Human Rights Commission session in Geneva. We have not been able to pass this resolution in the past, but I was in Geneva last week and I can tell you that we have implemented a "full court press" to convince other members of the Commission to vote with us. The Secretary also flew to Geneva from India to press this issue.

But whether we win this resolution or not, Mr. Chairman, we will not back down from telling the truth about Chinese human rights abuses. China seeks to become a member in good standing of the international community of nations. It places a great deal of store on "face," by which it means respect. Our message to China is that it will not have the respect of the world until it changes its policies on human rights in general, and freedom of religion, and conscience in particular.

I want again to thank the Caucus for holding this hearing and giving me the opportunity to report. I'll be glad to take any questions that you have.

[end of document]

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