U.S. Protests Crackdown on Religion in China

Envoy condemns church closings, jailing of resident

Washington Post/San Francisco Chronicle/December 13, 2000
By Philip P. Pan

Beijing -- Less than a month after China agreed to resume human rights talks with the United States, a senior U.S. diplomat yesterday protested two new actions by Chinese authorities: the apparent destruction of scores of underground Christian churches just weeks before Christmas, and the sentencing of a Chinese-born U.S. resident to prison for investigating repression of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.

The diplomat, who requested anonymity while briefing reporters in the U. S. Embassy, said he still hopes that human rights discussions promised by Chinese President Jiang Zemin during a meeting with President Clinton in Brunei last month might result in changes in how China treats its people.

But he said he was disturbed and disappointed by reports in Chinese newspapers of a renewed crackdown on religious activity in the southern province of Zhejiang, and by a Beijing court's decision yesterday to sentence New York acupuncturist and Falun Gong adherent Teng Chunyan to three years in prison over the repeated protests of U.S. diplomats.

"Razing churches before Christmas? I'm incredulous," the diplomat said. "It doesn't sound like a very good situation, and when we find out more facts, we'll try to take the appropriate action. It's certainly disappointing." He said U.S. officials will also take up Teng's case with the Chinese government again. But, he added, "It doesn't look good. This isn't the result we were looking for."

The holiday-season crackdown on religious activity centers on the coastal city of Wenzhou. Since early November, according to articles in local state- run newspapers, more than 1,000 temples, churches and ancestral halls in the area have been shut down, demolished or converted to recreation centers. Others have been forced to register with the government, the reports said.

One article said local officials destroyed a church with explosive charges on Dec. 1. Another newspaper published a photo of workers taking a sledgehammer to one of 16 "illegal religious centers" in a nearby region. China says it guarantees freedom of religion, but the government requires people to worship in one of its "patriotic," or government-controlled, churches.

The country is in the midst of a crackdown mounted against a range of unapproved cults, sects and underground religious groups that are prospering as Communist ideology loses its appeal in a society undergoing rapid change.

The government has singled out Falun Gong for particularly harsh treatment, partly because 10,000 practitioners of its breathing and meditation exercises surprised the leadership last year and surrounded Communist Party headquarters in a protest. As many as 72 adherents have died in police custody, and an estimated 3,000 people have been sent to labor camps.

But Falun Gong members continue to resist. At least two dozen were arrested on Sunday in Tiananmen Square after unfurling protest banners. And in recent weeks, people have been putting up posters on lampposts and walls, and distributing flyers in Beijing apartment complexes and universities, to counter the government campaign to vilify their movement as an "evil cult."

The flyers represent an unusually bold challenge because many of them attack President Jiang Zemin by name, portraying him as a short-tempered "autocrat" who is pursuing the campaign against the movement despite reservations among his Politburo colleagues. Informal verbal criticism of Chinese officials by name is common today, but written, public attacks on specific leaders remain taboo.

Teng, a New York acupuncturist who is both a Chinese citizen and a U.S. permanent resident, was convicted by a Beijing court of disclosing national security information to foreigners. She joined Falun Gong in New Jersey and entered China earlier this year to gather information on the ban against the sect.

Using the pseudonym Hannah Li, Teng tipped off foreign reporters in China about sect members' protests against the ban on the group and arranged interviews with them. "She went to tell the truth about what has happened, the atrocities. She was trying to expose the injustice that's occurring in China," said Gail Rachlin, another Falun Gong member.

On Monday, Chinese officials also confirmed that a court had rejected the appeal of Rebiya Kadeer, a prominent businesswoman from the restive Xinjiang region who is serving eight years in prison for mailing Chinese newspaper articles to her husband in the United States. Both the U.S. Senate and the House had passed resolutions demanding her release.

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