WASHINGTON (BP)–Chinese officials are changing religious regulations as the 2008 Summer Olympics approaches, but some of those changes have proved detrimental to people of faith, witnesses said at a recent Capitol Hill hearing.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) heard testimony from Chinese religious leaders and human rights advocates on the situation in China as the city of Beijing prepares for the Olympics.
“The changing strategies and tactics of the public security officials … suggests that the Chinese authorities are becoming concerned about appearing more tolerant of Christians in the eyes of the international community. However, there seems to be less evidence of a genuine change in their broad policy,” Bob Fu, president of China Aid Association, said.
Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, told the commissioners, “The situation is getting worse…. [I]t’s been consistently getting worse.”
The approach of the Olympics has given hope to human rights activists, however. The international spotlight hopefully will increase leverage during the next 18 months to encourage China to be more respectful of the rights of its citizens, said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. The commission hopes Chinese officials will be concerned about the potential for negative articles to be written while tourists and journalists are in Beijing for the Olympics, said Land, a USCIRF commissioner.
“China desperately wants the Olympics to be a huge success, and it wants to put the best face forward that it can during the Olympic Games,” Land told Baptist Press after the Jan. 31 hearing.
The Chinese government officially implemented new regulations in March 2005. The public security officials’ new tactics include interrogating church members during a raid rather than officially arresting them, Fu said at the hearing. Arrests have declined significantly —- 2,000 reported arrests in 2005 went down to 600 in 2006. Property destruction rose, however, Fu said.
“Local officials closed and demolished more house churches in 2006 than 2005,” Fu said. “A new tendency was to target house church leaders with criminal accusations.”
Cai Zhouhua, a house church pastor in Beijing, was convicted in November 2005 of “illegal operation of a business” for publishing and distributing Bibles without government approval, Fu added.
In addition to Fu, other witnesses at the hearing included Joseph Kung, who spoke about the Roman Catholic Church in China; Bhuchung K. Tsering, testifying for Tibetan Buddhists; and Erping Zhang, who reported on the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
Among other changes, China has addressed problems in its judicial system, according to the USCIRF. National scandals involving cases of wrongful prosecution and death in police custody convinced the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP) to evaluate itself. The SPP, which is China’s highest national agency prosecuting crimes, has investigated cases of illegal detention and has punished law enforcement officials who use torture to extract confessions. It also has recently permitted public criticism of the criminal justice system.
“These reforms may bring more badly needed transparency and accountability into legal proceedings,” the USCIRF had said in a November 2005 report.
State officials had amended the Chinese constitution in 2004 to better protect human rights but, according to the USCIRF, the reforms will have little effect for two reasons. First, the amendment is largely symbolic, because the constitution is not enforceable in Chinese courts. Second, further introspection and reform are needed because widespread corruption and lack of official accountability are holding back progress.
One step the Chinese government could take to improve the situation is to ratify and implement the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the USCIRF has said. China signed the covenant in 1998.
“Until it is clear how the provisions of the new rules are interpreted and implemented, the new regulations threaten the rights and security of religious believers and are not fully consistent with international norms on freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief,” the USCIRF report noted.
The USCIRF is a nine-member, nonpartisan commission established to research the conditions for religious adherents in other countries and to make policy recommendations to the White House and Congress. The president selects three members of the panel, while congressional leaders name the other six.
Dustin McNab, a junior at Corban College in Salem, Ore., is attending the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities’ Washington Journalism Center and serving as an intern with Baptist Press.