- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

The great issue of the 21st century will be whether China becomes a free country, said participants in a conference Tuesday at the Hudson Institute on the lack of Chinese religious, legal and press freedoms.

“If those old men can perpetuate their leadership, then my grandchildrens’ lives won’t be secure,” Michael Horowitz, a Hudson Institute fellow, said of China’s current Communist Party leaders.

Mr. Horowitz’s Center for Religious Liberty at the Hudson Institute organized the “Freedom in China Summit 2006” as a response to last month’s visit to Washington by China’s President Hu Jintao.

The 16 speakers who took part said there was little reason to be optimistic in the short term about China’s democratic and religious prospects.

“In China today, there is no religious freedom,” said Wang Yi, a law professor at Chengdu University who attended the conference and plans to return to the capital of Sichuan province.

The newspapers are so censored, “You can’t even get news of Tibet,” he said. “You start to wonder, ‘Is Tibet its own country now?’ ” he said to laughter from the audience. Tibet was annexed by China in 1951.

Mr. Wang admitted there are a few officially allowed religious expressions in China, but even that “is like an apple,” he said. “So much has been taken away and all that’s left is the core. And the core is not the same thing.”

Graham Walker, the new president of Patrick Henry College, a Christian institution in Purcellville, Va., picked up on that image.

“It’s not impressive to have the core of the apple left when the rest of the apple is gone,” he said. “It doesn’t help to have convictions in your cranium if you’re not allowed to express them.”

Playing off Marxist theory, “There is a relation between ownership of religious beliefs and the means of production; that is, expression,” he said. “When the government owns all means of communication, all decisions on speech become political.”

Participants barred

The institute issued a list of three participants invited to the meeting but barred by the government from leaving China. They are Beijing human rights lawyers Gao Zhisheng, Zhang Xingshui and Fan Yafeng.

Mr. Gao is in hiding after a January assassination attempt, it said.

As soon as Mr. Zhang bought his plane ticket, he was told by the government he had to appear in court on April 29, even though Chinese courts are closed on Saturdays. Failure to remain in the country, he was told, would result in “severe repercussions.”

Similarly, Mr. Fan’s departure was also set for the April 29. His employer then ordered him to appear at a conference on that date. When he changed his departure to April 30, the conference was extended an additional day.

The Chinese Embassy did not return a call asking for comment.

Scholars, pastors and dissidents who did get to Washington told listeners that Web site operators are on the front lines of press and religious freedom in China, which automatically shuts down troublesome Web sites.

If all else fails, said Yang Maodong, an assistant to Mr. Gao, the government cuts off the electricity to the Web site’s server. Or they call in the local mafia, as happened last October in the southern Chinese village of Taishi, where a parliamentary deputy was badly beaten when he tried to enter the town with a reporter from the London Guardian and an interpreter.

“Simply talking with journalists gets a prison sentence for villagers,” he said.

Law professor Mr. Wang said his Web sites have been shut down by the government nine times and his blogs have been closed five times. He estimated 60 Chinese journalists are currently in jail simply for doing their jobs.

“Today on a Web site in China,” he said, “it’s not possible to express your feelings freely.”

Yahoo criticized

Yu Jie, a best-selling author whose works are now banned in China, said the search engine giant Yahoo had played a “disgraceful” role in leaking the names of dissidents to authorities.

“Yahoo has also caused four other Chinese writers to be sent to jail because they turned over information,” he said. “One was tortured and treated inhumanely in prison.”

Yahoo and other Internet providers have been criticized by human rights groups such as Reporters Without Borders for turning over electronic records of dissidents to Chinese authorities. Dissidents Shi Tao, Jiang Lijun and Li Zhi received prison sentences. A fourth dissident, Wang Xiaoning, who has been in jail serving a 10-year sentence since 2002, has been “severely” beaten and put in solitary confinement, according to Human Rights in China.

Yahoo has responded to criticism by saying it must obey local laws. On Tuesday, Mr. Yu suggested Yahoo would have cooperated with Nazi Germany.

“If Yahoo had existed in Hitler’s regime, would they have followed its rules and sent people to concentration camps to be killed?” he asked.

Mary Osako, a Yahoo spokeswoman, said Wednesday that the case of Shi Tao, a journalist arrested for forwarding a government e-mail who was sentenced to 10 years, is “distressing” to Yahoo. She claimed to be unaware of Yahoo’s involvement in other cases.

“Let us make clear we condemn any punishment of any activity that is free expression, whether in China or anywhere else in the world,” she said.

In contrast, Bob Fu, president of the China Aid Association in Midland, Texas, and a former Communist Party official until his conversion to Christianity in the mid-1990s, said American-owned companies — such as Microsoft, Wal-Mart and Starbucks — doing business in China are able to insist that each workplace include a chapel.

“All they would need is a small announcement that ‘You are welcome to express religious freedom in this company,’ ” he said. “That would be a good first step. Religious freedom isn’t a gift given by the party. It’s a God-given gift.”

Panelists offer ideas

Several American speakers added suggestions on changing China’s attitude toward religion.

Pete Lillback, president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, said American Christians traveling in China can show “how Christianity has made a difference in American culture.”

Too often, he said, religion is portrayed by Chinese officials as only practiced by the ignorant and unlearned.

Others advised planning for 2008, when China is expected to grant visas to vast numbers of foreigners attending the Olympic Games, for chances to organize street demonstrations in Beijing for human rights causes.

For a longer term perspective, the conference included input by Bruce Lee, a Korean businessman and vice president of TissueGene Inc., who said South Korea used to be a military dictatorship similar to what China is now.

Increasing prosperity will allow many Chinese to think beyond mere survival and take up issues like religious freedom, he said.

“It’s when the middle class, the silent majority, says ‘enough is enough,’ things will start to fracture there,” he said. “Please look at [South] Korea and you’ll find friends there.”

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