- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

Today, President Bush had the opportunity to bring a message of support for religious freedom and tolerance to China's Tsinghua University, a place where students have attempted to live according to their conscience and have been thrown in prison for it. It is the final day of Mr. Bush's six-day visit to Asia, and it could be his crowning moment.

Four graduate students from the university were recently jailed for downloading religious material on the Falun Gong a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism and traditional Chinese meditation exercise over the Internet and spreading it. Another six students from the university are currently on trial for doing the same. They are not alone. The Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy reported that more than 1,600 Falun Gong followers have died as a result of abuse in police custody or in detention centers. Chinese authorities blame the deaths of 1,800 followers on suicide or the prisoners' refusal to take medicine.

The treatment of Falun Gong practitioners is normal fare for any religious dissident in China, whether Protestant Christian, Roman Catholic, Tibetan Buddhist, Uighar Muslim, or any other group the Chinese government decides to ban or refuses to register. In documents obtained by Freedom House from an official of China's Ministry of State Security and others within public security organizations, Chinese officials describe procedures to be taken against such religious groups. "Surveillance, the deployment of special undercover agents, the gathering of 'criminal evidence,' 'complete demolition' of a group's organizational system, interrogation, and arrest" were to be used against the banned organizations, said Paul Marshall of Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom, who spoke last week before the House Committee on International Relations.

This is unacceptable. As Mr. Bush noted in a press conference yesterday with Chinese leader Jiang Zemin: "All the world's people, including people in China, should be free to choose how they live, how they worship and how they work." In doing so, he walked in the footsteps of another politician who dared bring more than diplomatic-speak to the "evil empire" of his time that would suppress freedom of thought, speech and religion.

It was on May 31, 1988, that Ronald Reagan took the risk of speaking to the students of Moscow State University, beneath the shadow of a large bust of Lenin: "Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things," he told the students. "It is the continuing revolution of the marketplace. It is the understanding that allows us to recognize shortcomings and seek solutions. It is the right to put forth an idea, scoffed at by the experts, and watch it catch fire among the people. It is the right to dream to follow your dream or stick to your conscience, even if you're the only one in a sea of doubters."

Mr. Bush could have settled for the safe, but instead, he chose to bring China the message of freedom. In China, praying for world peace is seen as a dangerous activity. In time, Beijing's officials will learn, however, that it is not prayer, but fighting against freedom of religious expression, that is harming their country.

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