Monday, December 8, 2003

A visit to China by the U.S. government’s religious rights watchdog was foiled yesterday for the second time in four months after Chinese officials threw in a last-minute objection forbidding the group to talk with dissidents in Hong Kong.

In protest, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) canceled its trip.

The dispute occurred on the eve of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to Washington today, during which he is scheduled to meet with President Bush at the White House.

“We’d really like it if President Bush brought this up with the premier,” said Eileen Sullivan, a USCIRF spokeswoman.

USCIRF Chairman Mike Young, dean at the George Washington University Law School, said the recent conditions placed on visiting Hong Kong had put the commission in an “untenable” position.

“Accordingly,” said Mr. Young, who had been slated to go on the trip, “we could not proceed with a trip until the larger issues can be worked out between our two governments.”

Although the visit had been planned several months ago, Chinese officials told U.S. diplomats in Beijing only late Thursday that they would not allow the series of Hong Kong meetings planned by the federal government panel.

The communist government’s officials gave no reason for the decision.

Calls to the Chinese Embassy in Washington yesterday were not returned.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. government was “very disappointed that unacceptable conditions imposed by the Chinese government have caused the commission to postpone its planned travel to China.”

China is one of six countries of “particular concern” that the commission and the State Department identified as responsible for “egregious violations of religious freedom.”

The Chinese government guarantees religious freedom on paper, but only in state-approved “patriotic” religious organizations, which excludes such international bodies as the Roman Catholic Church and the small “house churches” of evangelical Protestants.

Six USCIRF commissioners and staff, including Catholic Bishops Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, N.M., and Charles J. Chaput of Denver, were to depart for China today for stops in Beijing, Shijiazhuang, Hong Kong, and the Tibetan capital, Lhasa.

The Hong Kong portion of the trip had been scheduled to last 48 hours. Commissioners were to return Dec. 20.

The Chinese government used the same ploy in early August when USCIRF commissioners were scheduled to go to China to investigate religious-freedom issues. At the last minute, Hong Kong was dropped from the itinerary.

Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 on the condition that Beijing respect the former British colony’s free-wheeling economic and social systems under the formula “one country, two systems.” But China still keeps close watch on political and social developments there and fears that the former colony could be used as a base for activities banned in China.

The commission was invited to China a year ago and had been negotiating details of the visit — which included Hong Kong — with Beijing since February, Mr. Young said.

But when Chinese officials failed to provide the commission with an itinerary and assurances of private meetings with religious leaders, the commission began to have second thoughts about the trip. When Hong Kong was removed from the list, the U.S. panel canceled the trip.

“This action on the part of the Chinese government suggests a degree of Chinese control over foreign access to Hong Kong that is unprecedented and in contradiction with the concept of ‘one country, two systems,’” Mr. Young said at the time.

But an itinerary and assurances of contacts with dissidents were in place for the second trip. Then, late last month, the Chinese moved the trip dates from early this month to the middle of the month.

“Although we are encouraged by the demonstrated willingness of the Chinese side to schedule meetings for the commissioners with relevant leaders on the mainland,” Mr. Young said yesterday, “we are disappointed that the Hong Kong issue has again become a hindrance between our two countries, standing in the way of a productive interaction on religious freedom.”

Maybe, he said, “They aren’t anxious to have this trip come off.”

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