WASHINGTON – Another example of China's suppression of religious freedom surfaced Friday, as the government announced it had expelled 40 foreigners detained during a protest in central Beijing by foreign Falun Gong members.
Among those detained were 33 Americans, who were shipped back to the United States less than a week before President Bush is slated to arrive in China. Bush is expected to request more freedoms for religious believers.
China's history of abuse has been the stuff of legends, but now it is also documented in classified papers.
Smuggled out of China by Christian and human rights groups and passed on to the Washington-based "Freedom House," which measures democracy across the globe, the papers reveal conversations of Chinese government officials discussing how to put an even tighter lid on religious liberties.
"Even innocuous activities like praying for world peace are flagged in these documents as being unacceptable, illegal, heretical activity, not because – it's obviously not dangerous in itself – but because they can't control it," said Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House.
The "poster group" for the banned activity is the Falun Gong, a martial arts and meditation-based movement that has spawned crackdowns by the government, including the 1999 "Evil Cult Law."
The Law, enacted by President Jiang Zemin's administration, specifically targets groups like Falun Gong, which deviate from government-approved religious activity.
"The president of China remains a kind of control freak on these kinds of organizations for fear they will destabilize his rule," said Doug Paal, president of the Asia Pacific Policy Center.
The documents reveal a list of 14 additional entities that authorities want to prosecute under the cult law, some of whom would fit into mainstream Christian groups in the United States.
Among their crimes are setting up "illegal" organizations in the name of religion and spreading their ideas, often referred to as "superstitions," to others.
"The penalty for being a leader of an evil cult is death," Shea said.
Jiang has already spoken with Bush on these issues before. When a member of an underground Christian group was thrown in jail by Beijing police a couple months ago for distributing Bibles, Bush expressed his displeasure. The man was released last week.
Paal said presidential summits are "action-forcing events" that stimulate positive behavior otherwise not taken. The hope is to convince Jiang, who is expected to visit the United States this fall, to grant more pardons before he leaves office in October.