Understanding Chinese-U.S. Conflict over Freedom of Religion: The Wolf-Spector Freedom from Religious Persecution Acts of 1997 and 1998

Article excerpt

China does persecute its' people because of religious beliefs. There are Catholic bishops in jail.... There are Protestant pastors in jail. They are persecuting the people of Tibet. They are persecuting the Moslem population in the northwest portion of the country.... They are oppressing the people in China.

-Representative Frank Wolf (R-Va) October 28, 1997*

China's religious community has maintained stability and harmony in a world filled with national discord and religious conflicts. All nationalities, religious bodies, and citizens who believe or disbelieve in any religion respect each other, coexist harmoniously, and work jointly to ensure the prosperity of the motherland.

. . Claims that China practices "religious persecution" are totally groundless and are quite simply based on ulterior motives.

- Ye Xiaowen, Director, Bureau of Religious Affairs, People's Republic of China, September 1, 1997

I. INTRODUCTION

Religious freedom in the People's Republic of China is a topic that has generated much discussion in the United States in recent months. While U.S. dissatisfaction with China's human rights record has been fairly consistent over the past twenty-five years, only recently has attention been turned to reported human rights violations in China which may be described as including violations of religious freedom rights.

Congressional response to this concern precipitated on May 20, 1997, in the form of a proposed "Freedom from Religious Persecution Act,"1 offered in the U.S. House of Representatives by Frank Wolf (R-VA) and in the U.S. Senate by Arlen Specter (R-PA). The Wolf-Specter bill would create an Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring in the White House and mandate certain export sanctions against nations found to be involved in "religious persecution" under the defined terms of the bill.2 At the time of this writing, the bill's sponsors are preparing to introduce a substantial amendment to the bill. The proposed amendment attempts to respond to some of the criticisms of the bill raised by the administration, certain members of Congress, and some churches and human rights organizations.3 The bill as amended will be titled the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act of 1998.4

In addition to the Wolf-Specter bill, in early November, 1997, the House passed, by overwhelming majorities, nine bills which can be fairly described as "anti-China" legislation.5 During the debate surrounding these bills, China was characterized "as the world's leading human rights violator, and its regime compared to Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union."6

While anti-China sentiment was building in Congress, the Clinton administration pursued a policy of "engagement" with China's leadership, which culminated in the summit meeting between President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin in late October, 1997. Many in Congress saw the administration's actions as unacceptable "appeasement"7 of a government that has consistently ignored human rights and religious freedom standards urged by the international community.8 At the same time, the Chinese government has continued to express outrage at what it sees as an impermissible affront to its sovereignty-U.S. interference with China's internal affairs. China also continues to hold itself out as committed to international human rights law and global efforts to protect religious freedom.9

This Comment will explain some of the historical, philosophical, and geopolitical reasons for China's failure to respond to U.S. pressure for religious freedom reform. Part II of the Comment describes the current state of religious activity and religious persecution in China today and explains the government structure responsible for regulating religious activity. Part III gives an overview of the U.S. response to the issue of religious rights abuses in China. It briefly discusses the Clinton administration's policy of "engagement," as well as the administration's professed "strategic partnership" with China. …