U.S. warns China on Bible-smuggling case
Posted on Jan 11, 2002 | by Patrick Goodenough
WASHINGTON (BP)--President Bush and senior U.S. congressmen have taken a personal interest in the case of a Hong Kong businessman who faces trial for smuggling Bibles into China, and that has helped allay concerns of human rights activists who feared that Washington might overlook Chinese abuses because of Beijing's cooperation in the war against terrorism, CNSNews.com reported Jan. 10.
Frank Lu of the Hong Kong-based Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy said by phone Jan. 10 that campaigners were optimistic the high-profile intervention could make a difference in the case of Li Guangqiang, a Christian businessman who has been in Chinese custody since last May.
Although Li had been expected to go on trial as early as Jan. 12, Lu predicted the case may now be postponed, possibly for months, because of the political and media attention.
China had tried to take advantage of the post-Sept. 11 situation by clamping down on opponents. Li welcomed the fact that the United States seemed unwilling to overlook violations simply out of appreciation for Beijing's cooperation in the anti-terror drive.
Li, 38, is accused of smuggling more than 16,000 Chinese-language Bibles from Hong Kong into southeast China and could face the death penalty if convicted of practicing unauthorized religious activity, the center said.
The State Department said the president was "troubled" by the case, and longtime China critic Rep. Tom Lantos, D.-Calif., who is visiting China, raised it in talks with Vice Premier Li Lanqing in Beijing Jan. 9, warning of the negative impact of punishing people for importing Bibles.
Another California congressman, Republican Dana Rohrabacher, also has spoken out about the case.
The Bibles were destined for a Protestant group called the Shouters, after their tendency to "shout out their devotion to Jesus," Lu said.
Beijing has labeled the group as an "evil cult" -- the same designation given to the Falun Gong mediation sect and some 16 other Christian organizations, according to the center.
But Lu said apart from the shouting, he did not see the group -- which has around half a million members and links with western churches -- as being very different to other evangelical Christians. Two members of the Shouters were arrested with Li.
China, which only tolerates official "patriotic" religion, claims to print up to 3 million copies of the Bible each year. But Lu said for members of underground churches like the Shouters, obtaining a Bible could be very difficult.
Beijing has responded to reports about Bush's concern by saying the United States should not interfere in China's "independent judicial system."
Li was using the delivery of the Bibles as a cover for smuggling "a large amount of cult publications," foreign ministry spokesperson Sun Yuxi charged.
Lu said the detained businessman had won a great deal of sympathy from Christian groups and media in his native Hong Kong.
The director of the Hong Kong Christian Institute, Rose Wu Lo-sai, was quoted Jan. 11 as saying that although people might differ over the need to deliver Bibles to China, the right to do so should be upheld.
The institute and other religious and human rights groups have urged the Hong Kong regional government to ensure Li's release and safe return.
In Beijing, Lantos told journalists that the Li case was a reminder that human rights violations remained an obstacle in bilateral relations despite improved relations arising from China's cooperation in the U.S.-led anti-terror campaign.
"As we applaud China's cooperation, we are suggesting to them that cooperation would get far more public support from the United States if they would get rid of the ugly aspects of their society," he said.
"The negative impact globally for punishing people for importing Bibles, at least in the Christian world, is so powerful that it is counterproductive."
Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, was involved in much of the criticism of China's human rights record which marked the annual congressional review of China's tariff status over the past 20 years.
President Bush late last year approved normal permanent trade status to China, ending the need for yearly reviews.
"The venue has been removed," Lantos said of the trade-rights review in Congress. "But the issue has unfortunately not been removed and we will find plenty of other venues to deal with the issue."
Meanwhile California Rep. Rohrabacher was quoted in a Hong Kong newspaper Jan. 11 as saying Li's case was "going to mobilize the Christian community here [in the U.S.] and I can promise you there is going to be a great deal of pressure for action."
Goodenough is the Pacific Rim Bureau Chief with www.CNSNews.com. Used by permission.