China was welcomed more broadly into the world community over the past year in hopes that closer ties, in part, would foster a more open society. Instead, the country has tightened its control and intensified its crackdown on religion.
As a result, religious activists have pulled out all the stops to ensure that the issue of religious freedom gets its due during President Bush's trip to China, which starts today. They have documented government abuses with a number of reports. These include one giving what Nina Shea of Freedom House calls "irrefutable evidence that China at its very highest levels has a policy of zero tolerance for any religion it cannot control."
That report cites secret Chinese government documents revealing a systematic effort to eliminate "illegal" churches and says that nearly 24,000 Christians have been arrested and 129 killed.
President Bush has never been shy about raising the question of faith, and during their brief get-together in Shanghai last October, he apparently told Chinese President Jiang Zemin how much the Bible means to him. But given the heavy focus on trade and the war against terrorism, and the prickly issues of Taiwan and nuclear-weapons proliferation, many activists worry the Chinese won't take the message on religious persecution seriously unless Mr. Bush takes it high profile.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom wrote the president last month urging him to devote a public speech to the Chinese people wholly to the topic of freedom and human rights, as President Reagan did in Moscow in 1988.
"His speech wasn't hectoring - it was an impassioned statement of commitment to freedom that was inspirational," says Ms. Shea, a commission member and director of Freedom House's Center on Religious Freedom in Washington.
Bush may be taking the advice. In his Saturday radio message he said that, in his speech to students at Qinghua University, which is to be broadcast, he would express his hope that China will "embrace the universal demands of human dignity, freedom of conscience and religion, and the rights and value of every life." He will also raise human-rights issues privately with Chinese leaders.
The commission presented a set of recommendations to the president and Congress last week calling for persistent diplomatic pressures on Beijing to halt the crackdown, reform its repressive legal framework, and affirm the universality of religious freedom based on international covenants. A 1999 Chinese law on "heretical cults" raised the stakes, treating religious infractions as more serious crimes.
China's abuses have affected evangelical Christians, Roman Catholics, Buddhists, and Muslims as well as the Falun Gong and other groups it terms "evil cults."
A Vatican news agency, Fides, last week said China has detained more than 50 Catholic bishops and priests. The agency criticized the US and the European Union for being too sympathetic to China "because of its enormous market and its support for the war on terror."
Human Rights Watch, which just released an in-depth report on the crackdown on Falun Gong since 1999, says that its members have been classified as terrorists along with Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims.
But perhaps the most revelatory evidence came from a group of Chinese Christians in exile - the New York-based Committee for Investigation on Persecution of Religion in China.
It is their 140-page report on house churches that includes the seven secret documents - from the Ministry of Public Security and provincial security officials - describing a determined bid to eradicate fast-growing, unregistered Christian churches and other groups. A ministry official provided half the documents and is now in hiding.
Hu Jin-tao, the designated successor to President Jiang, is quoted as endorsing the drive against the Real God Church. The documents say the church has spread through 22 provinces, and they speak with alarm of its members "infiltrating the inner circles of the Communist party."
Beijing has recently said publicly it needs to change its approach to religion, hinting it may lessen some restraints on the "patriotic" churches it registers and controls. These documents reveal an intent, however, to "quietly smash" other groups that are outside its control.
In December, death sentences were given to leaders of the South China Church after some followers were tortured into testifying against them falsely.
Given such evidence, religious-rights groups say, it's essential that the US take a forceful stand. China wants to be a full partner in the world community on its own terms, and sees its new role in the World Trade Organization and in hosting the next Olympics as an endorsement.
"The West needs to make clear that [China] can't be a full partner, with the prestige of a democracy, unless it makes the needed changes," Shea says.
"If the US cares only about trade, then we'll be seen as no different from any other country that has no pretext of being a beacon of liberty."