Human Rights Watch today commended the U.S. religious delegation which traveled to China, Tibet and Hong Kong in February to open an unprecedented dialogue with Chinese officials and others on religious freedom, but said the mission did not produce the kind of breakthrough that justified the Clinton Administration's recent reversal on human rights. Last week, the White House announced that the U.S. for the first time would not push a resolution on China at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights now meeting in Geneva, and that Clinton would visit China as early as this June. The delegation's visit was negotiated during last October's summit meeting between U.S. President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Washington, DC.

"The delegation deserves credit for its principled approach, for frankly and directly raising issues of religious freedom at the highest levels with Chinese authorities, and for meeting with a broad range of both official and unofficial religious figures," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "But dialogue and discussion are no substitute for press concrete action by China to ease its controls on religious expression. The White House should not be allowed to use this visit as an excuse for abandoning virtually all forms of pressure on Beijing to improve its human rights performance. "

Three prominent clerics chosen by the White House led the eighteen-day tour of Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Lhasa, and Hong Kong: Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation in New York, U.S. Roman Catholic Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, New Jersey, and Reverend Don Argue of the National Council of Evangelicals. Notably absent from the delegation were representatives of the Buddhist or Moslem faiths, though concerns about religious repression in Tibet and Xinjiang were on the delegation's agenda. The clerics held a press conference in New York today to release a report summarizing the results of their mission.

"We were encouraged to see their criticism of the Chinese government's requirement that all religious sites register with the official Religious Affairs Bureau," said Jendrzejczyk. "Their report also focused on the need to protect freedom of religious practice as well as religious belief, which was useful. And we welcomed their strong condemnation of the use of administrative punishments imposed on some religious believers, namely reeducation through labor, as `out of line with international norms.'"

While in China, the nine-member delegation held more than fifty meetings with government officials including President Jiang Zemin. The group stressed it was not a fact-finding body, and limited its mission to conducting a dialogue and advocating on behalf of religious activists and groups in jeopardy.

The delegation gave Chinese officials a list of thirty imprisoned religious activists, but failed to secure promises of their release; as far as we know, they also did not receive any significant new information about their whereabouts or legal status. It is not clear whether the group urged the Chinese government to act on the findings of a U.N. official who visited China and Tibet in November 1994 -- the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance -- or received any assurances that the U.N.'s recommendations would be implemented. The Special Rapporteur urged, among other things, that the Chinese constitution be amended to broaden the definition of religious freedom, and called for the release of anyone detained for membership in "unofficial" religious organizations.

Human Rights Watch criticized the delegation's decision to go on a showcase tour of a prison in Lhasa, Tibet on February 26, 1998, providing the authorities with a major propaganda coup. The head of the prison told Bishop McCarrick that well-documented reports of torture and ill-treatment of imprisoned Buddhist monks and nuns were just "stories," and the group was shown a prison factory in which "scores of inmates were weaving blankets, with some humming popular songs," according to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency.

While the U.S. clerics did succeed in meeting some underground religious activists, they were prevented by authorities from seeing others. But while in China, the delegation was reluctant to publicly criticize moves by Chinese officials to detain or put under house arrest some Protestant and Catholic activists in Beijing, Shanghai and Hebei province during their visit. For example, Dr. Xu Yonghai, a religious activist in Beijing, was held under tight surveillance with three or four plainclothes police stationed outside of his apartment.

The delegation said one of its aims was to put the issue of religion on China's agenda, but this is a basic misreading of the importance Chinese leaders already attach to the issue, which is viewed as a problem of state control. In its 145-page report, China: State Control of Religion, issued last October, Human Rights Watch made clear that since 1982 the Chinese government has never minimized its determination to coopt religious believers for as long as it takes to establish a truly atheist state. The government is determined to contain religious expression and to depict that effort to the international community as lawful. For example, the government requires all religious delegations to register with authorities so that they can be easily monitored; screens the choice of clerics and other religious personnel; and exerts control over religious publications.

China's control of religious expression consistently flouts accepted international standards -- including Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which China announced just six days ago that it was prepared to sign. There is no indication as to when Beijing intends to sign and ratify the Covenant -- or whether Clinton will delay his June visit if action is not taken on the ICCPR by June.

The delegation expressed dismay at the situation in Tibet, and urged that "a special attention should be paid to the problems" of religious believers in Tibet. Their view is widely shared by those in the human rights community who have long monitored the severe repression in Tibet including the "patriotic reeducation of monks and nuns, expulsions of those who refuse to renounce independence and the Dalai Lama, secular control of monasteries, official limits on the numbers of monks and nuns, and the detention and torture of Buddhist activists.

"We realize that improvements in religious freedom will probably be gradual and incremental," Jendrzejczyk observed. "And the members of the delegation are clearly committed to persisting in pushing for change. But we would strongly oppose any attempt by the White House to use the possibility of further such missions to justify its decision to drop all serious pressure on China on human rights." President Clinton, who met with the delegation prior to its departure for China, is expected to receive the group at the White House at a date yet to be announced.

Human Rights Watch
Asia Division