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PRC pressure cooker
A U.S. effort to hold China's feet to the fire
Ann Noonan

Human-rights atrocities in the People's Republic of China have reached levels so severe that Congress has called on the Bush administration to organize multilateral support for a resolution at the 60th Session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to be held later this month in Geneva to insist that the PRC end its policies of abuse and accept internationally recognized standards.

For foes of the regime's sanctioned and mounting abuses, there is some hope that the State Department, which is prone to tepid criticism of PRC's flagrant and often outrageous acts of oppression (bulldozing of Catholic churches, arrest, imprisonment, and execution of Christian and Falun Gong leaders on trumped-up charges, etc.), may finally take Congress's advice and turn up the heat officially on the PRC.

Sparked by the looming U.N. conference (it begins on March 15), the House of Representatives adopted, by an overwhelming 402-2 margin, Rep. Christopher Smith's (R., N.J.) proposal (H.R. 530) pressing Foggy Bottom officials to aggressively pursue a resolution in Geneva condemning China's human-rights abuses.

During debate on the resolution, Smith attacked the PRC, charging that "despite the hopes and expectations of some that robust trade with China would usher in at least a modicum of respect for basic human rights and fundamental liberties, the simple fact of the matter is that the dictatorship in China oppresses, tortures, and mistreats tens of millions of its own citizens."

Virginia Republican Rep. Frank Wolf, cochairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, told the House:

Every Member of Congress should be outraged that the men and women in China are routinely being persecuted by the government.... Imagine a country that tortures and imprisons Catholic bishops. There are eleven Catholic bishops according to the Cardinal Kung Foundation in prison today. Eleven.

You almost never hear anybody speak out on behalf of them. You have a large number 250, 300 Protestant house church leaders. I had a Protestant pastor come by to see me two weeks ago, a pastor that we had helped and worked with; he had been in prison ten years. He said his last job in a slave-labor camp was making Christmas-tree lights. A Protestant pastor in a Chinese prison making Christmas-tree lights to celebrate the birth of Jesus. What is wrong?

Part of what's wrong is that increased U.S. trade with China has not brought any "expected" ease in political oppression. And as time has passed, and other events from the war in Iraq to Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction to Martha Stewart's trial have absorbed the public's attention, issues such as religious persecution and ongoing human-rights atrocities in China have faded from the consciousness of the American policymakers.

As Smith put it succinctly: "We trade, they torture; we trade, they abuse; we trade, they incarcerate."

But China's attempt to take advantage of this disinterest may have backfired, however, with the normally cautious State Department.

Twice during this past year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has been denied travel access to China, even though such access is guaranteed as part of the 2002 U.S.-China Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue. Indeed, the USCIRF publicly outed China's defiance of this agreement in its press release commending H.R. 530: "The Commission recently visited Hong Kong, but continues to seek a visit to other regions of China as part of its mandate to study international religious freedom conditions and make policy recommendations to the Congress and the Administration."

While Congress has been turning up the heat on China's human-rights record, so, surprisingly, has Secretary of State Colin Powell, who last week in testimony before the House Appropriations Committee hit the PRC upside the diplomatic head: "We are disappointed by the back-sliding we have seen in the area of human rights in China over the past year. We've taken this up directly with Chinese authorities. I've spoken with my colleague about it, and we have engaged the Chinese at every level. Assistant Secretary Lorne Craner has been at it again in recent weeks. And we'll be making a decision within the next week or so. And they have not improved on their human rights record in the way that we were expecting, and that kind of gives you some sense of the direction we're heading."

Unlike the State Department's 2003 human-rights report, which argued that Beijing had adopted some reforms, this February's analysis from Foggy Bottom charged China with "backsliding" on key issues: "The PRC's human rights record remained poor.... Abuses included instances of extra-judicial killings, torture and mistreatment of prisoners, forced confessions, arbitrary arrest and detention, lengthy incommunicado detention and denial of due process.... Government respect for religious freedom remained poor and crackdowns against Muslim Uyghurs, Tibetan Buddhists, and unregistered groups, including Protestant and Catholic groups, continued."

Given China's record, the action taken by Congress, along with the State Department's comments, it seems like a U.S.-China human-rights showdown may take place in Geneva next week.

If that happens, count on China to fight back: The PRC has used parliamentary maneuvers in the U.N. commission six times in the past to block language critical of its rights record. Still, says Congressman Smith, the United States has a "moral duty and obligation" to raise the issue anyway. The human-rights community will be on the State Department this week and next to see if it will finally work to allow the persecuted people of China a voice at the Geneva conference. At a minimum, that voice prays for permission to practice religion, safely and openly.

Ann Noonan is the New York coordinator for the Laogai Research Foundation.

This article appears in National Review:

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