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November 15, 2005

Human Rights in China, and At Home
by Jon M. Sweeney

Haven’t U.S. presidents said for decades that increasing trade with China would lead to greater attention to human rights there? Wasn’t that always the argument for normalizing relations with Beijing, rather than speaking up when basic human rights of speech, mobility, and religion were threatened?
Well, China is now the world’s fastest-growing economy and the country with which the U.S. has the highest trade deficit ($162 billion in 2004). Experts say that China’s economy is growing so fast that it is Chinese demand that is largely responsible for driving up worldwide oil prices, rather than demand in the West.

This is necessary background for looking at the case of Xiaodong Li, a Chinese Christian who was arrested 10½ years ago in Ningbo, China, for leading an underground, house-church. Li was 22 years old at the time of his arrest. A recent story in Christianity Today recounts what happened to Li in custody: “The officers grabbed his hair and kicked his legs, forcing him to kneel. They hit and shocked him with an electronic black baton until he confessed two hours later.”

Li was released on bail five days after his arrest, pending a court hearing. Meanwhile, he applied for a visa to leave China, and due to a bureaucratic oversight, was granted a passport for international travel. Not surprisingly, Li quickly left the country.

He got a job working in catering for Carnival Cruises, and when his ship docked in Miami, Li sought asylum. Meanwhile, he attempted to send Bibles and other religious materials back home to his family and friends, which only resulted in getting them in trouble with the local authorities.

Since 1999, Xiaodong Li has been living in Houston, but only on a thread. At first, an immigration judge ruled that he was a refugee in danger of religious persecution, and as such, could not be forced to return to China unless conditions for Christians changed. Four years later, an appeals board—under pressure brought by Bush administration immigration lawyers—surprisingly overturned that decision, ruling that Li did not face religious persecution if he returned to China.

Then again, this year, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the immigration board’s decision. The appeals court reasoned that Li violated Chinese law, which allows for churches, as long as they register with the government. He had no need to break the law, and China has the right to maintain order as it sees fit, they concluded.

Rights groups around the world screamed loudly in favor of Li. A write-in campaign was organized by Amnesty International and others, including the Asian American Justice Center, Human Rights First, and Episcopal Migration Ministries. Finally, two weeks ago, Amnesty International announced: “Under the barrage of disapproval, the court [has] agreed to vacate its own decision. Mr. Li will not be deported, nor will the erroneous reasoning of the court be used to deport other refugees.”

The U.S. Justice Department and Bush administration lawyers allowed the vacating of the previous ruling to go unchallenged, explaining that they now understand that religious persecution still goes on in China.

Thank God for those groups that scream loudest about basic human rights around the world. How ironic that the screaming was directed at U.S. officials, demanding that they re-examine their decisions. Furthermore where is that increased attention to human rights that was supposed to accompany increased trade with Beijing?

As for why Xiaodong Li would not have wanted to register his home-church, as the Chinese government requires, anyone who knows religious freedom will understand the reasons: he wanted to worship without the threat of surveillance. Also, the Chinese edict includes a requirement of all church leaders to profess their unqualified allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party. Li may have his doubts about that, too.

© 2005 Jon M. Sweeney.

—Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. He is the author of several books, including his new memoir, BORN AGAIN AND AGAIN: THE SURPRISING BENEFITS OF A FUNDAMENTALIST CHILDHOOD.

More by Jon Sweeney.

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