China and Religious Freedom

May 2006

Whenever Human Rights meets foreign affairs, hypocrisy and cynicism are sure to follow. The United Nations has just established a new Human Rights Council to replace the old Human Rights Commission. This followed criticism of the old body on which some of the worst offenders had seats. The loudest critic was the United States, whose own human rights record has been less than exemplary since the War on Terror began.

Whether the new Council is an real improvement, or just a bureaucratic face-life, only time will tell. The members of the new body are supposed to pledge to a high standard of human rights. But whether this will be insisted on is doubtful when such states as Saudi Arabia and China are included. Their election has more to do with regional power politics than human rights, and it was not practical to exclude them.

But leave real-politik aside for the moment and consider, as an example, China's record on religious freedom. Chinese government statements maintain that they do have religious freedom, because it is guaranteed in their constitution. They went out of their way to demonstrate their openness last month by holding a "World Buddhist Forum" in Pu Tao.

But this wasn't an open forum of free discussion as such conferences are in the West. This was a carefully stage-managed event where the gentle influence of the Party was easy to spot. It goes without saying that the world's most famous Buddhist, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, didn't get an invite. Instead, the principal representative of the Vajrayana (Tibetan) branch of Buddhism was China's own imposed pretender to the title of Panchen Lama. The real Panchen Lama was taken into Chinese custody in 1995 at the age of six and has not been seen since.

China is undergoing a lot of social unrest, as the gap between the consumer society of the coastal cities and the poverty of the rural masses widens. So the current slogan of the Party is "social harmony." Is it any surprise then, that the theme of the Buddhist Forum was how Buddhism could promote social harmony? China's own Panchen Lama, among others, spoke on this approved theme.

More serious than this kind of chicanery is the fate of the thousands of Falun Gong practitioners who have been "disappeared" over the last few years. Falun Gong is a new sect, with Buddhist and Taoist elements. For some reason known best to themselves, the Chinese authorities have decided this movement is a threat to the state.

Now serious allegations have surfaced that China has been harvesting organs from Falun Gong prisoners, mostly for sale to wealthy foreigners. There is at least enough evidence of this horrible crime to warrant an international investigation. It might explain how Chinese hospitals can guarantee a fresh liver or kidney in about a week, and it might account for the missing Falun Gong members. Specific evidence is not wanting either, human rights investigators in the West have recorded some incriminating phone conversations with unsuspecting Chinese doctors.

Will China be taken to task? Not likely. This is where we reluctantly return to the cynical world of real-politik. Our governments display a very selective outrage when it comes to human rights. When the Americans wanted to use Saddam's army against Iran in the 'eighties, his human rights abuses were winked at. When they wanted to invade Iraq, they suddenly noticed how evil he was. China is far too important an economy for our leaders to offend. After all, from where else would we get all those cheap consumer goods in the big box stores?

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