One World, One Dream

That is the official motto of the 2008 Olympics that begin in China today. The official Chinese web site explains that the motto “conveys the lofty ideal of the people in Beijing as well as in China to share the global community and civilization and to create a bright future hand in hand with the people from the rest of the world.” Sadly, China’s dream that the Beijing Olympics will cement its place among “the global community” is in tatters due to its brutal suppression of religious liberty.

As China sought to win the right to host the Olympics, it had to assure the world that it was moving with the current of history toward democracy, freedom, and human rights. China has a bad reputation on all three counts, both at home and abroad. China had, for instance, created its own “intra-net” in order to control, and suppress, the international internet, and it is one of the few nations supporting the regime in Sudan, which is engaged in genocide against the indigenous people of Darfur. Given its abysmal record, it was necessary for China to assure the world that its human rights situation would improve as the Olympics approached. It promised that the press would have free access throughout China to verify how things were improving.

In the last few months, however, China has cracked down on human rights. It continues to try to suppress the internet. It jails those who document forced abortions and sterilizations. It forces North Korean refugees to return to North Korea while knowing that they are likely to be imprisoned or executed. It has tried to crush religious freedom.

Most people probably know about the oppression of Buddhists in Tibet. The president of China, Hu Jintao, made his reputation within the Communist party by leading the crackdown on Tibet in 1989. He is doing so again by deploying army units. There have been new and vicious attacks through the press on the Dalai Lama. Monks and nuns are being forced to undergo “re-education through labor” (ie, Soviet-style labor camps). And China has closed Tibet – one-fourth of its land area – to reporters.

But the Tibetans are not the sole target. The Muslim Uighurs of northwest China are also being severely repressed. Meetings at mosques are treated as rebellions. Leaders are arrested, and then tried in secret and often executed. Uighur leaders say at least fifty-eight people were slated to be executed in the leadup to the Olympics.

Likewise, the Falun Gong, the odd combination of spiritually and physical culture, is under great pressure. In the month of June alone, one month prior to the Olympics when presumably China was going to put its best foot forward, 1800 members of Falun Gong were arrested and imprisoned.

Of course, oppression is also happening to Christians in China. In December for instance, over 200 pastors of “house churches” were arrested in one province alone. Many were beaten, most were then released, but twenty-one were sent to the “education through labor” camps to serve sentences of between one and three years. What was their crime? Holding a Bible study.

Christianity is growing in China. It is growing so fast that the government calls it “Jesus fever” and seeks to repress it. It has launched what it calls a “strike hard” campaign against Protestant churches. Every month officials in each district report to the director of religious affairs on their success in crushing the house churches.

The repression is not limited to Protestants. Catholic clergy and laity who are members of the “unofficial” (or, underground) Catholic church, which remains stubbornly loyal to Rome, are also persecuted. More than thirty bishops and priests remain imprisoned for simply being members of the underground Church.

The Institute on Religion and Democracy reports, “More Christians are imprisoned for their faith in China than in any other nation on earth.”

In short, it is clear that the situation for religious liberty in China, far from improving in the run-up to the Olympics, has actually deteriorated. For Catholics, this is a serious issue. We recall that Pope John Paul II, in continuity with Catholic social teaching, noted that religious liberty is the “first freedom.” Freedom to seek truth – freedom to find God – is the heart of freedom. When this is repressed, no people, including the Chinese people, can be free.

We often hear how things are improving in China. Perhaps they are in terms of business freedom and an opening market. But there has been no improvement in human rights and religious freedom. China remains a totalitarian regime. Arthur Waldron, a China scholar at the University of Pennsylvania notes, “The China we imagine we are engaging does not exist.”

There is, indeed, “one world, one dream,” and that dream is for human rights and religious freedom. If China wants to join the “global community and civilization,” it is time it makes that dream a reality.

William Saunders is Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs at Americans United for Life. A graduate of the Harvard Law School, he writes frequently on a wide variety of legal and policy issues.