They didn't undermine the festival but the protesting foreigners did show how thorough the domestic crackdown on Falun Gong has been. Most Chinese practitioners are in jail, and those still free are underground or closely watched. If they protest, their relatives or bosses are punished. "Holding local officials responsible for practitioners in their areas was a stroke of genius," says a Western diplomat who tracks religious issues. As a result, native Chinese haven't protested in Tiananmen Square in large numbers since January last year, when five people set themselves on fire.
But the crackdown hasn't only targeted Falun Gong. A U.S. human rights organization last week publicized seven internal Chinese government documents that direct police not only to stamp out Falun Gong but to suppress unauthorized Roman Catholic and Protestant groups as well. The Vatican recently identified 33 Roman Catholic bishops and priests under detention or house arrest for maintaining allegiance to the Pope rather than to the Communist Party-approved church. And a Chinese court in December issued death sentences to five leaders of a 50,000-member evangelical Christian group—the South China Church—on charges of rape, although followers say police forced women to testify falsely.
Yet while Beijing brutalizes cults and other unrecognized faiths, it has allowed increased freedom to members of religions that are officially registered. In December a document issued by a party work conference, attended by the likes of President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji, declared religion in China "has moved onto the track of legalization and regularization." That doesn't sound like much, but it raised a glimmer of hope that the government might legalize some currently underground denominations. "We hope it means underground churches will be able to register and receive government protection without having to change the way they worship," says a Western diplomat.
Greater religious freedom is only one of the human rights issues Washington has recently pursued with the Chinese. After a break of several years, the U.S. and China resumed their dialogue over human rights last October, and the Bush Administration has handed lists of political prisoners to Beijing it wants released. The pressure has seemed to pay off. In the weeks before Bush's arrival, China freed three prisoners: Tibetan musicologist and Fulbright scholar Ngawang Choephel, Wang Ce of the banned China Democracy Party and a Hong Kong man, Lai Kwong-keung, who had been sentenced to two years in jail for smuggling unauthorized versions of the Bible into the mainland.
But few expect Bush to push much harder. He needs China in his antiterrorism coalition. "The political succession is under way, people will lose their jobs when China enters the WTO, so the government is very conservative right now," says Mike Jendrzejczyk of Human Rights Watch. "The U.S. has to gauge what's really possible." Ultimately, the pressure for human rights improvements in China will have to come from within.