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Bush likely to press Wen on religious freedom

December 9, 2003

Financial Times[Tuesday, December 09, 2003 11:30]

By Guy Dinmore in Washington

President George W. Bush is expected to raise the issue of religious freedom with the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, in the White House on Tuesday, following a decision by a US commission to call off a visit to China after it had been ordered not to speak to anyone in Hong Kong.

Despite the president’s personal stand on religious issues – he is a committed born-again Christian – the administration is unlikely to push the matter to the point where it impinges on strategic issues such as tensions with Taiwan and North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.

Announcing the postponement on Monday, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal organisation, said the Chinese authorities had just told them of the ban on all meetings in Hong Kong.

“The Chinese said we could only transit,” said Michael Young, head of the commission and dean of the George Washington University law school.

China is one of six countries of “particular concern” identified by the commission and the State Department as responsible for “egregious violations of religious freedom”.

As a result, the Clinton administration imposed sanctions on China, barring US export of certain crime control and detection equipment. The Bush administration has not changed those measures despite what officials call a marked improvement in relations.

The US is concerned about the treatment of Tibetan Buddhists, Christians who worship outside state-registered churches, Muslims in the Xinjiang frontier region and followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, outlawed by Beijing.

Mr Young said he was confident Mr Bush would raise the issue – “he takes it personally”. A White House spokesman said the president was “likely” to engage Mr Wen on human rights and religious issues.

The commission could recommend that the US impose further sanctions on China, but Mr Young said this would not necessarily happen. He stressed the importance of access, however.

It was not clear why China banned communication in Hong Kong after agreeing to commission meetings in Tibet and Xinjiang.

On Taiwan, US officials are making clear their concerns over President Chen Shuibian’s decision to hold a referendum over perceived threats from China’s missiles. Mr Bush will assure Mr Wen the US opposes any unilateral moves by Taiwan towards independence.

The US is also keen to ensure China’s continued support in engaging North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme. Beijing is pressing Pyongyang to agree on a second-round of six-party talks.

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