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China Vows to Prosecute Bible Detainee

Asia: Beijing warns against foreign meddling in behalf of an indicted Hong Kong businessman.

January 09, 2002|ANTHONY KUHN and TYLER MARSHALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEIJING — China warned foreign governments Tuesday not to meddle in its internal affairs as it vowed to press ahead with plans to prosecute a Hong Kong businessman who allegedly carried thousands of Bibles into mainland China for distribution to a banned fundamentalist Christian group.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said that the businessman, 38-year-old Li Guangqiang, "broke Chinese laws and will be dealt with according to Chinese laws."

"No other country should interfere in China's judicial independence," Sun added.

His remarks came in the wake of reports indicating that President Bush had taken a personal interest in Li's case and had requested that the State Department look into the matter.

"The president is deeply concerned about these reports," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday. "Reports of a crackdown on religious practitioners in China are deeply troubling."

The law under which Li has been charged carries a maximum penalty of death.

The controversy opens a new chapter in the long and difficult relationship between evangelical Christian groups and Communist Chinese authorities deeply suspicious of their motives.

Some China-watchers view Li's detention as part of a broader crackdown in the run-up to this autumn's 16th Communist Party Congress, when the successor to President Jiang Zemin and a new generation of Chinese leaders will be selected.

Li, a member of the Hong Kong branch of the Anaheim-based Local Church, transported more than 30,000 copies of the New Testament Recovery Version of the Bible into China's Fujian province last spring, according to information from the official indictment obtained by the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy.

The human rights organization's director, Frank Lu Siqing, said the Bibles were apparently headed for distribution to an underground Protestant sect known as Shouters, which the Chinese government banned in 1995, declaring it a cult.

Nee Tosheng, also known as Watchman Nee, founded the Local Church in China in the 1920s. He was jailed by the Communists in the early 1950s on accusations of leading a heretical cult and died in custody 20 years later.

The Local Church claims about 30,000 members worldwide. Each congregation is named for its location, with the branch Li attended, for example, known simply as the Church in Hong Kong.

A church spokesman in Hong Kong, D.J. Wong, said Tuesday that Li had been a member for only a few months before his arrest.

Li was detained in the city of Fuqing in May along with two mainland Chinese colleagues, Yu Zhudi and Lin Xifu. According to Hong Kong-based human rights activist Lu, all three men have been held there since.

As often happens in such instances, Li's relatives worked quietly for months seeking his release but decided to publicize his plight after two Local Church members in Hubei province were sentenced to death and a third was given a term of life imprisonment after being convicted of involvement with an "evil cult."

Fourteen other church members received lesser sentences.

The crime of involvement with any group classified by the state as an "evil cult" is part of a 1999 law drafted mainly for use in the government's crackdown on the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. It has since turned into a convenient tool for punishing other organizations.

"The indictment describes Li as a very, very, serious criminal," Lu said. "After what happened in Hubei, the family became worried he was going to get a death sentence."

Li's family has also requested help from the government in Hong Kong, which is a special administrative region of China. Patricia Mok, a Hong Kong Security Bureau spokeswoman, said that although the government has no power to challenge the legalities of the case, it is trying to help.

"We can convey [family] requests and wishes, but we can't interfere in the judicial affairs of a mainland province," she said. "We're trying to offer the family what help we can."

An estimated 10 million Christians worship openly in China, and some versions of the Bible are legal here. But there are also Christian sects and versions of the Bible that are outlawed. The New Testament Recovery Version, published by the Living Stream Ministry, also based in Anaheim, is apparently among those declared illegal.

In a telephone interview, Living Stream Ministry spokesman Chris Wilde in Anaheim denied any link between his organization and either Li or the Shouters.

"We don't have any connection with them, and we really don't know that much about them," he said.

According to the indictment against Li, municipal prosecutors in Fuqing claim that the New Testament Recovery Version is a principal text of what they term "the Shouters Cult," from worshipers' practice of loudly professing devotion to Christ.

In 1985, an Alameda County Superior Court awarded the Local Church $11.9 million in damages in a landmark libel lawsuit against a Berkeley-based cult-monitoring group. A book by the group had accused the Local Church of espousing heretical teachings and exercising cult-like control over its followers.

*

Special correspondent Kuhn reported from Beijing and Times staff writer Marshall from Hong Kong.

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