Report from Danish Newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad

Interview:- "Chinese freedom of religion means freedom to worship what the state has approved", says Erping Zhang, Chinese Human Rights spokesman.

Permission to Believe

Erping Zhang still remembers quite clearly how shocked he was, the first time he heard Americans speak about their belief in God.

"I simply did not understand it. How could somebody imagine that a God existed? It was inconceivable to me", said forty-four year old Erping Zhang, brought up during the last days of the Cultural Revolution and being effectively trained to dismiss any belief in God.

It was not until he as came to the USA to study, aged twenty four, that his firmly cemented picture of the world was developing cracks. Minor cracks to begin with, but step by step the cracks grew larger, and for the last five years Zhang has been directly blacklisted by the Chinese government for his criticism of the system. Today he is the manager of the independent Association for Asian Research in New York, especially researching Human Rights.

"The belief in God is dangerous for the communist system. It emphasizes the individual instead of the community and in this way it opposes the idea of class struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat", says Erping Zhang, yesterday attending a seminar at Christiansborg on Human Rights organised by the Danish PEN.

China officially has freedom of religion, and more than 200 million people are estimated to belong to a religious community. However, the freedom is very much limited. The believers are only allowed to worship their religion in a church, temple or the like, approved by the state.

"On paper the Chinese Government is recognising the right to practise ones belief, but only as long as it is in a place under government control. If, for instance, a group of Christians want to assemble for themselves with a priest they have found themselves, they risk severe punishment", says Erping Zhang.

He points out that the Chinese Government is only tolerating the religious communities because it hopes that they by the end of the day may be used to stabilise the communist system.

Thus the government has, since 1998, severely persecuted about 100 million Chinese people who are practising Falun Gong, a modernised version of the old Chinese qigong technique, following Master Li Hongzhi´s prescriptions for cultivating around the three main principles: Truth-Compassion-Forbearance.

"The government originally encouraged people to practise Falun Gong, because they realised that it gave people better health and could save the state large health expenses, but when they found out that Falun Gong also made people think in other ways, the persecution began", says Erping Zhang.

Only one month ago it was confirmed that another twenty-five adherents of Falun Gong had been killed.

The risk of ending one's life or ending up in a prison camp, if as a believer one steps outside the framework for religious practice set by the state, is one the most severe consequences for the Chinese people. But even when one is holding on to all rules, it is not without cost to confess officially to a religion.

Foremost it is important to consider that one can not at the same time be religious and a member of the communist party. So, one has automatically renounced the long list of special favours given to party members: housing administrative jobs and even any involvement in politics.

"Chinese people with religious beliefs have two possibilities to get a job: to practise their belief in secrecy or to enter private business", says Erping Zhang.

He encourages the West to press the Chinese government hard and consistently on the issue of human rights. It is the most feasible way to create changes in China. The great majority of Chinese are living in ignorance in the countryside and have no power to create reforms from within.

"The western governments have a moral authority, which they have to use. They are about to make business relationships with China and invest in the country, but it must all the time be supplemented with a demand for better human rights", says Erping Zhang.

Maybe it will be possible some day for him to again phone home to his mother in China. He has not done so since he was blacklisted, knowing full well that his mother would be punished for talking with a son that criticises the government.

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