The United States has called for the release of Chinese lawyer Zhang Kai and a group of religious figures, including Christian pastors, accused of threatening public order and national security. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, has also launched a campaign for the release of 20 women prisoners of conscience, including Chinese attorney Wang Yu.
Ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to Washington later this month, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, David Saperstein, said the August 25 detentions of religious figures, including Zhang, were a “particularly alarming development.” It came as he prepared to meet them the next day in China.
“There can be no excuse for the detention of these religious figures that either met with me or tried to meet with me,” said Saperstein, who met with Chinese government officials on religious freedom. “These detentions fit into a disturbing pattern of state intimidation of public interest lawyers, Internet activists, journalists, [and] religious leaders,” he added.
He said it underscores “the precariousness of religious life in China.”
State Department spokesman Mark Toner Tuesday said religious freedom in China is something the United States watches closely.
"You know, I can say that it is an ongoing concern and, specifically, just to cite a recent case, prominent Christian human rights lawyer Zhang Kai and his assistant were detained by Chinese authorities. We certainly want to see him released, but this is just indicative of an ongoing pattern that we’ve seen," said Toner.
Zhang has been advising churches in China’s Zhejiang province that are resisting orders to remove crosses from church roofs. Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang in Hong Kong said Zhang has worked for many years defending human rights in China.
"He is primarily known for his work defending Christians and Falun Gong practitioners and this time it appears he was very much involved in advocating for the Christians in Zhejiang whose crosses have been forcibly taken down by the government," said Wang.
During his visit to China, Saperstein raised a number of ongoing concerns, calling for an end to the campaign of cross removals and church demolitions, an end to the harassment of members of unregistered religious groups and a reassessment of restrictions on Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims, which he called counterproductive.
Wang said there has been a crackdown on Christians in Zhejiang, a coastal area considered to be the heartland of China’s Christianity.
"In that province, the government has used excuses such as the violation of buildings codes and so on to remove crosses which have been standing on these churches, official churches, churches that were previously sanctioned by the government," said Wang.
Wang added there have been greater restrictions on civil liberties in the past two years and that it is vital U.S. officials take the opportunity to raise the plight of human rights defenders privately and publicly with Chinese officials during Xi’s state visit.
Writing in Wednesday’s state-run China Daily, the Chinese ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai, said the two countries are benefiting from growing cooperation. He said despite differences, including maritime disputes in the South China Sea and cyberattacks, cooperation -- not confrontation -- is the key to finding solutions. He said such differences should not be allowed to dominate the bilateral agenda.
At the same time, Ambassador Power, marking the 20th anniversary of an international conference in Beijing on gender equality and women’s rights, launched a campaign Tuesday to highlight the plight of 20 women political prisoners. Among them, 44-year old activist lawyer Wang Yu.
"For her work, Wang has been harassed, threatened then smeared in the state-run media. On July 9, 2015, Wang herself was detained. So were her husband and their 16-year old son. Wang and her husband remain in prison where they have been denied regular access to a lawyer in custody and have not yet been charged," said Power.
Power said that 20 years after the Beijing Declaration, the name of one of the 20 women will be released each weekday leading up to an international conference to be held September 27 at U.N. headquarters in New York aimed at agreeing on a new set of commitments to advance women’s rights for the next 20 years.