Li Dexian, one of the best-known Protestant pastors in China, was detained and released again in December and January. This is the most recent incident in a long series of threats, arrests, and beatings he has experienced for 20 years.

"I will preach until I die," Li reportedly said before one of his arrests in the mid-1990s. Amnesty International says police in China once beat Li, breaking his ribs, until he vomited blood.

One document from the mid-1990s, which Chinese Christians close to Li say is an authentic government report, claims that "Li Dexian is Gwangzhou's [Canton's] illegal religion organization's leader."

In 1998, during a new round of attacks, police told Li he was "creating a public disorder by illegal preaching."

The case of Li Dexian signals an increase in religious persecution in China. Stanley Roth, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, warns that "China's human rights record has gone backwards, in our judgment, in 1999."

One reason could be the significant social turmoil created by the move toward a market economy. "Everyone feels both ambitious and hopeless at the same time," says a Chinese government official who asked not to be named. "The basic criterion of social morality is changing. Modern commercialism has replaced traditional agrarian values."

The worship of money is China's main new religion. Social pluralism is giving everyone more freedom, whether to do good or evil. The growth of crime keeps pace.

Some people, including a few high-ranking officials, have unexpectedly turned to religion, including Christianity or the Buddhist-Taoist sect Falun Gong. Jiang Zemin, China's paramount leader, decreed last year that severe pressure should come against any religious group ...

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