Bible smuggler thanks Bush

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- Released Hong Kong-based bible smuggler Li Guangqiang has thanked U.S. President George W. Bush for helping to secure his freedom.

However, the crackdown on dissident and underground church communities in China has continued unabated even as top Beijing officials defend their country's human rights record.

Li was released on "medical bail" after having been given a two-year jail term for "illegal sales of foreign publications." He returned to Hong Kong last weekend.

The 38-year-old businessman, who is known as Lai Kwong-keung in Hong Kong, appealed to mainland authorities to release other members of his Christian sect also detained for "illegal activities."

"I thank President Bush for expressing concerns about me," Lai said, adding Bush had treated him a member of one big Christian family.

He appealed to Chinese authorities to release two other church members, Lin Xifu and Yu Zhudi, who had been convicted for helping Lai and for joining "evil cults."

However, family members of Lin and Yu told the Hong Kong media they feared the two would not be given the same treatment as Lai as the latter's release was connected to the imminent China visit by Bush.

The White House had earlier called on Beijing to expedite Li's release, and his speedy release was seen as China's effort to improve the atmosphere for Bush's visit.


Meanwhile, human rights watchdogs and Western religious organizations have accused Beijing of stepping up the persecution of dissidents and religious groups.

The New York-based Committee for the Investigation on Persecution of Religion in China is due soon to release a report on Chinese suppression of religious minorities throughout the country.

And late last month, Wang Daqi, a professor and editor in eastern Anhui Province, was detained by police for advocating democratic reforms.

However, the Director of the State Council Information Office Zhao Qizheng, said in Beijing that "never in the past have Chinese enjoyed so much personal freedom and so many individual rights."

The official press on Monday quoted Zhao as saying China and the West had different views on human rights because of different traditions and cultures.

The media also quoted National People's Congress Chairman Li Peng as warning that Beijing was "firmly opposed to [the West] interfering in other countries' internal affairs by using the human rights issue."