China's laws especially as they apply to Americans and freedom of religion were hot topics Friday as a delegation of United States Senators continued its tour of the communist giant.
Burgeoning economic links give the sides a common interest in healthy ties, but such detentions and the alleged human rights violations behind them severely threaten the relationship, said Joseph Biden, a Democrat from Delaware who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
That follows anger in the U.S. Congress over China's detention of several American citizens or legal permanent residents on spying charges.
"The one thing that could knock off our mutual interest would be for China not to set up a true system of rule of law," he said.
During a visit to a village north of Beijing on Friday, Biden said President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji recognized China was lagging on human rights and pledged to make improvements.
"They know they have to make changes. They both said, 'Give us some time,'" Biden said.
Biden visited the village church and met Father Zhang Depu, 76, dressed in full ceremonial robes, who told the senator he was allowed to worship freely.
"I wouldn't extrapolate from this that there is necessarily freedom of religion all around China," Biden told reporters.
Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Chinese constitution but authorities deal harsh penalties to those who worship outside state-sponsored churches.
China has detained at least five scholars and businessmen with U.S. ties over the past month. In most cases, U.S. scholars and lawyers say, their right to see a lawyer was violated and they were wrongfully held.
American University scholar Gao Zhan's 5-year-old son, an American citizen, was taken from his parents and detained without the U.S. embassy being notified as treaty requires.
Last month, China relieved some of the tension by convicting Gao and two other scholars of spying for Taiwan and sending them home to the United States. One was even allowed to return to his job in Hong Kong, a signal that Beijing is respecting that province's unique relationship with the mainland.
But at least one U.S. citizen and one permanent resident remain in custody, and China has not revealed its evidence against them.
"The arrest and detention of Americans is a very, very special kind of irritant," Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, said. "A society that really hopes to develop and prosper in a complex economic way must have an extended system of rule of law."
Biden had said he would ask Chinese leaders about Liu Yaping, a U.S.-based Chinese businessman detained on suspicion of tax evasion and fraud. Biden said he had no new information on Liu's case Friday.
Asked if Liu was discussed in talks with Zhu and Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, Republican Fred Thompson of Tennessee said: "We talked about American detainees in general. We talked particularly about Amercan residents who are being held."
The delegation also proposed a system to guarantee the legal rights of U.S. citizens or residents detained in China, and Specter said Chinese officials appeared to show interest. Under the system, charges would be specified upon arrest and the time detainees could be held without bail would be limited.
Those detained should also have the right to counsel in a "very meaningful way," Specter said. Legal proceedings, he said, should be open to the public and media to allow inspection of evidence.
Jiang and Zhu "thought there was room to work there," he said.
Senators praised efforts to improve the quality of Chinese lawyers, judges and prosecutors during a meeting with law students studying under a program established by Beijing's Tsinghua University and Temple University in Philadelphia.
The program, which promotes rule of law in China, received $2 million from Congress last year. Yet all seven judges who have completed the program were unable to meet with the senators Friday. They were in an-all day political study session.
Biden, Specter and Thompson are joined by Maryland Democrat Paul Sarbanes on the trip.
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