Matteo Ricci, SJ, and Xu Guangqi from Athanasius Kircher’s China Illustrata (Amsterdam, 1667). Ricci (1552 – 1610) one of the first Jesuits in China, was known as the founder of the China mission. Xu Guangqi (1562 – 1633), a very influential convert to Christianity, was a member of the Ming Dynasty bureaucracy from Shanghai who rose to the rank of Imperial Grand Secretary
Photograph download from Company Magazine
The effort of Pope Benedict XVI to normalise relations with the Communist Government in China since his pontification in 2005 has been welcomed with joy and gratitude by the Catholic community in China. Meanwhile the rest of the world is watching anxiously to see whether the Vatican’s diplomacy will bring about greater religious freedom to a nation governed by a regime that has a notorious history of persecuting its nationals for their religious faith. A recent article published in AsiaNews, an official Catholic website, however, calls into question whether the Vatican’s advice to Chinese Catholics about reconciliation, unity and dialogue with Chinese authorities will gradually deteriorate into a policy of appeasement, which ultimately undermines the effort of those who are defending their rights to religion in China.
When commenting on a special plenary of the CCP Poliburo held on 18 December 2007, Father Angelo Lazzarotto, a Milan based expert on Chinese Church, hails a call of President Hu Jintao to acknowledge “the contribution of religion in building a harmonious society” as an “unusual yet important event” that signifies a hope for religious freedom in China. Father Lazzarotto based his optimistic assessment on the way he interprets a Xinhua news agency report. In his view, the event was significant because it was attended by top party leadership (including President Hu Jintao) as well as two reputable religious leaders, one of whom was an expert on Christianity trained at a German theological institute. He particularly highlights the apparent lack of “ideological reticence with regards to the dangers posed by religious practice” in the Xinhua report as a sign of progress. He dismisses as trivial, however, the difference between the English and the Chinese versions of the Xinhua report and how this difference has influenced the ways in which the report has been received internationally.
A closer look at the two versions of the Xinhua news, however, reveals some serious discrepancies, not just in focus, but also in actual content and intended meaning.
The English version is deliberately written to create an impression that the CCP is implementing a new policy of religious freedom, according to which religious groups will be granted legal status, as well as more room for self-governance. To achieve this effect, the English report uses the words “free” and “freedom” four times, even though a similar expression only appears once in the Chinese report. Apart from using a misleading sentence “Hu stresses full implementation of free religious policy” as the title, the English report also informs its readers that “the CPC is atheistic but allows freedom of religious beliefs. China is home to 100 million religious faithful, largely Buddhists, Taoists, Christians, Catholics and Islamites.” None of these sentences exist in the Chinese report. The English report specifically mentioned that “at the 17th CPC National Congress ending in late October, the Party for the first time in its history has mentioned the word ‘religion’ in an amendment to its Constitution”. This expression “for the first time in history” is excluded from the Chinese report because Chinese readers who are familiar with Party history know for a fact that there is nothing “new” about the expression “free religious policy”; it is just one of those frequently used propaganda slogans. However, the inclusion of this expression is designed to give English readers an impression that this plenary session has set a new trend for religious freedom.
A careful examination of the Chinese Xinhua report confirms that this plenary study session has presented nothing original about China’s religious policy, except that the CCP has adopted a new propaganda strategy with a focus on corporate image. The message conveyed in the Chinese report reaffirmed that Hu Jintao, though facing a new situation, will insist on carrying out CCP’s policy when handling religious affairs. The key words here are: “a new situation” and “to insist on”. The expression “a new situation” (or, to be precise, “a new operating environment”) appears six times in the Chinese report. The operative verb “to insist on” (or “to continue with”) has also been mentioned on ten different occasions in Chinese, but not even once in English. Included in the Chinese Xinhua report are the so-called three principles, which Hu Jintao has presented on 18 December 2007 to guide the plenary session. These principles are:
Firstly, the delegates must insist on carrying out the party’s fundamental policy on religion, to make sure that religious freedom is handled according to Party policy, that the law is used for managing religious affairs and that religious groups in China are self-contained independent of external influence;
Secondly, works among the worshippers are to be strengthened to make sure that mutual recognition is achieved on issues of patriotic conduct, national unity, social harmony and the building of a socialist market economy under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party; and
Thirdly, more effort will be devoted to the recruiting, training and utilizing of a religious education team to ensure that team members who are politically reliable and academically qualified also have popular appeal. More assistance and guidance will be given to patriotic religious groups so that they can be self sufficient and will play a more active role in defending the rights of legitimate religious organisations.
Celab Wang at China Aid, a Christian organisation set up to help those who suffer from religious persecution in China, labels this plenary study session as the latest publicity stunt orchestrated by Hu Jintao to convince the international community that China is fit to host the 2008 Olympic Games. Celab Wang writes:
Many people in the world especially in the media know that 2007 was the worst year in the last two decades for Christianity in China because of the mass arrests and large scale persecution targeting the House Church Movement. The 17 December 2007 article in the Time’s online version definitely made Hu and his government very nervous, due to the fear of the Western “masses” knowing of the religious persecutions in China in the year of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Hu Jintao swiftly held the Party’s study meeting for religious policy on the next day. Then on the 19th, all the news in both languages flooded search engines with “free religious policy” as key words in the English version …..
Yet the questions still beg to be asked: If Hu and the CPC really meant more religious freedom, why do the nationwide persecutions continue so harshly? Why did so many Christians arrested in 2007 spend Christmas and New Year’s Day in prison, especially after the 17th CPC National Congress met to discuss religious freedom? Why are so many more Christians still in detention and labour camps today, including the two well known Christian leaders, Mr. Zhou-Heng (Urumqi) and Mr. Tian Jin (Sichuan). (Zhou-Heng was mentioned in the article in the Time’s online version.) The answers are yet to be seen.
What is even more alarming is the Catholic Church’s hasty endorsement of what is widely seen as the CCP’s latest round of propaganda – a disingenuous effort to mask religious persecution in China. One may ask if Father Lazzarotto has made a genuine mistake or if he is being deliberately evasive in his analysis. Either way, this error in judgement opens up a series of questions: is the Pope informed about the true state of religious freedom in China? Is he being too conciliatory in his dealings with the oppressive regime in China? Does he care if people are still suffering from religious persecution in China? What is he going to do about it?
In the early 300’s AD, the venal Emperor Constantine of Rome – who murdered his own son, and who did not convert to Christianity until he was on his deathbed – declared himself to be a Christian, for political reasons, so that his heirs could maintain their temporal political power. Ever since then, ever since Emperor Constantine made the Roman Catholic Church a political power in the Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church has, on more than one occasion, been compromised with the temporal, evil political powers of this world. And so today in China, is the world witnessing another episode of the Roman Catholic Church reverting back to its old heritage of “Constantinism”, compromised yet again with worldly political authorities for the sake of temporal, worldly power?