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Georg Evers {*}

Already a Great Power?

China goes economically and politically self-confident into the New Year

 

From: Herder Korrespondenz, 2/2010, P. 84-89
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

    In 2009 the People's Republic of China could celebrate the 60th anniversary of its founding. China is now an economic superpower. The Communist Party does not allow that its political monopoly of power is challenged. The relationship between the Holy See and the Catholic Church in China has not yet gone back to normal.

 

For the leadership of the Communist Party and the Government the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on 1 October 2009 was clearly the most outstanding event of last year, which was celebrated with all that the party could mobilize. But with all the pomp and ceremonies, despite the impressive military parade and the perfectly organized performances of dance and traditional costumes of ethnic minority groups and much more, it was an event that awakened little spontaneous emotions in the population and that was always marked with the impression of artificiality and constraint.

In the run up, all potential troublemakers and dissidents had as a precaution been put under house arrest or otherwise been silenced. Ordinary Chinese people were also banished to their homes, although they would actually have been willing to join the celebrations, because the past 60 years had - despite the campaigns that had claimed many victims - been a long peaceful period in China's history, in which the country's economy had grown stronger and the population's supply with food and the basic necessities of life had improved. This excessive need for security reflects the inner insecurity of a political leadership that continues up to this day - by referring to the successes in the civil war 60 years ago - to insist on the Communist Party's entitlement to exclusive leadership, guaranteed by the country's Constitution, whereas it at the same time is aware of the fact that it has lost the ideological leadership in the country long since.

The well-fed cadres of the Communist Party, who are sitting now already in the third generation at the levers of power - power that has corrupted them and that they try to defend by all means -, are afraid that they will be held responsible for the crimes in the past and the corruption spreading nowadays everywhere in the state apparatus. In 1989 this fear had induced the Party and state leaders to suppress by using military force the demonstrations of students and many workers in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and other cities of the country, where in June 1989 people stood up for more democracy but above all protested against corruption. In the PRC it was forbidden to remind publicly of this event at its 20th anniversary in 2009.

 

China's Self-confidence in International Relations has Grown

From 16 to 18 November 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama visited the People's Republic of China. A cartoon shows him with a weight around his neck, labeled "Debts of the United States". It forces him to bow deeply to the Chinese President Hu Jintao when shaking hands with him.

 


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The shift in the balance between the two states is thus shown very impressively. The negative balance of U.S. trade with China, increased by a deliberately kept low exchange rate for the yuan, has led to a huge indebtedness of the United States to China.

Throughout the visit of U.S. President the Chinese leadership showed its equality in global politics, where it self-confidently plays its role. The strength of the Chinese economy, which in the global economic crisis despite some problems has stood the test, is supporting the traditional position that China does not allow meddling in its internal affairs. That's why the admonitions to improve the human rights situation - uttered by other American presidents during their visits to the PRC in the past - turned out to be very subdued during President Obama's visit.

This was demonstrated in an exemplary fashion in Shanghai at the event with handpicked students - exclusively cadres of the Communist Youth League. It was an inoffensive event, which could be seen only in the local media but which was suitable to be broadcasted throughout the country because there was never a free exchange of views between the President Obama and the students. In general, the American president's rather cautious standing up for human rights has been criticized. It was, for example, critically noted that in no meeting with the Chinese side President Obama had mentioned the issue of Tibet.

In the context of violations of human rights in Tibet criticism had been voiced already prior to the trip to China, because President Obama had avoided meeting the Dalai Lama during his visit to Washington in early October 2009. In previous visits by the Dalai Lama in the U.S., President George W. Bush and his predecessors had always welcomed the spiritual leader of Tibetans, despite the possible protests of Beijing.

 

The New Economic Superpower

The Chinese media reported with much pride that in December 2009 Germany as the world's leading exporter was replaced with the PRC. According to the statistics, in 2009 the export volume of the PRC amounted to 840 billion euro, while the total German exports came up to 816 billion euro. Thus, China's share in world trade trebled in the last decade and now stands at 10 per cent. There was a particular growth in exports to Southeast Asia, Africa and South America, with the result that China's dependency on exports to the European and North American market has been reduced significantly.

This growth of Chinese economy is not least due to the economic program of the Chinese government in the amount of 460 billion euro, coupled with tax relief; with it the negative effects of the international banking and economic crisis have been largely offset. According to recent statistics, the Chinese economy has grown by 2009 at eight per cent and fulfilled thus the role of an engine in world economy, ascribed to it by many experts.

In Chinese government circles, however, one warns against too much euphoria. After all, China still exports to a large extent mass products, such as textiles, toys and other cheap products. Most of the machinery and electronic equipment manufactured in China are still processed on behalf of foreign companies. Until China has truly become a global economic superpower, the proportion of high-quality and innovative products must greatly be increased.

Another structural problem is the undervaluation of the Chinese currency. According to experts it had to be revaluated by at least 10 per cent in order to express the actual strength of the yuan. China, however, stubbornly refuses to implement this long over-due revaluation, since such a step would jeopardise the existence of many low-cost producers that still manufacture the bulk of Chinese exports. Even though China is likely to have overtaken Japan in about three years and will have risen to the second largest economic power, it is only ranking 100th regarding the per capita calculation of its economic performance.

Also in 2009 China has become the largest car market in the world. The leading foreign car manufacturers Volkswagen Group, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler achieved a sales increases of between 15 and 40 per cent. China's largest domestic carmaker, the Shanghai-based SAIC Group increased in 2009 its sales by 57 per cent to 2.72 million units. Overall, more than 13.5 million cars were sold in the PRC in 2009, whereas in the U.S., which had previously been the largest car market in the world, in the same period 10.4 million cars were sold.

The expansion of the railway network is also an expression of economic strength. New rail routes are under construction where the in China developed high-speed trains will run. With an average speed of 400 km they are faster than the French TGV or the German ICE trains.

 


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The new railway lines will fundamentally change the traffic infrastructure in China. Hong Kong does not want to be excluded from the new development. The political leadership in Hong Kong is therefore planning to build a high-speed route between Hong Kong and Guangzhou (Canton), which will cost six billion euro. Those plans, however, meet with opposition in the population. People call for greater democratic participation in this project as well as universal suffrage and the abolition of quotas in the appointment of the Legislative Council, as the Parliament in Hong Kong is called.

 

Negative Effects of Birth Control and One-Child Policy

The impact of the Chinese government's one-child policy does not quite fit into the positive image of China's economic development. As the birth control and one-child policy have led to a disproportionately high proportion of male births, with the consequence that it is increasingly difficult for men in China to find a bride.

Currently there are 100 female births per 119 male births in China. The medical possibilities of determining early the gender of a fetus result increasingly in the abortion of female fetuses. Another effect of the strict birth control is the rapidly growing ageing of Chinese society. The reversal of the age pyramid threatens to nip the nascent social systems of pensions and health insurance in the bud. By the new rich in China, however, the one-child policy is increasingly undermined, because it does not matter to them when they have to pay the fees and fines for breaching the one-child rule.

For all the criticism, in the eyes of the Chinese leadership the strict birth control will continue to be valid; all in all it is regarded as inevitable and thus also as positive. Thus, at the climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009 the Chinese government has pointed to the fact that birth control was an effective measure for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. By this measure alone China's CO2 emissions are reduced per year by 1.83 billion tons. Thirty years ago the birth rate in China was still at 5.8 per cent, due to the one-child policy it has been reduced to 1.8 per cent today. The population in China amounted only to 1.3 billion instead of 1.7 billion. The thus "economized" [eingespart] 400 million births had made possible the economic recovery of the country.

The radiant image of the new economic superpower China gets a few more scratches, because the political leadership seems to be so little assured of its new position of power that it feels constrained to proceed with the utmost severity against critics and reformers. The trial of the human rights advocate and president of the Chinese Pen Club, Liu Xiaobo, in the days before Christmas 2009 showed once again that the political leadership of the PRC tolerates no actions that point to grievances in the country and call for alternative forms of political life, as e.g. the separation of party and state positions, freedom of press and freedom of assembly and other fundamental rights.

The accusation about Liu Xiaobo reads "Inciting Subversion of State Power." But the allegedly subversive activity of Liu Xiaobo and his companions was simply to have signed the so-called "Charta 08", which Liu had drafted together with other human rights campaigners on 8 December 2008 on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the promulgation of human rights by the United Nations. The declaration published on the Internet has meanwhile been signed by several thousands of Chinese. Liu Xiaobo was arrested directly after the publication of the Charta 08 and held in custody for one year before he was put on trial.

The police prevented his wife Liu Xia from attending the trial against her husband. On 25 December 2009, when sentence was pronounced, she was only allowed to be present in the courtroom when the judge proclaimed the sentence of 11 years in prison against her 54 year-old husband.

Protests against this sentence were made by many foreign governments, and were routinely rejected by the Chinese leadership as "interference in the internal affairs of the PRC." The former president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, has tried personally to deliver a protest letter in the Chinese Embassy in Prague, but he was not received by the embassy staff and had to put the letter in the mailbox. Speaking to journalists Havel reminded them that he had co-signed the Charter 77 exactly 33 years ago in Prague and was imprisoned for doing so. He appealed to the Chinese Government not to repeat the mistakes of the former Prague leadership.

But even in the PRC, in circles of the democratic movement and human rights activists the verdict against Liu Xiaobo was vehemently criticized. The group "Mothers of Tiananmen", in which those relatives have joined who demand a revision of the sentence on the demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in June 1989 as "counter-revolutionists", protested in an open letter against the sentence on the author of Charta 08. The verdict on Liu Xiaobo was a proof of the disregard for universal human rights by the present government. It had thus abused its power and is increasingly losing its legitimacy in the eyes of Chinese citizens.

 


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From circles of Chinese intellectuals and representatives of film and literature was also voiced a protest against the sentence on Liu Xiaobo, insofar as is possible in China to express one's opinion in public by means of the limited resources of the Internet, such as Twitter. The outrage from the circles of science, culture, art and film led to the question, "How can a great nation do such a thing?". As an answer was also formulated that the draconian action against Liu Xiaobo would not have the intimidation effect desired by the Government, on the contrary, it would provoke further discussions and protests.

 

The Plenary Assembly of Catholic Representatives has been Postponed

From 25 to 26 November 2009 in Beijing the Permanent Committee of the Chinese Catholic Bishops Conference (CCBC) and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPCA) held a meeting. At the meeting the date and the contents of the long-planned 8th National Assembly of Catholic representatives should actually be fixed. The board then decided somewhat surprisingly that the Plenary Assembly, which according to the regulations was supposed to take place already in 2009, is postponed until 2010, but without fixing a date.

The main task of the National Assembly would have been the election of the chairman of the Bishops' Conference as well as of the Patriotic Association. How the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association will behave is eagerly awaited. The office of the chairman of the Patriotic Association, which was held until his death in 2007 by Bishop Fu Tieshan, and the position of the President of the Bishops' Conference, the chairman of which, Bishop Liu Yuanren died already in 2005, are vacant and have to be filled.

"Lack of preparation" was officially given as the reason for the postponement of the National Assembly. During the meeting also the new director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, Wang Zuoan and other government representatives were present. Observers in Hong Kong and abroad welcomed the postponement, since time could thus be gained to avoid for the moment an otherwise impending crisis in the relations with the Vatican.

The current abnormal constellation, namely that the Patriotic Association is placed over the Episcopal Conference, was declared to be incompatible with the Constitution of the Catholic Church in the Pope's letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007. When it became known in October 2009 that Bishop Francis An Shuxin, who had worked for a long time in the underground, joined the open church and made public his membership of the patriotic association, this news triggered great consternation among the faithful. It was rumored that Bishop An had taken this step by order of the Vatican, whereupon the latter responded with an unusual official denial. Bishop An declared that he had taken this decision in order to work all the better for the good of the Church and to contribute to mutual understanding among Catholics.

 


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In November 2009 Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired bishop of Hong Kong, published a handout on the understanding of the Pope's letter to Chinese Catholics. In it he describes the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association as the greatest obstacle on the way to an understanding of the Chinese Catholic Church with the Vatican and among Chinese Catholics. Cardinal Zen accused the representatives of the Patriotic Association of placing themselves above the bishops.

It remains to be seen whether the time that has now been gained can be used for fruitful negotiations between the Holy See and Beijing. The Bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Tong, takes a positive view of the postponement of the National Assembly of the Patriotic Association. This decision shows him that the Pope's letter, in which the Patriotic Association is seen as incompatible with the principles of the Catholic Church, has obviously been taken seriously. In this way one succeeded in avoiding an open provocation of the Vatican, which the convening of the conference and the then inevitable elections would have entailed.

On this occasion, however, Bishop Tong made also clear that he as Bishop of Hong Kong could maintain only limited contacts with the church on the mainland. Thus, at the invitation of the Chinese government on the occasion of the 2008 Olympic Games and the 60th anniversaries of the founding of the PRC he had admittedly the opportunity to make visits in Beijing. But on both occasions he was forbidden to visit the bishop of Beijing, John Li Shan.

 

A Vatican Letter to the Chinese Priests

From the Vatican side in November 2009 the Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone wrote a letter to the priests in the PRC. In it, he took up ideas on the situation of priests and priestly training in the PRC, which had been gathered at the meeting of the China Commission of the Holy See in late March / early April 2009. The letter was an initiative of the Vatican and obviously not reconciled with the bishops and professionals in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau.

With reference to Benedict XVI's letter of May 2007 it points to the establishment of unity among Catholics, which was of such paramount importance for the work of the church in China. The other concern, while addressing the priests in China, is to describe the core values of the priestly ministry and priestly spirituality. The priests are encouraged not to neglect, despite their many tasks and duties, the spiritual side of priesthood and to strive for continuous training.

Both in the official and in the underground church the letter from the Vatican has been noticed and discussed. Criticism came rather from the side of China experts and observers from the outside. They reproached the Vatican authorities for lacking diligence and foresight as regards the interests of the Catholic Church in China after the Pope's letter and the establishment of the China Commission. For nearly two years there have been no episcopal ordinations in China. The negotiations between the Holy See and the Chinese government have come to a standstill, since both are waiting for the move of the other side.

From the PRC in late 2009 new data on the number of Catholics have been reported, which with slightly more than five million is far below the previously circulated information. The data about the number of Catholics were collected by an institution in Shijiazhuang, which obtained these statistical figures through surveys in the parishes of the country. The Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong has for years published figures that lie relatively constant at about 12 million Catholics in China. Vatican Radio mentioned at the beginning of 2010 a figure of 13 million Catholics as an estimate - and added that there were still much higher figures.

There is agreement among China observers that it is currently impossible to supply accurate statistical data; a fact which applies to both the number of Catholics and to the much higher number of Protestant Christians in China. The number of Protestants ranges from at least 30 million up to supposed 100 million.

According to the data of the Holy Spirit Study Center the number of bishops in China currently stands at 94, 38 of them belong to the so-called underground church, and 56 work in the 'official' church. In the diocese Xiwanzi in Hebei province on 30 December 2009 Auxiliary Bishop Yao Liang Leo died at the age of 86, of which he had spent nearly 30 years in prison. He was recognized by the Vatican, but not by the government. At his funeral, the religious authorities insisted that he was buried as a simple priest and not as bishop. Catholics from outside were not allowed to attend the funeral service.

Despite the icy cold and the restrictions by the authorities 2500 believers took part in the funeral. Since the actual Bishop Andreas Hao Jinli is already 93 years old and is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, the Catholics of the underground church are without episcopal guidance. Because of the severe tensions between the official and the underground Church in Hebei province, the replacement is very difficult and could be a test case for the state of relations between the Vatican and the government.

The church life in China varies between normality and recurring restrictions on church activities. The celebration of Christmas 2009 was largely peaceful.

 


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In many cities the divine services in the Christmastide were also attended by people who were unbaptized but who followed with much interest and concern the church services, listened to the message of Christmas and stayed with rapt attention before the crib. In many churches opportunities for encounter and conversation were offered for those who were interested in the Christian message..

In this way, the celebration of Christmas also served as an invitation to potential candidates for baptism to overcome the threshold of fear and make contact with the Church and its representatives. In Taiyuan in north China seminarians together with catechists have organized for students of the University a meeting during the Christmas night where they had the opportunity to ask their questions on Christianity and to discuss. In the seminary of Sheshan the seminarians spent the Christmas holidays together with converts [Neuchristen] who had been baptized at Christmas.

On the other hand, in recent months there was increasingly news saying that pastors and lay people from the circles of the underground and house churches in Beijing and Shanghai were arrested, brought to trial and punished. At the end of November 2009 e.g. five leaders of the country's largest underground church in Beijing were sentenced to imprisonment. Protestant Christians were sentenced for criminal offenses - unlawful seizure of land, tax evasion and threat to public transport.

The authorities punished thus the building of a church, collecting donations, and public gatherings of Protestant Christians; actually, all these actions should be allowed under the terms of freedom of religion. By criminalizing those activities the authorities avoid to give formally the impression that the actions could be assessed as violation of religious freedom.

 

    {*} George Evers (born in 1936), attained a doctorate with Karl Rahner on theology of religions. From 1979-2001 he was an Asia assistant in the Institute of Missiology Missio (Aachen). In that capacity he made numerous journeys to Asian countries and took part in important theological conferences in the framework of the Union of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC). Numerous publications on interreligious dialogue and mission theology.

 

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