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Georg Evers {*}

Booming Country with Cracks

Chinese Uncertainties and the Catholic Church


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 1/2012, P. 48-52
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In China, problematic side effects of the massive economic boom become increasingly apparent. The Communist leadership tries to keep the vast country under political and ideological control. The relationship between the PRC and the Holy See has significantly cooled again.


In the last 15 years, annual growth rates of the Chinese economy of averaging 9,5 percent have almost become a constant in an otherwise crisis-ridden world economy. Of all the major economies of the world, China has mastered best the turmoil triggered by the financial and economic crisis of the years 2008 to 2009. In 2009, China succeeded in replacing Germany as the strongest exporting nation in the world. At the same time the volume of Chinese imports of goods and services grew at an even greater degree, and so in March 2010 China had for the first time a foreign trade deficit. This means that China increasingly turns out to be the engine of the world economy by its increased imports.

The long-standing image of China as an emerging industrial power which is flooding the world market by cheap mass products and thus builds up huge currency reserves belongs to the past. For the Chinese leadership is aware that the hitherto highly export-dependent Chinese economy will in the long run not be able to balance the unpredictable fluctuations on the world market by means of increasing exports. In order not to get into a too great dependence on foreign countries, there are increased efforts to expand the domestic services sector, because it promises a more stable growth than the current export-oriented model.

A first warning signal that a bad weather period is coming also for the Chinese economy was given by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In November 2011 it published a report in which it drew attention to weaknesses in the financial system of the PRC, which emerged despite reform efforts and progress on the road towards a greater market orientation. The lack of control in granting loans, in order to stimulate the economy, was specifically mentioned as a source of danger: this could shake the banking system and increase inflation.

In spite of China's great self-assurance due to its economic and financial strength, it must be borne in mind that the gross national product of China today is still on the level of an economically underdeveloped country. In the past ten years, China has achieved great successes in reducing poverty: the poverty among the rural population has been reduced by two thirds. But the gap between the living standard in the country and in the cities of the East Coast continues to grow - despite these successes. This unbalanced development involves an explosive social potential. The strict Chinese censorship is admittedly still able, both at home and abroad, to prevent largely media coverage about social unrest.

But there are always gaps in this ingenious system of control, through which the reports of violent unrests in the country are then spread. Violent conflicts are often triggered by arbitrary actions of the authorities. They command the expropriation of arable land in order to provide room for industrial investment. These expropriations are often accompanied by very inadequate compensation for those directly affected, while the office-holders who are involved in the transactions enrich themselves.

At the time of the Cultural Revolution, the slogan "Serve the people!" was a guiding principle for moral action. The figure of the young soldier Lei Feng, who had assisted many people by sacrificing his own life, was summoned as a shining example. Recently, reports in the Chinese press on denial of assistance in accidents and cases of desease led to a controversial discussion in the social networks.

A case that occurred in a small town in the province of Guangdong caused special attention. A two-year-old girl had been overrun by two trucks. They drove on without stopping. Over the next seven minutes 18 people passed the girl who was lying motionless on the street.



An older woman who was on the road as waste collector took care of the child, who soon afterwards in hospital died from her inflicted injuries. The exact sequence of the accident was filmed by a surveillance camera and thus documented.

This blatant case is by no means an isolated case, as the ensuing discussion in the media revealed. Surveys of the party newspaper "Renmin Ribao" showed that in similar cases 87 percent of respondents would not give assistance to an accident victim. In this context, it was reminded of a verdict. A court had sentenced a man to a high compensation. He had helped a woman who had fallen when getting off a bus, and had brought her to the hospital. In a surprising twist, the woman accused the man of pushing her and causing thus the accident. The reasoning of the court in awarding damages to the woman was that the man had behaved suspiciously, because he had accompanied the woman to the hospital. Such a level of helpfulness was "untypical."


What is the Task of the "Confucius Institutes"?

A rather "typical" example for the decline of morality was the behavior of the 21-year-old student Yao Jiaxin. In Xian he had hit and injured a woman with his car, and then he had stabbed the woman to death, in order to evade the possible indemnity claims on the part of the victim. The particular feature of this case was that the student, as the son of a retired general, came from a wealthy family, while the victim was a poor woman, who earned her living as a casual worker. The initial efforts of the authorities to keep the case secret were in vain, due to the heated discussion in the social networks. Due to the public pressure, in June 2011 the student was sentenced to death and executed.

In the discussion which ensued, it was deplored that in contemporary China, where economic growth and making money are essential, the traditional moral values do no longer apply. The repeated campaigns by government agencies, with the aim to strengthen public morality, are in their diction too hypocritical and hollow, and so they are unable to motivate people. It would be the wrong way to enforce self-responsible action by means of state-prescribed forms of behavior. The project "harmonious society" propagated by President Hu Jintao has not yet been able to fill the often deplored spiritual emptiness in Chinese society with socialist ideas of morality.

In October 2011, the Central Committee of the Communist Party has decided to start a major campaign and thus to "promote the development and flourishing of socialist culture." Its goal is to connect the "traditional Chinese virtues" with the successful "practice of a socialism with Chinese characteristics". The party leadership's language, which is characterized by empty phrases, manifests rather a certain helplessness: one does not know which actions might be appropriate to give public morals new effective impetuses, in order to develop new forms of private and public life, while the party simultaneously continues keeping absolute control.

Recently, there was in the German media a controversial discussion about the Confucius Institutes, established by the Chinese government in many countries. According to the official version, the Confucius Institute, of which the first was established in 2004, organize language courses for learning the Chinese language and Chinese culture events as well as courses in calligraphy and Chinese cuisine, and introductions to traditional Chinese medicine. Currently there are more than 300 of these facilities in over 80 countries. In Germany there are currently eleven Confucius Institutes. With one exception, they all are located in universities. The Confucius Institutes as institutions of foreign cultural policy undertake the task of making the Chinese language and culture worldwide known. They follow the example of similar facilities, as e.g. the German "Goethe Institutes" or similar institutions of other states.

The special feature of the Confucius Institutes is that the host countries or the host institutions, mostly universities and chambers of commerce, are involved in their funding by means of cooperation agreements. What is more serious is that the guidelines for the content-related work of these institutions are made by a central coordinating office, the "Development Center for Teaching Chinese a Foreign Language under the Education Ministry" in Beijing. It is disputed to what extent these guidelines are not only of didactic nature but, with regard to their ideological part, "remotely controlled" by the Chinese Ministry of Propaganda. However that may be, this accusation was recently made by some sinologists in Germany, but also in other countries, against the Confucius Institutes.


The Communist Party Adheres to its Monopoly on Power

The Sinologist Jörg M. Rudolph has only recently (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, July 8, 2011) accusingly noted that the influence of the propaganda department of the Chinese Government on the orientation of these institutions is very great, so that the intellectual freedom of the staff is endangered. The chairwomen of the central office of the Confucius Institutes, Ms Liu Yandong, e.g. belongs to the 25 members of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. The fact that the Confucius Institutes are ideologically controlled by Beijing became manifest e.g. on the occasion of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiabo in December 2010.



The Confucius Institutes had said nothing about, and made no comment on the award of the prize, the negative response by the Chinese government, and the imprisonment of the awardee.

Critics speak of "anticipatory obedience", of "scissors in the heads" of a number of sinologists at German universities: they obviously fear that they are, due to critical statements, exposed to reprisals by the Chinese government: in their work, in obtaining visas to study visits, and invitations to lectures and research in China.


A Congress of Catholics under State Pressure

In the runup to the in 2012 upcoming replacement of the most important party and government offices, regarding the successors of Hu Jintao, currently president, chairman of the Party and the National Defense Council, and of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, there are increasingly speculations about hidden power and factional fights within the Communist Party. Names for the replacement have been mentioned already for a long time, as e.g. Li Keqiang (52 years old), who is talked about as potential prime minister, and Xi Jinping (54 years old), who shall become party chief and president. Observers attribute the tougher action against government critics, representatives of the democracy movement, journalists and artists to the current ideological and political power struggles between rival groups within the party apparatus.

At stake is then always also the interpretation of the legacy of Mao Zedong. Bo Xilai, the influential party secretary of the large city of Chongqing in the south, is regarded as a vociferous representative of a revival of the 'red culture': with recourse to the ideas of Mao Zedong, it demands an ideological return to the old values of the communist revolution. He warns against gradually replacing Marxism as the basis of the ideological position of the party by democratic socialism, or worse, by neoliberalism. But the mutually warring groups agree that the Communist Party's monopoly on power must irrevocably be preserved, and that the introduction of a multiparty system in China is unthinkable, despite all affirmation of the need for greater democratization.

In the last five years, it rather seemed that a kind of pragmatic cooperation between Beijing and Rome had been achieved. The opening of mutual diplomatic relations, which was repeatedly announced as imminent, remained admittedly still a desideratum. But a relaxation in the dispute over the appointment and consecration of bishops could be noticed. It led to a series of episcopal consecrations by mutual agreement. But then there was a surprising change in the question of the appointment of bishops on the part of the Chinese Religious Affairs Bureau. The meanwhile established procedure that before an episcopal consecration the Roman side was heard and asked for consent was thus de facto terminated.

The signal for this new turn in the religious policy towards the Catholic Church was the by Rome not approved consecration of the priest Guo Jincai as bishop of Chengde on 20 November 2010. A further deterioration in the relations between China and the Vatican was the result of the "8th National Congress of Representatives of the Chinese Catholics." It took place from 7-9 December 2010 in Beijing. This congress had previously been announced several times, and was then postponed again. On the one hand, it was necessary to fill the leadership positions within the Catholic Church in China. Since both the post of the chairman of the Episcopal Conference, which was held by Bishop Liu Yuanren until his death in 2005, was vacant and the post of chairman of the Patriotic Association, which was held by Bishop Fu Tieshan until his death in 2007.

On the other hand, the Pope's letter to Chinese Catholics in June 2007 had made it very clear that from the Roman point of view there could be no place for an organization such as the Patriotic Association within the Catholic Church, and that in the PR China the presently existing Bishops' Conference could not be recognized by Rome as long as the bishops of the underground church had not got membership status there. In the runup to the Congress, Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, had repeatedly appealed to the bishops of the mainland to refrain from participating in the National Congress.


The Religious Authorities want to sow Discord among the Faithful

The massive pressure by the Religious Affairs Bureau finally ensured that the National Congress was held. Some bishops who tried to stay away from the congress were forced to take part in the meetings - by means of diverse pressure, up to physical violence. The outcome of the elections for the ecclesiastical top positions had a special aftertaste. The post of chairman of the Bishops' Conference was filled with the 45-year-old Bishop Ma Yingling, who was consecrated in 2006 without the consent of Rome, while the leadership of the Patriotic Association was transferred to the 57-year-old Bishop Fang Xingyao, who is recognized by Rome.



The Vatican responded with a statement and deplored that the participants of the congress had been exposed to improper pressure by State organs. Everybody who participated in the congress must know for himself how far he is responsible before God and the church, and how much he had disappointed the parishioners by his participation.

The statement of a senior representative of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) shows the extent of the pressure by the state authorities on the congress, and on the decisions taken there. In a review on the National Congress he stated, "In China religious freedom is protected by the Constitution. But religious organizations must be free of foreign influence in the exercise of that freedom. For this reason the Catholic Church in China insists on the principles of autonomy and self-preservation. This entitlement contradicts in no way the principles of the Catholic faith. The Vatican is therefore mistaken, when he asserts the contrary."

It is quite astonishing when a state representative makes fundamental statements about the Catholic faith and the representatives of the Church, bishops, priests and laymen do not dare to disagree. The manner in which state authorities, by use of police forces, have forced individual bishops to attend the National Congress and, even worse, to participate in illegitimate episcopal consecrations contradicts all the principles of religious freedom.

However, it is impossible to ignore that there are within the Catholic Church in China bishops, priests and lay people who acquiesce in the behavior of Chinese authorities for religious affairs. They do not contradict it, and in some cases they even welcome it as backing the Chinese Catholic Church's independence of Rome. In an interview with the government newspaper "China Daily" in April 2011, Liu Bainian, who for many years has decisively influenced the fate of the Catholic Church in China and at the 8th plenary assembly was appointed honorary chairman of the Patriotic Association, mentioned the number of eleven candidates for bishopric. They would currently reviewed by the Chinese Bishops' Conference and would then be consecrated without waiting for Rome's approval. And he emphasized that the election and consecration of bishops was the right of each local church. Rome should not interfere in the exercise of this right.

It must also be noted that the Patriotic Association exerts pressure by its power of disposal regarding the monetary donations for dioceses, parishes and seminaries: deviations from the official line are punished by the withdrawal of these funds. In the Catholic Church in China, too, there are careerists who do not want to jeopardize their personal advancement by sticking to principles. It is probably not wrong when you ascertain that the measures of the religious authorities of the state are aimed at undermining the unity in the Church and at sowing discord among the faithful.

These harsh measures of the authorities against bishops, priests and lay people who refuse to cooperate has on the other hand the result that the gap is further deepened between the Catholics in the government-recognized religious institutions and those in the Underground Church. The reconciliation and cooperation which is encouraged by the pope in his letter to Chinese Catholics is thus receded into the distance.

That Rome has decided to take up a tougher stance on illegal episcopal consecrations became particularly manifest in the two episcopal ordinations which took place on 29 June 2011 in Leshan and on 14 July 2011 in Shantou. The Vatican had indicated clearly in advance that serious canonical reasons speak against the consecration of Bishop Paul Lei Shiyin of Leshan. Despite this objection, the consecration was performed - with the participation of seven bishops who are officially recognized by Rome. Rome responded to this deliberate provocation by the imposition of excommunication according to canon 1382, which as latae sententiae automatically affects the newly consecrated Bishop Lei Shiyin, and to a limited extent also the bishops who participated in the consecration.



This was repeated when on 14 July 2011 Joseph Huang Bingzhang was consecrated as bishop of Shantou: according to the declaration of the Vatican he is also affected by the latae sententiae of excommunication. With regard to the imposition of canonical sanctions against the eight participating bishops, however, it is acknowledged that their subjective guilt is not definitely certain, because of the great pressure exerted on them. Bishop Paul Pei Junmin of Liaoning, who is recognized as bishop both by Rome and by the government, had refused to attend the consecration in Shantou.

He was subsequently relieved from his position of Deputy Chairman of the Chinese Bishops' Conference, in which he had been elected only in December 2010 at the 8th General Assembly of the Catholics of China. Even the exercise of other functions was initially forbidden to him, as e.g. the chairmanship of the local Patriotic Association and the membership of the Consultative Conference.


Cooperation in Church Activities

After the two episcopal ordinations, which were carried out by the state religious authority in cooperation with the Patriotic Association without the Roman authorities' permission and against their express objection, the mutual relations between Beijing and Rome have reached a low level. The action of the authorities, i.e. the use of force in order to coerce unwilling bishops to take part in the episcopal consecrations, has made it clear in front of everybody, how religious freedom is understood officially. After the excommunication of the bishops of Leshan and Shantou, Zhuo Xinping, director of the Institute of World Religions at the State Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, stated that the relations between Beijing and Rome dropped to the lowest level since the fifties.

When he, too, spoke of a regression to the state of the fifties, he took up thus a statement of Archbishop Savio Hon, Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, in an interview with the Italian newspaper "La Stampa" of 12 July 2011. To what extent the attitudes have hardened in the last few months is shown also by the refusals of entry to foreign church representatives: they had admittedly valid entry visa but after landing in China, the right of entry was then refused to them. Others were even in advance denied the issuance of a visa.

However, it would be a wrong picture, if the situation of Catholics in China is only regarded from the view point of repressions and interventions by the regulatory authorities of the state. Within the parishes the church life goes on. At Easter, e.g., it was reported from around the country that there was a large number of adult baptisms. There were also several ordinations. The Catholic "Jinde Charities," which has its center in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, was awarded in August 2011 the status of a state-approved foundation and of a tax-exempt organization. The name was accordingly changed into "Jinde Charities Foundation." Jinde Charities Foundation is now allowed to issue receipts for received donations, which are acknowledged by the authorities.

The organization was founded in 1997 and was until now recognized by the provincial government as a "non-governmental organization" (NGO). In natural disasters in the past, as e.g. earthquakes and droughts, it has provided assistance, which has found recognition also in the secular public. The training programs in the field of education, support programs for AIDS / HIV sufferers and activities for the elderly are perceived by many people.

The country-wide cooperation in church activities has also increased. Thus, a summer meeting of seminarians from all over China was held from 12 to 22 July 2011 in Shijiazhuang. The seminarians also had the opportunity to become acquainted with new forms of church music and liturgical life, which were conveyed by the Korean Han Yol, a member of the community of Taize, and the Catholic composer Jerry Chu from the U.S.. 83 seminarians from different seminaries took part in the meeting in the seminary of Shijiazhuang, and benefited very much from the mutual exchange. Archbishop Thomas Menamparambil, the president of the office for the Evangelisation within the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC), sent a telegram, which was seen as an important sign of solidarity of the churches in Asia.

From 16 to 18 November 2011, an International Forum on issues of inculturation of the liturgy in the Chinese church during the past 20 years took place - also in Shijiazhuan. The event was organized and conducted by the Institute for Cultural Studies in collaboration with ten seminaries. Important impulses for the redesign of the liturgy came from theologians who were allowed to study liturgical sciences in various countries in Europe, the USA and the Philippines and who, after their return to China, were able to put their findings into practice. It was generally recognized that it is urgently necessary to make further efforts to inculturate the liturgy in China. Particular attention should be given to a greater participation of the laity and here especially women in the development of new liturgical forms.


    {*} Georg Evers (born in 1936), attained a doctorate on theology of religions under Karl Rahner. 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 Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC). Numerous publications on interreligious dialogue and mission theology.


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