WENZHOU, China — Congress approved permanent normal trade relations with communist China in September. If free-trade rhetoric had proven true, this should have been followed by greater civil liberty. Instead, Beijing has responded with the most savage religious persecution since the death of Chairman Mao.
Agence France Presse reported Dec. 12 that 450 Catholic and Protestant churches and Taoist and Buddhist temples had recently been closed down or blown up in the city of Wenzhou in the eastern province of Zhejiang.
A spokesman for China's Religious Affairs Bureau justified the attacks. “In order to maintain social stability, the local government demolished underground churches and temples and other illegal places,” the spokesman said, Agence France Press reported. “[The underground churches] hoodwinked people, interfered in normal religious activities.”
The state-run media have reported that more than 1,500 churches, temples and shrines in the region have been shut down or destroyed since the crackdown began in early November, The Washington Post reported Dec. 18. Many of these buildings were private houses used for “underground” religious activities.
China's current constitution recognizes five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism.
To worship legally, Chinese must join state-controlled “patriotic” religious organizations. Joseph Kung, president of the Cardinal Kung Foundation, said that 4 million Chinese belong to the patriotic Catholic church, and he estimated that 10 to 12 million maintain loyalty to the Pope.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Dec. 13 that the U.S. government is “appalled” by the crackdown, “particularly coming at the eve of the celebration of Christmas … We've protested that here and in Beijing.” He threatened no sanctions, however.
Centuries of Persecution
The persecution of Christians in China began in the 14th century, but the Church's presence is much older (the heretical Nestorians introduced it in the seventh century).
Said Pennsylvania State University religious studies professor Philip Jenkins, “The problem is that Christianity has been associated with foreignness, which is odd because it has been in China for as long as Buddhism has been in Japan — nearly 1,400 years.”
Missionaries flocked to China in the 17th century. The Jesuits enjoyed particular success at court because of their latitudinarian willingness to accommodate non-Christian religious practices. Explained Jenkins, “In Eastern religions there is usually no problem in following more than one; you can mix and match.”
By the end of the century, however, syncretism had been condemned and the Roman Rite had triumphed. Since then, Christian persecution has been a constant, becoming particularly virulent in times of nationalist fervor such as the Boxer Rebellion (1898 – 1900) and the rule of Mao Zedong (1949 – 1976).
Under the communists, untold thousands of priests and religious were murdered and imprisoned. “Since 1949 the persecution has never ceased,” Joseph Kung told the Register.
Kung's uncle, Ignatius Kung, was consecrated Bishop of Shanghai in 1950, a year after China became officially atheist. Arrested in 1955, he was tortured but refused to recant. The Communists had thought they could defeat Catholicism by exterminating the clergy, said Joseph Kung, “but this attempt to bring the Church to its knees failed. That's why the [Catholic] Patriotic Association was founded in 1957.”
The state church was condemned by Pope Pius XII and remains schismatic, although the Vatican seeks to maintain contact with its bishops and priests.
Cardinal Kung's Witness
Bishop Kung refused to trade his faith for freedom. He once told his captors, “I am a Roman Catholic bishop. If I denounce the Holy Father, not only would I not be a bishop, I would not even be a Catholic. You can cut off my head, but you can never take away my duties.”
He spent over three decades in prison and was not released until 1987. He was allowed to immigrate to America, and in 1991 Pope John Paul II announced that he had been created a cardinal in pectore (secretly) in 1979. He died this year at 98, and the campaign for his canonization has begun.
Earlier this year, Joseph Kung had publicly expressed his concern that the Vatican was softening its opposition to the patriotic church. On Oct. 1, however, the Pope sent an authoritative message to Beijing regarding the Church's independence with the proclamation as saints of the 120 martyrs of China — 33 missionaries and 87 ethnic Chinese, most murdered during the Boxer Rebellion.
Gabriel Yiu, a Vancouver journalist and Chinese-language talk show host, told the Register that Beijing considers the Pope's action a “provocation.” Explained Yiu, “It strongly offended Beijing, especially as Oct. 1 is the Communists' National Day, and these saints are considered traitors or even criminals by the government.”
Yiu said that another cause of the recent crackdown could be a power struggle between Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji. The premier, who has been considered more pro-Western than the president, was embarrassed when on Sept. 5 the State Department issued its Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, which blasted China for a “marked deterioration” in this respect.
Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute and author of Hegemon: The Chinese Plan To Dominate Asia And The Rest Of The World, told the Register that the Communist leadership is terrified that the Catholic faith could play the same role in China it did in the fall of European communism. In 1991, he reports, shortly after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the leadership announced a campaign against Chu Liu Hai, the “Six Poisons,” of which the underground Catholic Church is one.
Communist officials have been candid in assessing the hazard posed by religion. Pointing to the role of Christian churches in the collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1992, an official party organ said that the Chinese regime must “strangle the baby while it is still in the manger” to escape a similar fate.
“What has varied over time,” said Mosher, “is the degree to which local officials get caught up in the campaign and the extent to which news gets out of China. The party will never say, “Torture 80-year-old bishops to death,” but it will say that [unofficial] religious activities are forbidden, and you must use all means at your disposal to stop them.
And it will wink and nod when torture happens, when mass arrests happen, when churches are torn down. That way they have plausible deniability.”
Mosher is a Catholic convert who was the first American social scientist allowed to study in China after the communist revolution. He was subsequently expelled for reporting on the abuses caused by China's one-child population control policy.
He urges the West to keep up the pressure against communist terror. “If organizations and governments and magazines like yours carry reports, the Chinese take notice, because they don't want to lose face,” Mosher said. “And sometimes they back off to save face.”
A Test of Faith
Ultimately, Mosher continued, the persecutions are a test of faith: “The Church has always thrived under persecution. I say that cringing because it's easy for us to say. I was arrested and spent three days in jail; some have spent decades in prison.
Suffering forces us to decide what's important and true, and once people make the decision to follow the Catholic faith wherever it may lead, including martyrdom, they become saints.
“What the Communists don't understand — because they are materialists — is that they think they've defeated a priest when they arrest him, because he can't say Mass and administer the sacraments. But what they've done is free him for a life of prayer. And I believe that prayer brings down great graces for the church in China.”
Kevin Michael Grace writes from Vancouver, British Columbia