National Catholic Register


Clinton’s China Trip Stirs Discord in U.S.

Attacks on Catholics revealed as president prepares for June 25 departure


June 14-20, 1998 Issue | Posted 6/14/98 at 2:00 PM


WASHINGTON—The ninth anniversary of China's horrific Tiananmen Square massacre was observed June 4. The commemoration, coupled with President Bill Clinton's upcoming trip to China, has refocused attention on human rights violations in the world's most populous country. One egregious example of such abuses has been the systematic persecution of religious faithful, including Catholics.

Within the last few weeks alone several attacks on Catholic leaders have been reported by human rights organizations. Freedom House, a Washington-based group, announced June 1 that a Catholic church in Fujian Province had been bulldozed by Communist Party and government officials in early May. This assault occurred during Mass, and a number of people were beaten. The church was razed.

Freedom House also recently learned that a priest in the same province, near the Chinese coast, was arrested and badly beaten after celebrating Christmas Midnight Mass. Forty others were arrested.

“China continues its consistent pattern of gross violations of religious freedom even on the eve of the U.S.-China Summit,” said Nina Shea, director of Freedom House. The Stamford, Conn.-based Cardinal Kung Foundation told the RegisterJune 3 that Bishop Zhang Weizhu of the Hebei province, near Beijing, had been arrested on Pentecost. The Foundation tracks such actions and promotes the work of the “underground” Catholic Church in China, whose members profess loyalty to the Pope. Perhaps the most notable of many abuses reported by the Kung Foundation and others was the arrest of Bishop Su Chimin of the Baoding diocese, also in Hebei province, in 1996. He had previously spent 15 years in prison, where he was severely tortured.

In addition to these and other examples of religious persecution and human rights violations, concern about China has intensified because of the reports of nuclear technology transfers to Pakistan and the alleged contributions of the People's Liberation Army to the Democratic party during the 1996 U.S. election campaigns. As a result, a number of U.S. political leaders have asked that the president's trip, scheduled for June 25, be postponed. Others are encouraging him to use the trip to pressure the Chinese government on a wide range of abuses.

The Family Research Council, a Washington-based public policy organization, and Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) sponsored a news conference and a China summit June 4 at the Capitol. Participants from both ends of the political spectrum included Family Research Council president Gary Bauer, Sens. Hutchinson, John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), Paul Wellstone (DMinn.), and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Also attending the news conference were Chinese dissidents Harry Wu, a Catholic, and Wei Jingsheng, who between them have spent nearly four decades in Chinese prisons.

The six members of Congress who were present expressed great disappointment that Clinton not only would go to China now, but that he is expected to be received in Tiananmen Square.

“What is the message the president is sending to the world by his Tiananmen Square visit,” Bauer asked, and “does he even care?” Ashcroft and Hutchinson introduced a Senate resolution later that day calling on Clinton to postpone the trip.

This excursion has raised objections not only in political circles, but also among American religious leaders. Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of First Things, called the proposed visit “morally offensive.”

“At such a time to undertake a major trip to China seems to further muddy the moral waters which surround this presidency,” he told the Register.

In voicing his objection to the presidential visit, Keith Fournier, president of Catholic Alliance, said, “Perhaps nowhere in the world are Christians more vigorously persecuted today than in China. Religious freedom is a foundational freedom, a basic human right, but the current regime in China—President Jiang Zemin and his cohorts—does not respect basic human dignity.”

Joseph Kung, president of the Cardinal Kung Foundation, said the proposed visit is “not timely,” citing ongoing persecution of Catholics and other religious people. Kung works to bring these abuses to light and to report on the status of the Catholic Church in China.

Kung, the nephew of Ignatius Cardinal Kung Pin-mei, former bishop of Shanghai now living in exile in the United States, wants Americans to understand that those who practice their religion and remain faithful to the Pope are being persecuted. On the other hand, the Chinese government has erected a puppet Church, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which fosters the interests of the ruling communist party. Members of this Church are highlighted by the government in an effort to convince outsiders that religious freedom is being granted.

One Chinese priest who knows the repression of the communists well is Father Matthias Lu of Moraga, Calif., a retired theology professor. Father Lu left Beijing in 1948, shortly before the communist takeover. For the past half a century, he has watched the disappointing developments in his homeland.

“Over the years things have gotten much worse,” he said. “In the fields, the restrictions are much worse. People are penalized in their homes. They can't say prayers, they can't wear medals.”

Father Lu also understands the communist Chinese mentality. He believes the government is like the “yin and the yang.”

“They embrace you with the right hand, they put their arm around your shoulder. The right hand is soft, gentle, noble, but the left hand kills you.”

This dichotomy is reflected in the way the Chinese have divided the Catholic Church into approved and outlawed segments.

In a letter to the United Nations in February 1998, Father Lu said that the government's policy toward Catholics “can be summed up in one sentence: punish severely the Catholics as illegal criminals who refuse to join the Patriotic Association and refuse to renounce the Catholic ties of communion with the Pope and the Universal Church. This national anti-Catholic campaign is spreading deep and wide all over China. Painful corporal punishments are reported from everywhere.”

Experts on the Chinese Church point out, however, that the line between the patriotic Church and the underground Church is often blurred.

The difference is often more geographical than theological. The Chinese bishops the Holy Father invited to the Synod for Asia, for example, are members of the Patriotic Church, yet are loyal to the Holy Father.

Many Catholics and others have expressed grave reservations about the Clinton trip, a number of influential Church leaders have suggested using this visit to pressure the Chinese government. The bishops' conference has taken no position on the trip, but has been involved in drafting a letter that was to be sent to Clinton the week of June 7. The letter is signed by Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, N.J., chairman of the bishops' Committee on International Policy. Archbishop McCarrick has been to China five times since the mid-1980s, most recently in February of this year.

In the letter, the archbishop urged Clinton to stress the issue of religious freedom in all of his meetings with Chinese officials, encourage the government to recognize the underground Church and allow it to function, and to promote the presence of the Holy See to help lessen tensions.

Another organization seeking to guide the president and move the Chinese is the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, headquartered in Chicago. The organization's public policy office, the Center for Jewish and Christian Values, is directed by Trinitarian Father Stanley DeBoe.

“Our position is that the trip is happening,” said the priest. “So how can we influence the Chinese?”

The organization has gathered the names of more than 200 religious leaders to sign a letter to Clinton. The signers represent more than 100 million Americans. The letter was expected to be delivered to Clinton about June 10 with a delegation led by the foundation's president, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.

The letter asks the president to encourage the government of China to:

• Release those imprisoned for religious beliefs;

• ratify international agreements regarding religious freedom;

• end practices which impinge on the free practice of religion;

• allow international organizations to investigate China; and

• discuss Tibet's future with the Dalai Lama.

“The Catholic contribution to this is quite significant,” Father DeBoe said. Among the signers are Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia; Archbishop Patrick Flores of San Antonio, Texas; Archbishop Stephen Sulyk of the Ukrainian archeparchy of Philadelphia; Bishop Thomas Welsh of Allentown, Pa.; Bishop Alfred Hughes of Baton Rouge, La.; Bishop Victor Balke of Crookston, Minn.; Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa.; Bishop Francis DiLorenzo of Honolulu, Hawaii; Bishop Daniel Walsh of Las Vegas, Nev.; Bishop Placido Rodriguez of Lubbock, Texas; Bishop James Timlin Scranton, Pa.; Bishop Thomas Dupre of Springfield, Mass.; Bishop Gilbert Sheldon of Steubenville, Ohio; Titular Bishop Paul Antanas Baltakis of Egara and Lithuanian Catholics, and Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit.

“Hopefully, this letter will do some good,” Cardinal Bevilacqua told the Register. “I hope that President Clinton's historic visit to China will have a positive impact on religious freedom and human rights for the people of China. It is hard for us, as Americans, to imagine what it must be like to live in a country that denies its citizens basic human rights.”

“For that reason,” he added, “I join my brother bishops and other concerned religious leaders in strongly urging President Clinton to help open the door to religious liberties for the Chinese people. I will pray during the president's trip to China that he will be successful in ensuring that religious freedom will become a top priority during this historic visit.”

Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Victoria, Texas, endorsed the letter almost en masse, and considerable support also came from St. Laurence Parish in Jessup, Md.

In addition to the Catholic support, signers include representatives of Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, and other religious communities.

Against the backdrop of this China debate is the on-going issue of religious persecution worldwide. Interest in these abuses has intensified since the publication of two books last year: Nina Shea's In the Lion's Den and Paul Marshall's Their Blood Cries Out.

Such increased public attention has allowed Human Rights Activist Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), and others to promote the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act. This legislation, often referred to as the Wolf-Specter bill, passed the House of Representatives May 14 by a 375-41 vote, and is now in the Senate for action and possible revision. After House passage, Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng wrote in a letter to Wolf: “This was a blow sent to oppression and a vote for freedom.”

The Wolf-Specter bill, which was endorsed by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Alliance, and a number of other religious and lay groups, would establish an Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring at the State Department. Countries violating religious rights would lose non-humanitarian U.S. foreign assistance and be penalized in a number of other ways.

“The bill represents a modest step that reflects growing awareness that this vital human rights issue has too often been overlooked, and a growing conviction that core American values—including respect for religious liberty—must play proper roles in shaping the U.S. foreign policy agenda,” Archbishop McCarrick said.

Joseph Esposito writes from Springfield, Virginia.