All That Glitters Is Not Gold

A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: The Beijing Olympics highlight how China’s communist rulers continue to comprehensively violate religious freedom and other fundamental human rights of their own citizens.

Performers wave upon the arrival of China's President Xi Jinping (not pictured) before the start of the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, at the National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, in Beijing, on February 4, 2022.
Performers wave upon the arrival of China's President Xi Jinping (not pictured) before the start of the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, at the National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, in Beijing, on February 4, 2022. (photo: Manan Vatsyayana / AFP/Getty)

For the world as a whole, this month’s Winter Olympics in Beijing were supposed to be a ray of light, helping to dispel the gloom that the COVID-19 pandemic has cast over the globe during the last two years. And for China’s repressive communist government, the games were supposed to provide a sunny façade, obscuring the regime’s pervasive abuses of human rights and religious freedom.

As it happened, though, on both counts, things haven’t turned out as planned. Despite the widespread media whitewashing of the Chinese government’s continuing transgressions, the worldwide enthusiasm for the quadrennial sporting event has been markedly muted compared to pre-pandemic Olympics. And human-rights organizations and religious-freedom advocates have utilized this Olympic moment as a means to draw intensified international attention to what’s really going on in contemporary China, with respect to freedom and justice.

Currently, China’s most egregious human-rights violation is being undertaken against its Uyghur Muslim minority. The “sinicization” of this entire population involves an array of injustices, including the mass detention of approximately 1 million Uyghurs in so-called “vocational training centers.” Such facilities are actually internment camps, where the Uyghurs’ right of religious expression is forcibly suppressed and crimes, including torture, sexual assaults, coerced abortions and forced sterilizations, reportedly are taking place. 

These appalling human-rights violations have been condemned as a genocide by a range of international authorities, including the U.S. government. They are also the primary motivation for the diplomatic boycott of the games announced by the U.S. and several other nations who sent athletes to compete but precluded their government officials from Olympics attendance. One notable presence, by contrast, was Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has conspicuously declined to join in the international criticism of the oppression of the Uyghurs. His appearance at the opening ceremonies was preceded by a summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, at which Putin secured tacit backing for his own campaign to force democratic Ukraine back into Russia’s authoritarian orbit.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, the courageous bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, is among the Catholic leaders who have been at the forefront of focusing attention on China’s assault on the freedom and dignity of the Uyghurs. Such Catholics have been equally engaged in addressing China’s other leading human-rights and religious-freedom flashpoint: the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s ever-intensifying efforts to strip away the democratic freedoms that Hong Kong retained after it was transferred from British sovereignty to Chinese control in 1997. Since that time, Beijing’s autocrats have striven to undermine the democratic guarantees that were initially extended to the former British colony. These efforts have ratcheted up exponentially in recent years, as a component of Xi’s clampdown on any and all aspects of Chinese society that might not conform with his autocratic leadership. 

This targeting of Hong Kong has resulted in the de facto loss of much of its autonomy and democratic freedoms. It also sparked fierce student-led pro-democracy protests in 2019, in which a leading role was taken by local Catholics — particularly media magnate Jimmy Lai, a faithful Catholic convert who was imprisoned last December in retaliation for his actions in defense of freedom.

Lai’s supporters have utilized this month’s Olympics as an opportunity to draw international attention to his unjust imprisonment — and more broadly to the Chinese regime’s continuing human-rights and religious-freedom transgressions. “Jimmy Lai is in prison for standing for what is right and just,” Catholic commentator Kathryn Jean Lopez pointed out at National Review online. “He is in prison in solidarity with all who suffer under the Chinese tyranny — the Falun Gong, the Uyghur Muslims. As Lai has said, the Communist government wants to squash anything that gives people meaning and purpose beyond the Chinese Communist Party.” Lopez also recommended watching videos recounting Lai’s heroic and sacrificial stand against Chinese communist tyranny as an antidote to the pro-Chinese government propaganda frequently in view during Olympics broadcasts.

Unfortunately, the efforts to draw renewed attention to the plight of the Uyghurs and the assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms are unlikely to have much influence on the Chinese government. The only Olympic nod China made toward the Uyghur controversy was the photo-op inclusion of an athlete who was reportedly of Uyghur descent in the games’ opening ceremonies. As for Hong Kong, the Chinese government now is directly blaming local Christian churches — and Cardinal Zen personally — for inciting the 2019 protests and appears poised to impose retaliatory religious repressions there as soon as the games conclude.

All of this calls into further discussion the deal that the Vatican struck with Beijing in September of 2018, regarding the selection of new Chinese bishops. While the deal’s precise terms remain a secret, in effect, it assigned primary authority over episcopal appointments to the Chinese government, not to the pope. The deal also has effectively forced China’s “underground” Catholic Church to submit to the jurisdiction of the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. 

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, and other senior Curial officials have justified the deal on the grounds that the breach between the underground and official churches needed to be healed for the good of China’s faithful and that this could only be accomplished by accommodating some of the CCP’s demands. As well, the unspoken premise is that ceding authority over episcopal appointments will assist, over time, in moderating the regime’s harshness toward religious expression in general and Catholic activities in particular. 

But instead of becoming more open to Catholic worship, in the wake of the agreement, the communist regime quickly moved to clamp down dramatically on bishops and lay Catholics belonging to the underground Church, as Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, testified before Congress in 2020. She also pointed out that, beginning in February 2020, both the state-controlled and underground Catholic churches have been required to conform to 41 new government articles regulating religion, aimed at “implementing the values of socialism.” The articles require all religious organizations to “spread the policies of the CCP” and to establish “learning systems” that will ensure that all of their adherents “support the CCP leadership.” Since Shea testified 18 months ago, matters have deteriorated even further.

In other words, while the jury remains out on whether the Vatican’s long-term goal of improving the situation for Chinese Catholics will someday materialize, there is no doubt that in the short term the 2018 deal has not borne good fruit. And while Catholics everywhere must continue to pray that this will change someday, the pressing priority coming out of the Beijing Olympics is to keep highlighting how China’s communist rulers continue to comprehensively violate religious freedom and other fundamental human rights of their own citizens.

God bless you!