State, Not Church, Leads Western Response to China’s Human-Dignity Violations

As the Vatican’s gambit appears to falter, Western nations take action; opportunities for laity abound.

Protesters attend a rally for the Uyghur community at Parliament House on March 15, 2021 in Canberra, Australia. According to a major new report by a US-based think tank, Beijing is breaching each and every provision of the UN Genocide Convention, with "intent to destroy" the Uyghurs as a group in China's north-western Xinjiang region. The report, published by Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, is the first independent expert application of the 1948 Genocide Convention to the ongoing treatment of the Uyghurs in China.
Protesters attend a rally for the Uyghur community at Parliament House on March 15, 2021 in Canberra, Australia. According to a major new report by a US-based think tank, Beijing is breaching each and every provision of the UN Genocide Convention, with "intent to destroy" the Uyghurs as a group in China's north-western Xinjiang region. The report, published by Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, is the first independent expert application of the 1948 Genocide Convention to the ongoing treatment of the Uyghurs in China. (photo: Sam Mooy / AFP/Getty)

Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a Register analysis of China’s violations of human dignity and human rights. Part 1 is available here

On Monday, the United States, Canada, Britain and the European Union announced a coordinated array of sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for what is increasingly being described as genocide against the Uyghur people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority in China’s west who have faced a multiyear campaign of mass imprisonment, propaganda, forced labor and even sterilization. 

“Amid growing international condemnation, the [People’s Republic of China] continues to commit genocide and crimes against humanity,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement.

The move, which comes only a week after the U.S. announced sanctions against 24 Chinese officials over a crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong, is the latest instance of the U.S and its allies’ increased willingness to confront President Xi Jinping and his communist regime over human-rights abuses, an approach that began under Donald Trump and now is being continued by President Joe Biden’s administration.

“Very welcome indeed, but let this be the beginning, not the end,” tweeted Benedict Rogers, a Catholic human-rights advocate who focuses on China and Southeast Asia, regarding the tough action against the Chinese government.

Concern about China’s human-rights abuses is said to be one of the last remaining bipartisan issues in U.S. politics, with support for increased action against Beijing coming from both sides of the aisle.

“If any issue is ripe for a regular-order bipartisan process, it is this one,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters last week. 


Church Remains Silent

But while U.S. and European governments are quickly waking up to threats to human dignity posed by China’s emboldened and ruthless communist leadership, and stepping up to the plate in terms of action, one prominent institution continues to be relatively silent: the Catholic Church.

Regarding Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs, aside from a single line in his 2020 book Let Us Dream describing the Uyghurs as a “persecuted people,” Pope Francis has made no public remarks on the plight of the oppressed minority group or any criticism of the Chinese regime — an absence made especially conspicuous given the Holy Father’s typical willingness to comment directly on any number of geopolitical circumstances. The Vatican also has not had much to say regarding the dubious imprisonment of Hong Kong democracy activists, many of whom are prominent Catholics.

In fact, Vatican officials in recent years have offered praise, or at least explained away criticism, of Xi’s regime. In 2018, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, said, “at this moment, those who best realize the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese” because they “seek the common good, subordinate things to the general good.” And in 2020, the Holy See’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, received criticism after he described a new policy banning religious involvement or instruction for anyone under 18 years of age as a “regulation” that applies equally to all religions.

When multinational corporations have refrained similarly from criticizing Beijing’s human-rights abuses or have even undermined efforts to confront the ruling regime, motives of profit generally provide a good explanation. 

For instance, when corporations like Nike and Google lobbied against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act that came before the U.S. Congress in 2020, the explanation seemed simple: protecting their ability to produce products cheaply, given that the supply chains of those companies and at least 82 well-known global brands include Chinese factories that use Uyghur forced labor.  

And when the NBA publicly rebuked a team’s executive for a tweet he made in support of activists in Hong Kong resisting the Chinese Communist Party’s dismantling of democratic norms, the obvious explanation was concern over impairing access to China and its 1 billion potential customers, a concern which was, in fact, well-founded, as China banned NBA broadcasts for an entire year, resulting in a “substantial” loss of revenue estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The dependency that multinational corporations, including even some of the biggest U.S. producers of Bibles, can have on China as a vital part of their supply chain makes them, in the words of human-rights lawyer Nina Shea, “soft power assets” for Beijing. 


Delicate Diplomatic Situation

Regarding the Vatican’s public radio silence on China’s human-rights abuses, money is perhaps a less likely factor, though one exiled Chinese billionaire has claimed that an annual bribe of $2 billion from the Chinese regime buys the Vatican’s silence on Xi’s crackdown on religion and democracy. Most experts instead point to a delicate and developing diplomatic situation between the Holy See and Beijing as the source of Rome’s caution. 

In 2018, the two parties came to an agreement regarding the appointment of bishops in an effort to end a confusing situation in which two parallel episcopacies — one officially approved by the Chinese state, the other loyal to the Pope — existed. In the new arrangement, which was reupped in 2020, both Beijing and the Vatican have input regarding the selection of bishops, though the Holy Father has said he has the final word.

The Vatican has framed the arrangement as something purely ecclesiastic in nature, necessary to prevent an even deeper schism between the two Catholic groups in China, while also creating opportunities for discussion on other problems, such as human-rights abuses.

Advocates like Rogers understand the need for the Vatican to be diplomatic and nuanced in its dealings with the Chinese regime, but at the same time, he says the deafening silence of the Holy Father regarding the plight of persecuted peoples in China, including Catholics, can lead many to feel like they’ve been abandoned by the Church. He suggests that even if the Pope doesn’t issue a political statement regarding China’s human-rights abuses, publicly praying for Uyghurs, Christians, democracy activists and others being suppressed by the Chinese state could go a long way.

“That would be something that most reasonable people would expect the Pope to do. But he hasn’t yet done that.”


Will It Yield Results?

Furthermore, even if the Vatican has made the prudential decision to refrain from public criticism of Beijing for the sake of shoring up episcopal integrity and improving the long-term well-being of the Church in China, many observers are doubtful the gambit will pay off. The last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, said that Pope Francis has been “exceptionally badly advised” regarding the deal. And Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the retired bishop of Hong Kong, has warned that in negotiating with the atheistic communist regime, the Church is losing its “dignity and credibility.”

“The resounding silence will damage the work of evangelization,” the cardinal said in September 2020, also noting that reprisals against Chinese Catholics have actually accelerated since the 2018 arrangement was agreed upon. 

Many also express doubt that the Chinese government will even keep its end of the bargain. Rogers wrote recently that China is already breaking aspects of the deal, such as placing priests under house arrest and forbidding some from engaging in religious activity in the capacity of the Church. And Nina Shea has pointed out that recent Chinese government provisions for selecting Catholic bishops mentions no papal role in the process, “as if the deal never happened.”

“Compromise for short-term gain may be defensible; total sell-out for no gain at all and an undermining of the Church’s moral authority is not,” Rogers wrote.

Other observers, such University of Dallas’ Gladden Pappin and Harvard Law School’s Adrian Vermeule, caution their fellow Catholics from making premature judgements of the Sino-Vatican agreement’s fruitfulness, or to overstate its aims. They’ve also pointed out some fruitful developments since the agreement was signed, such as the election of two new bishops and the recognition of five Vatican-appointed bishops had not been previously installed.

“The long-term possibilities for the Church in China are currently wide open,” the two scholars wrote. “But in the Vatican’s view, the crucial first step is to bring the household of the Church itself into theological order, to prepare for whatever may come. Catholics and others should try to see the deep, and ancient, theological and political logic in that approach.”


What Lay Catholics Can Do

Whatever the Church hierarchy’s approach, human-rights activists stress that the lay faithful can — and ought to — be doing what they can to support persecuted peoples in China. Putting consumer power into use is one approach. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has put together a fairly comprehensive list of global brands that likely rely upon Uyghur forced labor at Chinese factories for components in their products, and there are also several petitions  or sample letters and social-media messaging asking companies to stop profiting from these human-rights abuses.

Another “pressure point” may be the upcoming Winter Olympics, which are set to take place in Beijing in February 2022. Calls are mounting to boycott the games, or to at least change the location, as withholding such an internationally prestigious recognition from China could send a clear message that its policies of gravely violating human rights are unacceptable.

And, of course, Shea reminds Catholics that they should be combining political action with the action of intercessory prayer.

“We need to be in solidarity with the suffering Body of Christ. And we should be praying for the Chinese Church in our churches.”

Chinese flags on barbed wired wall in Kashgar (Kashi), Xinjiang, China.

China Defiant in Face of Uyghurs UN Report

The report includes testimony from 40 people who say they were subjected to arbitrary detention as well as various forms of torture and humiliation, including sexual mistreatment.