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To be Catholic in China: not quite as it seems

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright drew Beijing ire earlier this month when she criticized Chinese human rights abuses. Her remarks were long overdue. The Clinton administration’s China “engagement” policy has avoided public confrontation -- and has not worked.

For the past six months Beijing has cracked down on political dissent, arresting nonviolent democracy advocates. Washington has been under pressure to say something as the arrests fly in the face of a human rights pledge Beijing made last year when it signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Catholics in China, who practice religion under Beijing’s watchful eye, must be following recent developments carefully, knowing how tenuous their own gains could be. To be Catholic in China is to live under the cloud of suspicion and the tensions that arise from uncertainty. Freedoms won can quickly become freedoms lost.

Chinese officials said Beijing regretted Albright’s negative comments and added that if the United States presses for a resolution critical of China in the U.N. Human Rights Commission this year, it could damage bilateral relations.

China wants it both ways. It wants Western investment and engagement; it desires to be an accepted member of the international community. However, it also wants the West to keep silent concerning serious rights violations. It wants to be free to violate human rights standards as it pleases. What China does not understand -- or refuses to accept -- is the idea that human rights, including political and religious freedom, are issues that transcend national boundaries.

At issue in China are not national rights but universal human rights.

Wang Guangya, China’s assistant foreign minister, was quick to point a finger at the United States, citing aspects of the U.S. judicial system, including issues of race, police violence and prison conditions, as human rights violations. Wang included on the list of criticisms the U.S. death penalty and the disproportionately high number of African Americans in U.S. prisons. Though these are serious issues, they are not of the same degree as are the rights violations occurring in China.

Washington should welcome China’s scrutiny and criticisms. In offering them, China tacitly accepts the notion that human rights are not solely matters of a nation’s “internal affairs.”

Amnesty International, in its most recent report on Chinese rights abuses, cited Beijing for the “arbitrary detention of possibly thousands of protesters and suspected government opponents, the continued imprisonment of thousands of political prisoners, grossly unfair trials, widespread torture and ill-treatment in police cells, prisons and labor camps, and the extensive use of the death penalty.”

Chinese authorities argue that making changes in their approach to human rights is not possible because of the need to “maintain [national] stability.” It is understandable that a nation of China’s size, having witnessed decades of civil war, military occupation and a “cultural revolution,” seeks stability. One must appreciate that people who have experienced famine and starvation have a compulsion to maintain stable food sources. China claims the right to eat is a human right not in the West’s lexicon.

Unlike the West, China has virtually no history of political pluralism. At the same time it has introduced freedoms not imagined by anyone in the West when the Red flag was first unfurled over Tiananmen Square, nearly 50 years ago, on Oct. 2, 1949.

In the final analysis, Beijing’s continued rights violations do not help or advance national stability. Rather they serve one purpose: holding firm the grip of China’s ruling elite.

Meanwhile, Chinese Catholics are forced to decide to either cooperate with government-imposed guidelines or face reprisals. Last year underground priests were arrested and Catholics were harassed in several provinces. Reports surfaced -- denied by Beijing -- that prostitutes were employed to seduce priests.

Catholics can practice the faith only in officially recognized churches. All adult Catholics must register their faith commitment with the government. Catholics cannot run private schools. Catholics cannot proselytize the faith outside church boundaries. Catholics are not allowed formal contacts with the Vatican.

To be a Chinese Catholic is to be acutely aware of these government regulations. Some Catholics go along with the rules, others do not. And so the church remains divided.

Good Chinese Catholics have made good arguments for cooperation and noncooperation. Among these have been bishops, priests, nuns and lay faithful.

The story of Chinese Catholics is one of simple faith, courage and heartbreak. Catholicism in China is just beginning to emerge on its own. Key Chinese Catholics recognize that for Catholicism in China to grow it must move from its understandably defensive posture into active engagement with the wider Chinese society. Key Catholics also appear to know that the best path for this engagement is performing works of charity and justice, working with other Chinese as the nation attempts to respond to pressing social needs.

In the end, Chinese Catholics will find their own way. They will inculturate the faith. They are already doing it. Circumstance, for example, has forced Chinese Catholics to develop unique notions of being local church. Eventually sharing these ideas with the wider church will be an important gift.

Because of conditions in China, virtually all interviews for the articles in this issue were with members of the official church. However, painstaking care was taken to gain accurate secondhand reports from the underground church.

Recognizing the divisions among Chinese Catholics, it would be wise to follow Pope John Paul II’s lead. He has not taken sides and has repeatedly called for reconciliation.

Meanwhile, U.S. Catholics can provide assistance, first by attempting to learn about conditions in China and and then by finding opportunities to respond to Chinese Catholic needs.

For now it is easier to make contacts with official church members and to provide assistance through their channels. Some day hopefully distinctions between official and underground Catholics will no longer be necessary.

China’s seminaries and convents are in need of religious educational materials. Student exchanges need to be encouraged. Study tours are learning opportunities. The U.S. Catholic China Bureau (chinabur@shu.edu) will hold a conference on China next month in Burlingame, Calif. Each step is aimed at breaking down the isolation of Catholics in China.

It is myopic to think that because the Vatican does not publicly recognize the official Chinese Catholic church, U.S. Catholics should have nothing to do with it. Quiet diplomacy is the nature of the day. Nothing in China is quite as it seems.

Europe’s Catholics, meanwhile, including key members of the hierarchy, have responded generously, providing assistance to the official church for printing presses, seminary assistance and prayer houses. U.S. Catholics, with a few exceptions, have largely remained on the sidelines. Such timidity only serves to continue an unhealthy isolation and delays the day when all of China’s Catholics will be able to speak their minds and contribute to the fullest to the local and universal church.

National Catholic Reporter, January 29, 1999