Sunday, 30 August 2009

Tony Blair in Rimini: religion in China

At the beginning of his recent speech to Communion and Liberation's Rimini meeting, Tony Blair described a recent visit he had made to China, one of, he said, many visits to a country that holds endless fascination for him.
But, as ever, what I came away with was more than I expected. I also discussed healthcare reform and how China seeks to develop its own welfare state. They are grappling precisely with the relationship between the person, the state and the community and coming up with some interesting and radical solutions that might surprise us. They are studying what we have done, what we have got right and what we have got wrong. They are acutely aware of the balance between the state and the need for individual responsibility, between universal provision and competition. They will do it, of course, in a Chinese way, but the dilemmas and choices in policy we would recognise instantly.
One aspect of Chinese policy is enforced abortion where a couple already have one child. This is clearly a policy approach which involves a totalitarian praxis with regard to the relation of the individual and the state. It is very different than the impression created by Tony Blair's account. Aid to the Church in Need's publication Persecuted and Forgotten? A Report on Christians oppressed for the Faith 2007/2008 reports the forced abortion of the child of the wife of a Christian pastor in China, and of other unborn children (p.26). "They will do it, of course, in a Chinese way .."?
However, there was something else that excited me. I know relations between China and the Church remain difficult for obvious reasons, though I hope in time these can be resolved. But listening carefully to the speeches on the environment, hearing the way they describe the relationship between the individual and government, society and the state, I was struck at how, increasingly, China is developing a narrative about its future that draw heavily on its culture, on its civilisation now thousands of years old, and on its Faith traditions and philosophy: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism. Several people I met talked openly of their Faith and yes, some were Christians, part of a growing Christian movement.
Tony Blair acknowledges "difficult" relations between the Chinese authorities and the Catholic Church; but again one wonders whether the optimistic impression he conveys really does match what is going on on the ground. The "Q and A" compendium that accompanied Pope Benedict XVI's letter to Chinese Catholics in May 2007 contained the following:

5. What is the Holy Father’s vision for a dialogue between the Holy See and the Chinesegovernment?
..... the solution to existing problems cannot be pursued via an ongoing conflict with the legitimate civil authorities; at the same time, though,compliance with those authorities is not acceptable when they interfere unduly in matters regarding the faith and discipline of the Church. The civil authorities are well aware that the Church in her teaching invites the faithful to be good citizens, respectful and active contributors to the common good in their country, but it is likewise clear that she asks the State to guarantee to those same Catholic citizens the full exercise of their faith, with respect for authentic religious freedom (4.7).

Aid to the Church in Need's report indicates that the authorities in China have abandoned Marxist views that religious practice will die away, and so are increasingly seeking support from faith groups for community projects. Christianity, however, represents a particular concern for the authorities, with the communist party anxious at statistical evidence that it is the fastest growing religion in China. Among a range of specific instances of persecution of Christians in 2007/8, the report details the very extensive steps taken to suppress the Catholic pilgrimage to Sheshan on 24th May 2008. Only 80 out of 1 000 planned pilgrims from Hong Kong, for example, were able to travel to Shanghai, where they were prevented from celebrating Mass in churches and prevented from travelling to Sheshan itself.

All of this raises three questions with regard to Tony Blair's remarks about China:

1. Does Tony Blair's experience represent an accurate account of the real position of religious belief and practice in China? In particular, does it accurately represent the position of Christians in China? Are the authorities saying one thing in public, but continuing to do another on the ground?

2. Does the emergence of religion into the language of Tony Blair's encounters in China represent the guarantee of the "full exercise of their faith and respect for authentic religious freedom" which Pope Benedict XVI requests for Catholics? Or are we seeing instead a kind of co-option of religions into the purposes of a Communist state (rather in a kind of parallel to the co-option of the idea of a market economy into the same purposes - Leninism is thoroughly pragmatic)? Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, is of its nature much less readily co-opted than the other religions to which Tony Blair refers, so is its ommission from his remarks an accident? [As an aside, one gets a feeling reading Tony Blair's remarks of the situation that arose during the detente era in Europe, where advocates of peace and compliant religious believers were feted by Soviet authorities who continued to persecute Christian believers.]

3. Is Tony Blair, even as a representative of his Faith Foundation, an appropriate representative of the dialogue between religions and religious belief and the Chinese authorities? It would be unfortunate, for example, if the Chinese authorities were to see him as a kind of substitute partner in dialogue with Catholics when the real partner with whom they need to enter into dialogue is the Holy See.

More recent reports of anti-religious persecution in China can be found here and here, at the website of Christian Solidarity Worldwide. This link takes you to CSW's report of anti-Christian persecution in the run up to the 2008 Olympic Games. Aid to the Church in Need's reports can be found here and here.


Adam said...

As to your three points, first, it is very difficult to know just what is going on in the PRC, but I think it is fairly safe to say that from the CCP’s point of view the dominant narrative is that religion is not going to go away in the foreseeable future, therefore, a pragmatic approach is adopted: on one hand, the practice of religion, under controlled environments, ameliorates social problems and helps to deliver socially desirable goals. On the other hand, students are subjected to rigorous “scientific” education (Blair is silent about this state sponsored indoctrination – but ironically not a few Chinese intellectuals in the PRC don’t see any conflict between religion and science at all, but quite the contrary, that Christianity is intrinsically linked with the development of Western science). Moreover, there is a great deal of money to be made in “religion”, and corruption is endemic - a fact recognised by the CCP. There is political rivalry and factionalism, and no consistency in the implementation of public policy across the board, not just in this area of religious belief and practice. Recently, when I visited a Han dynasty tomb (of a deified general) in Shaanxi province visitors were positively encouraged to pray and make offerings in at the temple at the foot of the tomb.

Second, I think you are spot on in your comparison with the former Soviet Union. The Chinese government has spent the equivalent of hundreds of millions of pounds on restoring religious sites destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, not least to encourage tourism. To the outsider it demonstrates religious freedom, but it tells the visitor nothing about how religious teaching must conform to government social policy (I feel we are going the same way in the UK). When I was in north western China recently it was quite evident that the regional government seemed to be more inclined to promote Buddhism, not least as it is perceived as more indigenous. At the airport there were huge banners advertising a famous Buddhist shrine (its restoration and extension was said to have cost the equivalent of £20 million) while most people would normally associate the area with the Terracotta Army. Another famous Buddhist temple in the area was reconstructed and no modern high-rise buildings have been built anywhere near it to preserve its appearance. By contrast, the Catholic cathedral, while it has undergone extensive renovation, is closed to the public outside of Mass times (apparently, the caretaker can admit visitors upon request), though to its credit, the church does not charge an admission fee, which is quite hefty, by Chinese standards, at the Buddhist temples. Again, I think much depends on local government priorities, as when I visited a cathedral in southern China for the pontifical Mass on the feast of the Assumption (the deacon of the Mass, who gave the homily, was apparently from the neighbouring diocese of Hong Kong) it was open to the public all day, no entrance fee was charged and visitors were handed a couple of Chinese pamphlets, one entitled “Who is Jesus?”, and the other, “What is the Catholic Church?” (which had a huge picture of St Peter’s as the background). The last time I visited, prior to it being restored at government expense a couple of years ago, the building was locked outside of Mass of times. What is weird about the multi-million pound restoration is that the grotesque new stained glass windows all have English inscriptions (apparently they were made in the Philippines). Another Catholic church about a mile away was locked outside of Mass times and in a state of considerable disrepair.

Adam said...

Third, there was a trenchant critique by Fr Michel Schooyans of Blair’s (Kungian) version of Catholicism at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences some months ago, which I think it was reproduced on Sandro Magister’s website. Some might think that the criticism borders on paranoia, but I for one am so glad that the penny has evidently dropped at the Holy See. I see no evidence that Blair (nor the CCP for that matter) is remotely interested in promoting religious freedom as the Pope Ratzinger understands it. Kung, incidentally, was among the first foreign religious experts invited to China when the discipline of religious studies was introduced in universities in the PRC, post-Mao.

Much is lost in translation. First, Ruism (rujia sixiang) or “Confucianism” as Blair calls it, is not perceived as a “faith” or “religion” in China. It is not listed as such among the five officially recognised religions in the PRC (Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam and Protestantism). Over a century of Western scholarship, i.e. religious studies, has tried to force Chinese reality into a Western conceptual framework. Catholic clergy in Hong Kong certainly don’t regard Ruism as a religion, but often draw on Ruist themes in their preaching (last Sunday the administrator of Hong Kong cathedral began his homily by referring to the Ruist idea of the relational self.) Ever since the 19th century sinologists have struggled to categorise Ruism, not knowing what to make of it, and even Henri Cordier, in his monumental Bibliotheca Sinica (a catalogue of research on things Chinese) didn’t know how to categorise it, and said so. Second, Blair is really pushing it when he talks about the idea of personhood in a contemporary Chinese context. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) literature usually talks about “people” in the generic, abstract sense.

The return to the fount of Confucius is not a recent one as Blair suggests: the CCP habitually appeals to Ruism as the mainstay of Chinese culture and one only has to read CCP literature published over the last decade to see this. Needless to say, this re-appropriation of Ruism is highly very selective and is contested by many Chinese Ruists.

I’m not remotely surprised that Blair finds contemporary China congenial. It is paradoxical that he talks about restraining the power of the state in his Rimini speech. My parents and grandparents (refugees from the PRC) despair of the decline of this country (UK) and how it increasingly resembles the PRC, of how the state increasingly encroaches on what one is allowed to think and say, on how to educate and bring up one’s children etc. Blair’s talk of the “People’s Princess” and “People’s Peers” used to send a shiver down our spines.

Adam said...

One last point, I'm not sure if the PRC is all that interested with dialogue with the Holy See. Blair's version of Catholicism is much more congenial, if Fr Michel Schooyans analysis is correct, which I believe it is, as it does not challenge the State, indeed, religion becomes subservient to the state (which was the case in Imperial China, until the imposition of the so-called "unequal treaties" in the mid 19th century).

In recent months the PRC has become very quiet about pursuing diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Previously it craved the recognition of the HS, though it went out of its way to imply the contrary, and some curial cardinals in their enthusiasm gave he same impression, that it was the Holy See which craved diplomatic relations, when really it was the other way around.

However, extremely cordial relations between the CCP and the Nationalist Party (ROC/Taiwan) coupled with the recent Nationalist victory in the ROC presidential election has quashed all prospects of ROC/Taiwanese independence (at least for the time being), and psychologically, to all intents and purposes, it seems to me that reunification has been achieved (much to my satisfaction I may add). Now, for the PRC, the ROC/Taiwan (and therefore competition for recognition from the Holy See) is no longer a burning issue.

Joe said...

Thank you, Adam, for your comments.

This link will take readers to Sandro Magister's coverage of the Church in China:

Adam said...

Hi Joe, I'm happy to oblige. I had another look at a glossy leaflet promoting religious tourism which I picked up at the Xi'an Tourism Administration, which is a local government agency. It describes how major religions, including Islam, have co-existed for centuries in the area. Yet oddly, it makes no reference whatsoever to Christianity, notwithstanding the fact that the so-called Nestorian Tablet, a major historical artefact relating to the propagation of Christianity in China, can be found at the "Forest of Steles" within the ancient city walls. Bizarre.

By contrast, in another part of the county, the leaflets given out at Guangzhou cathedral, which carried the imprimatur of the (government approved) Ordinary, affirmed that at the centre of the apostolic succession is the papacy, and that "in obedience to Christ's mandate, the Church is a transnational community, led by the Pope, the reigning pontiff, Benedict XVI." My jaw dropped when I read that. OK, it was stating the obvious and that wasn’t a surprise, but it was expressed in such shockingly reverential terms. It's hard to say what it really going on in the PRC.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Church in China, do take a look at the website of the Holy Spirit Study Centre, which is based in HK. They publish some fascinating stuff in the Tripod journal.

Joe said...

One of the themes of Pope Benedict's letter to Chinese Catholics was the promotion of reconciliation between those affiliated to the "patriotic Church" and those affiliated to the "undergound Church". One of Aid to the Church in Need's reports suggests that there are some encouraging signs of such reconciliation in common activity between Catholics. Perhaps the leaflet from Guangzhou cathedral reflects this, too.