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.