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China keeps religious activities under its thumb

But is its system of total control beginning to creak?

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  • Lei Wai Ho, Hong Kong
  • China
  • April 21, 2014
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Persecution comes in all shapes and sizes in China and has for a long time. It has ranged from full scale, murderous pogroms against Christians and other religious groups to the slow water torture perfected by the Chinese as a method of extracting information and forcing compliance. It still has its variants, even if today’s practitioners don’t use water.

No publically identified Christian or member of any religious association is allowed any space to act independently. Every word and action is closely watched. As Bishop Louis Jin, who died almost exactly a year ago on April 27, was fond of saying: “Nothing can happen in China without two groups knowing – the Holy Trinity and the Communist Party.” For this reason he favored complete openness. Any attempt at secrecy would always be undone.

Today, China’s administrative bureaucracy overseeing the “orderly conduct of life" is double the size it was 20 years ago. Following the predictable but profoundly disturbing (to the Communist Party) calls for democracy in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the number of people supervising the Chinese public has risen from 20 million to 40 million.

And only last week, on April 16, President Xi Jinping chaired the first meeting of a new committee with plenipotentiary powers to maintain internal and external security, reporting not through government channels but directly to the Politburo. This committee allows the president to exercise unprecedented, direct power over all aspects of the internal life and external relations of China. He has as much influence through this and other means as the creator of contemporary China, Deng Xiaoping. And he now appears to have the levers of power over people matched only by the founder of modern China, Mao Zedong.

These constraints feed into an already well controlled environment. Even in a would-be cosmopolitan metropolis like Shanghai, Party controls range from the house arrest of the local bishop to ordinary local Catholics being prevented from attending international Catholic meetings because they have a “form” at the local Religious Affairs Bureau. Every move is noted and reported.

These efforts are a bit like the boy with his finger in the dyke trying to prevent the deluge: how long can the apparatus of surveillance, constraint and control be maintained?

Signs that the creaking system is straining to hold together abound. For instance, as ucanews.com reported, thousands of Christians in Eastern China are rallying to protect their churches from invasion and destruction by government officials concerned that Christianity is growing too fast and in an “unsustainable” way in China. In one case, communities camped out overnight to protect their church, fearing that if they did not keep watch, the bulldozers would move in under cover of darkness.

Protestant communities in Beijing especially – both authorized and “underground” – are constant targets of scrutiny. Last week, the Chinese government banned any news on the third anniversary of the Shouwang Church, an influential underground church in Beijing that had been forced onto the streets. 

This restiveness among Christians reflects something broader in China. Throughout the country, popular dissatisfaction with how China is being run has escalated rapidly, to the point where even official figures reported by public security officials registered over 128,000 instances of mass unrest in 2012, up from a few thousand in the mid 1990s. An event of unrest qualifies for reporting when those involved exceed 30 people.

To address the recurrent complaints of its citizens, Beijing has instituted a form of petitioning where aggrieved citizens can make formal complaints.

Yet that approach recently became problematic in Henan province, when local officials blocked the way to petitioners who sought entry to the hotel where those receiving the petitions were installed.

In reality, what has always applied in China still does – Beijing is a long way away from everywhere and what is promulgated in the capital may have no purchase when it comes down to a local official’s opportunity to ignore or countermand it.

The history of persecution of Christians has seen the disappearance of believers on two occasions – the violent suppression of the Nestorian Christians and the flight of any survivors in the 10th and 11th centuries AD, and the suppression and flight at the close of the 18th century, only to return with the European traders in the 1840s. This record once prompted Bishop Jin of Shanghai to explain his strategy of acceptance that the Communists ran the government of China, leading to others attacking him for cooperation with the Party.

The late bishop said he adopted his approach after 27 years of various forms of imprisonment (1955-1982) because “Christianity has had three starts in China. I don’t want it to have to have a fourth.”

But shortly before his death, Bishop Jin witnessed his chosen successor making a move that set back the new bishop’s and everyone else’s plan: Bishop Ma announced after his episcopal ordination that he would be resigning from his post in the government sponsored China Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) to concentrate on his job as bishop.

Not if the Religious Affairs Bureau had anything to say about it. The new bishop was stripped of his authorization by the government and has been effectively under house arrest ever since, accessible to only a few people and lodged in the Shanghai seminary building that was closed as punishment at the same time, with the seminarians sent to their home dioceses or other seminaries.

An already divided diocese – between those who share in the life of the officially recognized and publically operating diocese of Shanghai and those who believe the only good Catholic is the one who makes no concessions to the government – Shanghai Catholics had now to deal with a new conundrum: a Vatican and government approved bishop not allowed to operate by the government.

Shanghai has only one resident bishop, with a Vatican appointed “underground” bishop having died recently. Over recent months, relations between the Vatican and Beijing seem to have softened, leading some to speculate that the government, as a gesture of goodwill, may rehabilitate Bishop Ma.

Ma is now actually an admired figure among most Catholics from both communities in Shanghai because of his decision to split from the CPCA, and the subsequent treatment he has endured in confinement.

The supreme irony is that the government’s heavy handed treatment of Bishop Ma may be the catalyst that helps create the long-sought figure for unifying Catholics in Shanghai.

Lei Wai Ho is a commentator on Chinese affairs who writes from Hong Kong. 

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