Workers wearing protective equipment carry on work next to Huanan seafood market in Wuhan in China's Hubei province on March 30 after travel restrictions into the city were eased following its Covid-19 lockdown. (Photo: AFP)
On April 1, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, archbishop of Yangon and president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), released a public statement blaming the “despotic” Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for the worldwide Covid-19 crisis. According to him, the CCP is solely responsible for the current pandemic and all the suffering it generates. Thus, there is not a strong enough word to explain how the CCP is “a threat to the world.”
A few days later, I received messages from Chinese Catholics shocked by the statement. Although they were not claiming that their government was perfect, they felt humiliated as citizens and as Catholics. Sharing their feelings, I have invited them to directly respond to the various media outlets which publicized Cardinal Bo’s statement. I hope that the words of laypeople will be as welcome as the bellicose declaration of the cardinal.
As a French theologian and an anthropologist studying the Church in China, I feel obliged to speak up as well. Indeed, Cardinal Bo’s statement is not only inaccurate but is also dangerously political and surprisingly divisive. Here, I explain why I believe this statement was a mistake and does not reflect what Catholics could expect from an archbishop with such responsibilities and titles.
First, the statement was inaccurate. Cardinal Bo claims that the CCP lied so much that the rest of the world was kept in ignorance and led to a catastrophe. But in fact, reliable information was available early in February, and yet the West dismissed it. For instance, Science Magazine, a top-level academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has regularly published articles about Covid-19 and provided a significant amount of data and warnings. By the end of January, contributors were already clear: every country must prepare for a pandemic. Multiple scenarios were still possible but by Feb. 25 contributors were certain: the world was already in the middle of a pandemic.
This does not prove that the CCP has not lied. I do not have the means to verify such a claim. But this shows that while consistent information about the virus was piling up, Western governments refused to take them seriously. As a French citizen, I witnessed our government's spokesperson repeatedly explaining that “this virus is just like the flu,” “facial masks do not help” and “this virus affects only old people.” On March 6, French President Emmanuel Macron even insisted on going to the theater to demonstrate that normal life should go on. Then, for several weeks, the French government refused to count people dying inside homes for the elderly, limiting the official death toll to those who departed at hospital.
Thus, I agree with Cardinal Bo that “lies and propaganda have put millions of lives around the world in danger.” But we need to enlarge the scope of our inquiry. While South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Vietnam were extremely careful about the virus and able to handle it, it is in southern Europe that it has run wild. Many sociocultural and economic reasons may explain why the crisis directly jumped from China to Europe without disrupting Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam first. But we cannot turn a blind eye to the lies and denial of Western politicians. As far as I know, it is not the CCP who forced the West to go for an untenable herd immunity policy despite all the information we had.
This brings me to my second point. Cardinal Bo’s unilateral statement was dangerously political. By putting all the blame without nuance nor evidence on the CCP, he indirectly takes side in the US-China conflict. His letter is filled with binary antagonism dividing the world into two camps. Unsurprisingly but sadly, many understood this controversial statement as an indication of the support of the Catholic Church for those calling for a crusade against China. But how can an eminent figure of the Church, an institution committed to meet and talk to everyone, embrace such a divisive position?
This brings me to my third point. Cardinal Bo calls for unity against the CCP by advocating a problematic distinction between the Chinese nation and its current regime. According to the president of the FABC, we could inconsequently oppose China, “a great and ancient civilization that has contributed so much to the world throughout history,” and its “criminal” regime. While I agree that every nation cannot be reduced to the policy of its current government, I would not support the archbishop of Yangon in his efforts to oppose the two.
Insulting the Chinese regime is also spitting in the face of the nation which supports it. His divisive narrative dangerously echoes political enterprises of the 19th and 20th centuries which claimed moral superiority and humanitarian motivations to overthrow foreign regimes and rule their populations. Have we already forgotten what happened in Iraq, Libya and Latin America?
A final point must be made. By the end of his letter, Cardinal Bo calls for compensation. “As a minimum, it [the CCP] should write off the debts of other countries to cover the cost of Covid-19.” Indeed, over the past few weeks, various religious and political leaders have spoken about this problem of debt payments for the poorest countries. And as Pope Francis and the G20 have recently illustrated, this complex issue requires multilateral agreement and diplomacy, not some kind of gunboat diplomacy targeting only one creditor. This does not honor the Church.
In conclusion, I can only reiterate the shared disappointment that some Chinese Catholics and I felt with such a statement. As recent sex scandals have reminded us, high-level church officials must be exemplary and accountable. It is not enough to talk about love, vulnerability and truth while releasing a statement filled with inaccuracy, partisanship and offensiveness.
Michel Chambon is a French theologian and cultural anthropologist who studies Christianity in the Chinese world. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.