Known to God, but not Beijing

china communionThe alumni of schools founded by the Society of Jesus are not underrepresented in Australia’s new parliament, they include: Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Treasurer Joe Hockey, Agricultural Minister Barnaby Joyce and the Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten.

In China, by contrast, many of the current party leadership spent time at the Beijing Communist Party School. The school was built during the Cultural Revolution over an old cemetery where many followers of St Ignatius Loyola are buried. When many of China’s future technocrats receive their daily instructions, they do so, quite literally, over the bodies of dead Jesuits.

There are officially no real Catholic or religious schools in mainland China. War memorials in Beijing contain no religious inscriptions, there is nothing like the famous “Known Unto God” which you find on the grave sites in Hong Kong honoring the contributions of Chinese soldiers in World War I and II. In Tian’anmen Square — routinely referred to in international news bulletins as the ‘spiritual heart’ of modern China — no Mass can be held, no Christmas crèche can be built, and no public prayer group can legally assemble.

The current leaders in Beijing know their history. In 1979 Pope John Paul II addressed another similar square, Victory Square (now Pilsudski Square) in Warsaw, and the crowd famously chanted, “We want God! We want God!” Most trace the end of Communist Party rule in Eastern Europe to this event.  The Standing Committee of the ruling party in China are adamant that no similar scene will ever be allowed to occur in front of the old picture of Chairman Mao.

Chinese leaders in the past had no problem tolerating different religions, and many even embraced Christianity. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China,  as well as leader of Nationalist China and Taiwan Chiang Kai-shek, were both nominally Christian. Yet no Chinese leader in Beijing has been permitted to be since 1949.

There are 18 million Christians in mainland China belonging to the state-sanctioned churches – which one might provocatively, but not unfairly, call China’s Riechskirche. These are the ones that foreign leaders and tourists sometimes attend when they visit China. There are, however, many more Christians (the most credible estimates put the number at least another 50 million and maybe as high as 200 million) whose faith requires that they bear witness outside the state-approved places of worship — the so-called ‘house Christians’. One suspects a Chinese Dietrich Bonoeffer would be amongst this latter group.

From time to time you will hear Western political and religious leaders talk with a heart-warming sense of hopefulness about Christianity in China. Occasionally, you will meet a government official (like an ALP cabinet minister telling you sotto voce they think the carbon tax is nonsense) who will tell you how important religion is to them and the country.

A quote Australia’s Cardinal George Pell and many others liked to cite a few years back was one by an (unnamed) Chinese academic:

In the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. … The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this“.

It sounds so uplifting, so promising. Yet nothing substantive ever changes. If anything, President Xi Jinping has actually increased his persecution of the underground church in China since assuming power.

This week important announcements will take place in Beijing – from a meeting officially called the Third Plenum of the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress.  International bankers and lawyers are already preaching how momentous it will be. How this new gospel will herald a new and glorious age — the beginning of the internationalization of China’s currency, the renminbi.

No doubt some of the changes will be significant – but it is equally important to understand what will not change and why. “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” said St Paul. China remains a long way from allowing mankind’s most important freedom.

Dan Ryan is a lawyer who has worked in China and Hong Kong for more than ten years

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