By Father Michael Kelly, SJ*
Recent months have seen no end of news reports and commentaries by “experts” on the rumored forthcoming “deal” between the Vatican and Beijing on the regulation of the Catholic Church in China.
Never mind that no one even knows the facts of the “deal.” There are no documents available and no participant in the discussions is briefing anyone.
And never mind that some of the most read commentaries reflect little grasp of the particular moment China is at right now — quite different from any in all its history, including the last unhappy 180 years.
No event in a news report has any meaning without a description of the context in which it occurs. And a comment on something in religion is unintelligible if it lacks context; namely, its impact well beyond the confines of religious communities.
And never mind that there has been a lamentable lack of historical perspective to inform observations, predictions and conclusions.
Enthusiasts for a “deal” are projecting their hopes for a harmonious resumption of the sort of peaceful coexistence between the church and the state that, in Chinese history, really only ever existed in the period following the Opium Wars and the Unequal Treaties (from 1840s to the triumph of Mao Zedong and the People’s Liberation Army in 1949).
Pessimists who either don’t expect or don’t want any harmonious resumption of relations are also into projection, this time of their fears and griefs from having been brutalized by communists in the past with views fed by the now dated paradigm of the Cold War that ended in Europe in 1989.
Commentators have taken the liberty either to trot out their time-honored presuppositions about communists and apply them to present events in China or give full liberty to their unbridled optimism which is equally devoid of a factual basis from which to argue.
Let me declare where I’m coming from: I believe that, despite the best efforts of many, the odds of any agreement between Beijing and the Vatican are looking less and less likely. That is not for want of trying. Nor is it because Catholics in China have become less interested in reconciliation among themselves.
The reason I think it looks less likely is because the Chinese Government will back off.
Why? Because China is reverting to type — Imperial type for the conduct of its political and social life.
Pierre Ryckmans (d. 2014) is one of the most celebrated and controversial commentators on Maoist China. A world renown scholar of Chinese art and literature, Ryckmans was also the first to puncture the balloon of the enthusiasms of many, especially the Left in the 1960s and ’70s, for Mao’s China by exposing the horrors of the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 76).
Condemned by China and its repeater stations around the world as just one more anti-communist, Ryckmans was vindicated in his evidence and exceeded in his judgements by Chinese citizens who experienced that lamentable period in China first hand.
His advice for observers and commentators on China was neatly summarized in 2016 by his biographer Philippe Paquet: “Knowing about the past is the best way to grasp the present (in China), especially in the case of a nation whose history stretches unbroken over several millennia.”
But let’s first look at what is happening politically in China right now. One of the signal weaknesses of too many assessments of the condition of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular in China is that their fates are viewed in isolation from what’s happening to everyone else in China, especially other religious believers — Daoists, Muslims and Buddhists especially.
The reality is that China has a command-and-control, micromanaging totalitarian government and every indication is that the Chinese Communist Party is going through one of its regular swings to extremism.
But it was ever thus! Today and since 1949, it’s been dressed up in the pseudo-modern vocabulary of Marxism Leninism, learnt from the Soviets in Russia. In the 18th century, the Qing dynasty had exactly the same mechanisms at work to control and micromanage workplaces, villages, towns and even families that Mao adopted (and at the same time used by his Nationalist enemy, Chiang Kai-shek), both learnt from V.I. Lenin.
Prior to the period 1842 – 1949, the way Christians and Catholics got access to China always had to be through the medium of friendship with Chinese leaders, where the outsiders brought something to the Chinese that they didn’t already have. It was on the basis of mutual respect and exchange — of equal relationships. It is the most successful strategy for engagement with China ever developed.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the presence of missionaries was carefully supervised, and usually made possible by the access that the Jesuit astronomers, philosophers and artists had at the Imperial Court to gain them access to some parts of the Middle Kingdom.
Xi Jinping’s elevation to emperor status was authorized at the 19th Party Congress last October. It’s all about making him the undisputed ‘el supremo’ and locking everyone into following the party line. The emperor is back on the throne and any take on China today needs to look back almost 140 years to see what lies ahead.
Too many — in the church and the media — look to the period after the Opium Wars and the Unequal Treaties as the “normal” that China today should approximate to. That’s when European powers exercised “gun boat diplomacy” and foreigners had uninterrupted access to China and its markets.
And Christian missionaries trailed on the coat tails of the Western powers, setting up mission stations, schools and universities, hospitals and welfare services. Because they were doing such good, why could the Chinese object, the missionaries asked.
But did they listen well enough to what the Chinese said and felt about these developments? No.
The underlying resentment of the what the Chinese call the century of humiliation climaxed with Mao’s announcement when he claimed victory in 1949 and declared: “China has stood up!” meaning stood up to the invaders. He then proceeded to expel them along with their missionaries.
The period of 1842-1949 is a-typical of Chinese history and resentment of that period remains in China to this day. It is fanciful to ignore it.
Which brings us to the Vatican-Beijing discussions. From the Vatican’s point of view, these discussions are about regularizing the church life of Catholics in China. The “deal” will be over the constantly discussed matter of episcopal appointments.
But there are other outstanding issues to be resolved: The different diocesan boundaries acknowledged by China and the Vatican; the ambiguous status of the Chinese bishops’ conference and another body set up by the government that seems to have authority over the bishops and other administrative issues.
Any “Let a hundred flowers bloom” period in China is over. When the Great Helmsman of the People, Mao Zedong, authorized that period and called for everyone and anyone to have a say about China’s future, he quickly followed it with the vicious Anti-Rightist Campaign to punish his enemies.
The closest thing to the lamentable Mao since his death in 1976 is Xi Jinping. The pattern is unfolding again. All that can be hoped is that Xi’s impact will not be as disastrous for China as Mao’s came to be.
The way forward in China for all Christians in this period will not be through deals and negotiated settlements. It is back to Imperial China.
For the church, the 16th and 17th centuries suggest a way forward: friendships, equal relationships and mutually beneficial engagements.
*Father Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of ucanews.com and based in Thailand.
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