On 24 May we prayed for the Church in China

Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Fr Bernardo Cervellera

In his Letter to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated Persons and Lay Faithful of Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China (27 May 2007) the Holy Father Benedict XVI writes, ‘the date 24 May could in the future become an occasion for the Catholics of the whole world to be united in prayer with the Church which is in China. This day is dedicated to the liturgical memorial of Our Lady, Help of Christians, who is venerated with great devotion at the Marian Shrine of Sheshan in Shanghai.’ The Day of Prayer for the Church in China, celebrated for the second time this year, is an occasion to deepen our knowledge about the Church in China and the situation of this big and most populous country in the world. Fr Bernardo Cervellera from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, Director of the AsiaNews agency, former missionary in China, an outstanding expert in the Church in the Middle Country, gave a lot of interesting news on this topic when I interviewed him on 24 May 2009.

Wlodzimierz Redzioch: – Our last meeting was before the Olympic Games in Beijing. Then people were discussing whether the Olympic Games should be boycotted or not. Many people were convinced that participation in this ‘Chinese’ Olympic Games would be in some sense a sign of support for the communist regime and acknowledging the role of this non-democratic country as a superpower. Then you were against the boycott, thinking that the big sports event could contribute to China’s openness to the world and its democratisation. What can we say about the influence of the Olympic Games on the situation in Chine from the perspective of one year?

Fr Bernardo Cervellera: – We all hoped that the Beijing Olympic Games would become an occasion to build bridges of friendship with the Chinese nation. However, it turned out that it was a period of intensified control of the society by the regime. In Beijing the inhabitants were advised to stay in their homes and did not contact any foreigners. The government promised not to make obstacles for the journalists and actually the journalists’ activities were limited. People could enjoy real freedom only in the Olympic Village. In a word, the world was shown a façade of freedom and beauty and at the same time the society was strictly controlled. I will give you one example of that. The authorities prepared three parks in which the Chinese could manifest but nobody was given permission to organise a manifestation although there were 86 applications. I think that the authorities did not manage to use the Olympic Games as a tool of propaganda because various deceptions of the organisers were revealed. It is worth recollecting some facts: the girl who performed during the opening ceremony did playback singing; the Chinese dressed in regional costumes pretended to represent the different national minorities. The Olympic Games were also a financial fiasco; the authorities expected over 2.5 million guests but there were about half a million. Fewer tourists visit Chine because people do not want to see a country that has a bad reputation: the country persecutes the people of Tibet and other minorities, it executes death sentences and its natural environment is very polluted.

– Can we say that the Games in Beijing were also a failure for the International Olympic Committee (lOC)?

– The Olympic Games in Beijing compromised the IOC. The Committee chose China as the organisers of the Olympic Games claiming that it would contribute to the preservation of human rights. However, in the end the Executive Board stated that the IOC was not a non-governmental organisation that was to deal with human rights; it should be only interested in sport. In a word, the International Olympic Committee was closed to the problem of human rights. Instead it earned a lot of money, much more than on the previous Olympic Games.

– The economic crisis that has shaken the world has afflicted China as well. In this country the dictatorship of the communist party is based on an unwritten agreement with the society: the party ensures economic welfare and society does not demand political freedom. Will the present crisis with its dramatic consequences not disturb the social stability?

– China’s President continuously speaks about social harmony but in fact the economic crisis shakes the social stability. The richest Chinese are slightly less rich today but the crisis has strongly afflicted the middle class, workers and peasants. Factories are closed because they have no international orders (the decrease in orders is estimated to be 30%). In recent months in Guangdongu, the most industrious province of the country, at least 60,000 small factories have been closed (a small factory in China employs between 500 and 1,000 workers). It means that millions of workers have lost their jobs and the peasants who migrated to cities to get rich cannot find jobs and are sent back to their villages.

– We speak about 20 million unemployed migrants…

– Officially, there are 20 million but unofficially, there are 40-50 million because many workers were employed illegally. This is a big social problem since people protest after having lost their jobs without any compensation. They need social safety that does not exist. The government prepared a legal project – some kind of worker’s status – and wanted to implement it from 1 January 2008. But they failed since the firms claimed to have no funds for that. This doubled the number of employees’ suits against their employers in 2008.

– In communist China citizens do not know what a welfare state is …

– A communist country does not ensure anything to its citizens – neither health care nor retirement allowance. Only some firms, both international and national, give family benefits or some kind of allowance. In a word, the Chinese must think about themselves.

– The economic crisis let us know that a considerable part of the American bonds were in the Chinese hands. What are the political and economic consequences of interdependence of the biggest democratic world power and the most populous country of the world, ruled by the communist regime although we mean the communists ‘converted’ to the wildest capitalism?

– The crisis has connected these two powers. They will either overcome it together or they will fail together. The huge number of the American bonds in the Chinese hands worries the Chinese themselves since the United States constantly print dollars, which can lead to a big inflation and decrease in the value of the dollar. China fears that its financial resources can diminish in this way. But the United States are aware that their fate depends on China to some extent, and that’s why they look for some compromise through dialogue, leaving aside the problem of human rights. In the meantime China tries to strengthen its currency by buying tons of gold.

– Can one ignore the problem of human rights in China in the name of common struggle against the economic crisis?

– Unfortunately, this is the reality. When Hillary Clinton as the American Secretary of State visited Beijing for the first time she clearly stated: ‘We can talk to China about everything including human rights on the condition that it will not damage our national economic interests.’ By the way, this is the attitude of all countries in the world. There will be no radical changes in China in spite of the big social tensions unless the whole society revolts. I think so because there is no decisive pressure from outside, and inside, the country is under the strict military control. The meaningful fact is that this year the salaries in the army have had a 50% increase and the budget of the army has had a 17% increase.

– This year we are celebrating the disgraceful anniversaries testifying about the totalitarian and anti-freedom character of the Chinese regime: the 50th anniversary of the uprising in Tibet against the Chinese occupancy and final annexation of Tibet by China; the 20th anniversary of students’ movements aiming at independence and the tragic events on the Tiananmen Square in June 1989; the 10th anniversary of the suppression of Falun Gong movement. The occupation of Tibet is one of the biggest scandals of the contemporary world. The Chinese propaganda shows Tibet as one of the provinces of China from time immemorial and its occupation as liberating the Tibetan people from the feudal and theocratic governments of the religious Buddhists and the beginning of economic growth, which is symbolised by the railway between the Chinese city of Xining and Lhasa. But actually these 50 years of occupation is a period of destruction of the Tibetan identity and culture, the colonisation of Tibet by the Chinese (by the Han race) and discrediting the Dalai Lama, the religious leader of Tibet, in the world and among the Tibetans themselves. What can we do for the cause of Tibet?

– The problem is that the fate of Tibet is completely in the hands of the Chinese regime. The Dalai Lama has stopped demanding independence for Tibet (he assumed that it was not possible); he gave up his political power, preserving his religious authority, and declares that he is ready to talk to the Chinese authorities. But China keeps rejecting these gestures of the Tibetan leader. Besides, the attitude of consent of the international community to this situation is dishonourable, out of fear of China the heads of many states do not invite the Dalai Lama and do not talk to him. And it would be highly advisable to talk about the persecutions of the ethnic minorities that face cultural genocide.

– Now I would like to talk about the Catholic Church. What are the statistics concerning the Church?

– In China there are ca. 12-13 million Catholics. 5 million belong to the Official Church, controlled by the Religious Affairs Office. In the Official Church there are 79 bishops, in the Underground Church there are 49. The Church has 2,200 priests, 3,600 nuns. There are many vocations (1,700 seminarians and 2,500 female novices). The Letter of Benedict XVI to the Chinese Catholics mobilises the Catholics of the Official Church, especially the bishops, to be faithful to the Pope in the matters of faith. Whereas the Underground Church tries to reconcile with the official bishops who, although they were appointed by the authorities, often show their faithfulness to the Holy Father. In a word, in the Chinese Church we deal with the process of reconciliation, which is testified by common activities and liturgical celebrations of the Official and Underground Catholics.

– The Chinese regime, like any totalitarian regime, wants to control all aspects of social life, including the sphere of religion. As you have already mentioned in China the Catholic Church is controlled by the Religious Affairs Office and its Patriotic Association, a lay organisation aiming at creating a national Church, independent from the Pope. What methods do these two state organs use to make the Catholic Church totally dependent on the communist regime?

– All aspects of the activities of the Official Church are controlled, even such aspects as appointing professors at major seminaries, selecting teaching subjects, appointing bishops. Vocations are controlled. The secretary of the Patriotic Association (sometimes he is an atheist) must give his consent for anyone who wants to enter a major seminary. The finances of the Church are under control, which is a source of embezzlement. It often happens that the members of the Patriotic Association appropriate ecclesiastical goods. In his letter to the Chinese Catholics Benedict XVI condemns the aims and methods of the activities of the Patriotic Association as inconsistent with the Catholic faith. Since that time the Patriotic Association has organised many meetings and seminars for priests and bishops and they last several days or even several months! They praise the religious policy of the communist party. This is real brainwashing. We should not forget that the official bishops are constantly controlled and the unofficial bishops can be arrested as being illegal at any time. That’s why we have so many bishops missing, in prison, confined to their homes and priests in labour camps.

– One may have the impression that recently the situation of the Church in China has become worse. The regime does its best to quarrel Catholics and separate the Chinese priests from the Pope.

– The situation of the Chinese Catholics has become worse and they are more and more controlled and persecuted.

– Many of my acquaintances do not buy Chinese products. They think that buying Chinese products we strengthen the position of the biggest communist regime in the world. It has introduced capitalism without any principles and respect for workers; it tolerates the dramatic pollution of its natural environment, not wanting to stop industrial growth; it limits the citizens’ freedom, wants to destroy the thousand-year-old Tibetan tradition and aims at dominating the world. Is it wrong to boycott Chinese goods in the name of struggle for democratisation of China?

– Many people ask me this question. I answer, ‘Try to do it’ although I realise that it is not easy because China has become a factory of the world and floods our markets with their products. I personally advise people to use the economic contacts to exert influence on the communist authorities to grant more freedom to the society and the Church, to grant more rights to workers, more freedom of conscience. Some firms, mainly the American ones, sign trade contracts with China, including the ethical statement, e.g. they demand release of some dissident or bishop. I think that this may be a model solution.

"Niedziela" 23/2009

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl