THE WHOLE WORLD wants to get into China, some to make money and others to bring Christ to the people. But in the process many are willing to overlook the problems of corruption, lack of human rights and are unwilling to "rock the Chinese Boat".
In 1996, apart from countless lay Catholics and priests, three bishops were arrested and five bishops were put under strict surveillance in China. Should the Church take a stand and confront China? Or, should it protect interests, as the Church in Hong Kong is keen to do, and continue to work behind the scenes? The choice is not an easy one.
1996 was a bad year for religious groups in China; control was tightened up over all religious activities. Legislation, originally introduced in 1944 to force religious groups to register with local authorities, was stepped up.
New regulations, published at the end of 1996, further increased the power of local authorities to close down religious centres, including governmentapproved churches, if they fail to pass inspections.
The winter 1996 issue of China Religion, a quarterly published by the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB), carries the text of the new regulations open mandatory annual inspection of religious premises. In one section, religious groups are warned that they could fail the inspection if they break the law by conducting any foreignrelated religious activity which is illegal. The vague terminology is open to abuse.
In November 1996, 80 Catholics were arrested in Jiangxi province, marking the beginning of a seven-month campaign to curb "illegal" church activities. RAB officials in Linchuan county told the Union of Asian Catholic News Service (UCAN) that underground Catholics are being detained and sent to "learning classes" and information on the religious activities and on visitors to villages in the county was being collected as part of the campaign.
Labelled "enemy forces", 300 house churches in Shanghai were closed last year. South Korean missionaries were arrested in Northern China and Seoul was warned to stop sending missionaries who "threaten China's religious policy". The RAB said it believed "the Korean government intentionally backs a religious war" against China. Even the Patriotic Churches, legally allowed to practise their faith in public, are extremely careful about how they behave.
Foreign church workers in China are restricted to secular work and are closely watched in case they attempt to "brainwash" those they work with. Despite China's insistence on keeping control over its internal religious affairs does not seem to have a problem sending its sons overseas to study. At present about 50 government-established Patriotic Church seminarians attend seminaries in various countries around the world. Despite the Hong Kong Church's close ties with the Vatican, Beijing has allowed greater co-operation between its Patriotic Church and Catholics in the British territory. Liturgical and other religious books are translated into Chinese for the Patriotic Church and Patriotic Church nuns and priests occasionally attend seminars organised by the Hong Kong Catholic Institute of Religion and Society (CIRS) and other church groups. Some visiting Patriotic Church priests meet Cardinal John Baptist Wu during their visits to the territory and their visits are openly discussed.
yNT A VEIL of secrecy covers the visits of Chinese underground Catholic clergy to the territory for fear of reprisals from Beijing. Their visits are not openly discussed, although behind the scenes, Hong Kong is a key bridge between the Vatican and the underground Church. Underground priests and bishops are "smuggled" in and out of the territory for "chats" and to raise money for their struggling dioceses.
Hong Kong's open cooperation with the Patriotic church is surprising, espe cially when one considers ties with the Vatican were severed in 1957. It is true that the Vatican's relations with the government-established Church are far from black and white, with many Patriotic Catholics praying for the pope at Mass and co-operating with their fellow Catholics in the underground church at least on a grassroots level. The Patriotic church is, in many respects, more in touch with Vatican II and the modern church than their underground counterparts largely due to the fact that they can worship and study the faith openly, establishing seminaries and catechism classes. Some individual Patriotic priests and bishops have been secretly regularised and work with the underground Church in some cases belonging to both groups.
But the Hong Kong Church's open co-operation with the Patriotic church, while obviously necessary to protect its interests after 1 July, 1997, is controversial especially when one considers the amount of suffering underground Catholics have been through and still go through as a result of keeping loyal to Rome. Officially the Patriotic church is still at odds with the underground church and leaders of both churches spurn high-level cooperation and moves for unity. Officially the Patriotic church does little to urge Beijing to ease its persecution of their brothers and sisters in faith.
I have heard many say in Hong Kong. "This is Asia. Things are done differently here. Don't judge everything by Western standards and who says Western standards are the right ones?" While I respect the differences between East and West, North and South and believe our differences make life richer, often the differences are conveniently used to excuse injustice and corrupt practices. Some things are either right or wrong and the Church, most of all, should know where it stands on such issues, as it does in cases of abortion or the abuse of human rights.
CHINA'S RECORD of relations with reli
gious groups speaks for itself. In January 1996 religious authorides at a conference in Beijing warned of new "errors" that have crept into the practice of religion in China citing possible links between Christians and democracy activists are one area of "grave concern". It says a lot about the values of a government when those groups least likely to resort to violence to achieve their aims are targeted as enemies of the state, imprisoned and harassed. Why are those groups stressing family life, communityliving and moral values the ones seen to most threaten China's Communist state? It makes no sense. It may be that the state is genuinely concerned that its citizens could be misled by "foreign forces" and infused with "alien ideas", democracy being one such alien idea in the opinion of Beijing officials. Foreign religious groups, they argue, are determined to persuade the population to be less Communist and disloyal to the state., Every now and then state campaigns are launched to "keep China Chinese", yet the Chinese people and state officials seem quite happy to benefit from foreign capital, foreign fashions and the services foreign religious groups provide. Funds and relief aid from Caritas are always readily accepted.
A clear stance on China's religious policies, would reduce confusion among Christians inside and outside China. Instead the Catholic Church, most apparent among Hong Kong Catholics, has a vague, contradictory approach to China; a "keep everyone happy" policy. No one wants to take a stand and say: "This is right and this is wrong" or "As Catholics, we feel we must stand up on the side of justice on such and such an issue." Trying to get someone in the China Church, including in Hong Kong, to say they believe Beijing's abortion policy is wrong or to demand that China release Christians detained for "illegal" religious activities, such as celebrating Mass outside of a registered church building, is like trying to raise the dead! Many in Hong Kong prefer to work behind closed doors, quietly hoping no one will notice them and desperate to avoid having to take a stand on controversial issues. The thinking of the church in Hong Kong seems to be that of controversial issues can be avoided all the better because no one can be targeted and Beijing will not be given any excuse to crackdown on the freedom the church presently enjoys. SinoVatican talks take place in secret and few, if any, announcements are ever made about what was discussed even though they concern issues touching the life of the body of the church. Such was the case with the January 1996 meeting between Cardinal Claudio Celli and China officials in Beijing.
The implications for the Church in Hong Kong as it returns to mainland rule are severe. Will Hong Kong Catholics keep silent if their religious rights are gradually eroded or if social and political injustices touch a moral nerve? Will they keep silent if the spreading germ of corruption begins to eat way at Church interests, such as church-run schools and social services? Only time will tell.
It is high time China was challenged to reform its policy on religion and who else should call for change but Chinese Christians themselves. I hope as the Church in China enters the Year of the Ox its labours in the field of the Lord will yield a rich harvest.