In several decades of living in Washington, D.C., I’ve met my share of scamps and scalawags, fabulists and outright liars. It would take a modern Dante to determine which circle of Inferno each type of misbehavior merited. But of one thing, I am certain: at least in my own experience, I’ve never encountered more brazen and manipulative liars than Communist Chinese officials responsible for relations with religious believers.
Which is what makes it so disturbing that last week reports surfaced that the Vatican asked two underground Chinese bishops, loyal to Rome, to step aside in order to allow two bishops of the Patriotic Church, submissive to the Communist regime, to take their places. That news drove the heroic 86-year-old former Cardinal of Hong Kong Joseph Zen to go to Rome without an appointment, stand outside the Casa Santa Marta, and ask to be allowed to present a letter from the underground believers – who are willing to resist despite personal costs – to Pope Francis. Reliable sources say the pope received the letter and promised to read it. (UPDATE: Cardinal Zen has published an account of these events this morning  that confirms the basic story and adds that he is pessimistic about the line the Vatican is pursuing. In addition, he says that the government is cracking down on religious institutions, and starting February 1, “attendance to Mass in the underground will no longer be tolerated.”)
Cardinal Zen has been energetic in warning about the unreliability of agreements with the Communists. (Rumors of an imminent agreement between China and the Vatican have been floating around for a couple of years now, without anything definite being revealed.) Asia News, a publication of the Vatican, itself reacted to last week’s news with a warning about substituting “illegitimate” bishops for “legitimate” ones . The ChiComs (as we used to call them during the Cold War) are smart and shrewd. They know how to manipulate Western values, in this case, “unifying” the churches, i.e., the religious inclination to think we can fix all problems with dialogue, building bridges, diplomatic arrangements.
Meanwhile, China continues to cut crosses off church buildings, close some, dynamite still others. The New York Times  reported just two weeks ago that China had destroyed the Golden Lampstand church – with 60,000 worshippers the largest evangelical community in the country. The reason: the large, conspicuous edifice had been “secretly” constructed, had failed to get official building permits, etc. These are the usual fig leaves of tyrannical regimes all over the world when they attack religion. I’ve heard top Chinese leaders blame local authorities for “excesses and errors,” but these seem to recur with a suspect regularity that no one seems to take steps to stop.
The Chinese Communists studied the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the liberation of the nations behind the Iron Curtain thanks to St. John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and many others in the West who kept the pressure on Moscow. They appreciate the power of religion and clearly believe they can prevent Christianity from doing in China what it did in Poland and elsewhere. The tools are familiar: co-opt when you can, persecute and destroy when you can as well, and control information to make it appear you are simply asking for reasonable law and order within your borders.
From the regime’s point of view, there’s great need for all that. Most Chinese have a vague attachment to old folk religions. Maybe 15 percent are Buddhist and generally quiet – except in Tibet where resistance to Beijing remains alive. And then there are Christians, lots of them, if not a large percentage – yet. Reliable figures are hard to get, but 60 million (at a minimum) is a reasonable estimate. It’s safe to say that more Christians are in church on a Sunday morning in China than in all of Europe. And that despite potentially serious consequences for worshipping in “unapproved” congregations.
Protestants probably make up around two-thirds of that number, but the Catholic Church, of course, has a stronger institutional structure. The Chinese are used to playing a long game. Given that Christianity is growing rapidly there, the regime will have a hard time if there are tens of millions more Christians who believe every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, meaning they possess human dignity and freedom.
One of the common foreign-policy questions about China is precisely how Communist it is – and therefore whether it has in its very DNA the old Marxist drive to stamp out the “opium of the people,” i.e., religion. The economy is managed, but not wrecked along ideologically Marxist lines, as in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It’s not exactly capitalist, of course, but there’s some very serious innovation and entrepreneurship all the same. The heavy hand of the state is nonetheless quite evident, not least in the population control measures that even the Chinese now know will bring decades – at least – of trouble as their population ages. But is it a hard atheist system?
I wrote about the history of Chinese persecution of religious believers in my book The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century . At the time, the Falun Gong, about 10 million people, were being ruthlessly persecuted by the Chinese because that basically traditional spiritual movement was “a threat to social stability.” And yet it was said then and now that there were numbers of Christians in the Chinese Communist Party as well.
Whatever China’s ideological composition, the independence of the Church is something that many Christians fought and died for over centuries in the Christian countries of Europe. Independence from political regimes is crucial so that the Church can be free to carry out its spiritual mission, not only evangelizing people but working and speaking out, whatever regime it lives under, about justice and right order in society.
The Vatican seems to be stumbling in its relations with a regime that we can be sure will not respect the freedom of the Church since it doesn’t respect the freedom and dignity of its own people. Vatican negotiators would do well to remember the lessons of the Communist Era in Europe, particularly Solzhenitsyn’s warning that we must fully understand the nature of Communist regimes and not give in to the illusion that the split between us and them “may be abolished through successful diplomatic negotiations.”  Because the split is spiritual, deeply so, not political.
*Image: Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping [photomontage by Jason Lee and Stefano Rellandini/Reuters]