What's new in China?
Wlodziemierz Redzioch interviews Fr Bernardo Cervella, missionary from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions and director of the information agency 'AsiaNews'.
The Catholic Church in China
Currently, Chine's industry is growing dynamically and that growth has been supported by great social changes and slow political evolution. In order to show the Readers of 'Niedziela' the Chinese issues I talked to Fr Bernardo Cervellera, Italian missionary from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, who had spent many years in China (in the years 1995-97 he lectured on the history of western civilisation at the University of Beijing) and for several years he has been the director of the information agency 'AsiaNews', www.asianews.it), which publishes daily bulletins about religious, political and social issues on this continent in Italian, English and Chinese.
Wlodzimierz Redzioch: During the last Congress of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party Jiang Zemin transferred power over this most populous country in the world to Hu Jintao. What does this change at the top in China mean?
Fr Bernardo Cervellera: It is positive that for the first time in the history of the communist party the change of the person at the highest position in the state was made without any violence. Commencing from Mao Tse-tung such changes were connected with internal fight. If this time it was made peacefully and as it was expected it meant that the party hierarchy tried to root their power and at the same time to give it verisimilitude. Jiang Zemin leaves the Chinese political scene. He is the man whose politics contributed to dynamic economic growth and made Chine a world economic power.
- This unique economic growth was connected with serious social problems...
- That's right. It contributed to the polarisation of the society (there is a gap between the group of very rich people and poor masses) and to widespread corruption. Despite the fact that the national income is up 9% every year the number of people living in poverty is increasing (it is estimated that there are about 250 million poor people in China). Rural unemployment has caused about 70 million peasants to immigrate to cities in order to find any jobs (as a rule they work as low-paid workers in the building sector).
As far as the corruption is concerned it is estimated that it takes up about 20% of the national income! The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party has acknowledged that the most important task is to fight corruption. It is the fight for 'be or not to be' of the party because corruption undermines the legitimacy of its power. In China the issue of the legitimacy of the power of the Communist Party is a complex problem. At first 'the law' to govern the state sprang from the fact that Mao Tse-tung defeated the Japanese and then he defeated the nationalists of Kuomintang (National Party), whom people regarded as corrupted. Those who participated in the 'great march' had the right to rule the country. The attitude of people towards the party changed after the events in Tiananmen Square, when people began asking, 'What right do those who kill us have to govern the country?' The party replied to the citizens' doubts, 'We have the right to govern because we do guarantee China's welfare'. That's why Jiang Zemin focused on economic growth of the country. The result of this process was a wide social disparity and corruption. As I have already mentioned corruption is particularly dangerous because it compromises the party in people's eyes and it threatens the party power. Today people openly complain that the party secretaries, borough leaders, mayors and other officials steal, lay unjust taxes, which finally go into their pockets, appropriate farmers' lands, etc. The Party reacts by proposing 'new faces' - officials who are closer to people and who fight corruption. 'However, it is not an easy task', the members of the Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing say, 'because only an independent structure could fight corruption effectively and furthermore, in order to get rid of the corrupted officials a free election should be held'. Currently, this is not possible in China since - as Hu Jintao claims - western democracy does not work in this country; the communist leader thinks that China prefers a 'centralised democracy' (sic!).
- Annually 10,000 people are estimated to be sentenced to death in China. Is this a result of combating corruption?
- No. Very few people who were accused of fraud were sentenced to death (only two or three party members were sentenced for this crime). As a rule the corrupted party leaders escaped abroad (mainly with the help of their comrades) or were fired from the party. However, they most frequently are held under arrest in their villas.
A decisive majority of those ten thousand who were sentenced to death are drug smugglers, members of the Chinese mafia and various criminals. The Chinese authorities are convinced that they can control the criminal world and the society with the help of capital punishment. One can suspect that there are also political prisoners among those sentenced to death but there is no evidence because death sentences are a state secret.
- Democracy originated in countries with the Christian tradition. But China has the Confucian tradition. Does Confucianism exert any influence on the contemporary political system?
- In Confucianism a person exists for the good of a group or clan to which he belongs. The democratic principle 'one man, one vote' is difficult to accept from the viewpoint of Confucianism.
- The good of society is valued more than the good of a person...
- Exactly. That's why the party speaks about 'centralised democracy', but today it only serves to keep power. If people could vote in a free election none of the present party leaders would be elected. Everybody hates them and regards them as completely corrupted.
- For years China has promoted the one-child policy. What are the consequences?
- The Chinese leaders think that in order to ensure society growth one cannot permit population growth. Therefore, they 'permit' only one child in every family. Not long ago families were forced to follow this command: women were forced to abortion or newborn babies were killed. Today there are different methods to persuade people not to have more children: childless couples are rewarded and those who have more than one child are punished (as a rule the financial punishment amounts to 6-24 salaries). Since the Chinese prefer to have sons than daughters, they use prenatal diagnostic tests and girl babies are aborted. According to the World Health Organisation in the last 20 years 50 million female foetuses were killed in China. Whereas the world sees 106 boys born for every 110 girls (in Europe 95 boys born for every 100 girls) the ratio in China is 119:100 girls (in some regions even 140:100). It means that there are no wives for millions of Chinese men and this situation leads to real white slave trade. There is also another aspect of the one-child policy: psychological problems of only children, children who are brought up without any brothers or sisters.
The government has begun giving up this policy, mainly in Shanghai because they realised that in the year 2015 the result of this policy would be one working person supporting at least four elderly people. Therefore, they are discussing if it would be better - at least in big cities - to permit two children in one family in order to avoid an increase of expenses for public health care. Finally, I would like to stress that the one-child policy perfectly reflects the situation in China where the government has power over family (there is no term 'responsible parenthood').
- How do you see the politics of Europe and the United States towards China?
- Europe wants to become the main partner of China and in order to keep good trade relationships it closes the eye to everything what is going on in this country, including human rights abuses. When Hu Jintao visited France Chirac did not mention human rights abuses at all, and moreover he commanded to remove people from the places the Chinese leader visited so that he would not see any anti-Chinese manifestations. All this serves to keep privileged economic relationships with this huge country.
- This was also the purpose of Chirac's visit to China in October. The observers of the political scene paid attention to another aspect of the French-Chinese rapprochement - France is trying to create a strategic coalition, which would aim at facing the American superpower and the American unilateral politics.
- One must state that the United States is more willing to reveal cases of human rights abuses in China although the US conducts big business with this country. It is true when people say that France and China attempt to create a world multipolar system in order to weaken the role of the US. But it is also true that China is negotiating with the United States about the issue of Taiwan and North Korea as well as the problem of terrorism. In other words, today China is doing what it has always done: it is trying to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States.
- In 1997 Great Britain handed over Hong Kong to the communist China providing the authorities in Beijing respect the political-economic system in Hong Kong (there was the slogan: 'one country two systems'). Thus Hong Kong has become as if a litmus paper of the process of China's democratisation. Unfortunately, the situation is getting worse and the courageous local archbishop Joseph Zen often exposes attempts to limit freedom and democracy. What is the situation in Hong Kong after the election, which was held there not long ago? - In case of Hong Kong one cannot speak of true democracy. During the British rules the local parliament was organised in a strange way: half of MPs were elected by people and the other half by various corporations (of lawyers, bankers, businessmen, etc.). Such a system secured the interests of the corporations because the ruling class, both the past one and the present one, has been connected with Beijing and has thought that democracy does not favour economy. Therefore, for years the Catholic inhabitants have organised demonstrations to defend democracy and the right to fair election. The Catholic Church headed by Archbishop Zen defends those movements because the Church believes in democracy and wants Beijing to respect the principle: 'one country two systems'. Beijing has always tried to control Hong Kong so that the 'virus' of democracy does not spread all over China. It interferes in the legal system of Hong Kong, which is contrary to the principle 'one country two systems'. The more and more frequent interventions of the Chinese government are directed against the most dynamic sectors of the society, including the Catholic Church. The Church fears that the government will try to 'lay their hands' on Catholic schools, which have always been subsidised by the state.
- Recently the Vatican spokesman has intervened on behalf of the persecuted priests and the Church in China. Why do the Chinese authorities intensify their actions against Catholics?
- The Chinese communist authorities have always tried to destroy the Church or at least to control it. In order to do this they called into being the Patriotic Catholic Association in 1957, which followed the idea that a true Christian should also be a patriot and work for the good of the nation. The very idea is not bad and many priests joined the Association with enthusiasm. The problem is that one of the tasks of the Patriotic Association is to organise an 'autonomous and independent' Church, i.e. national Church, separated from Rome. That's why the Association wants to control all aspects of the Church life in order to force the Church to 'work for the cause of socialism', to accept the supremacy of the party and its political line. Moreover, it often happens that the secretaries of the Association are atheists. All these actions have one aim: to divide the Church.
- Part of the Church, the so-called underground Church, does not accept the interference of the state in her internal affairs and because of that the Church is being persecuted. The Church communities created parallel structures, including seminaries, monasteries and churches in order to avoid the state control. The believers and bishops of this Church are persecuted and arrested.
However, one should pay attention to two new aspects of this issue: the official Church and the underground Church become more and more related, which irritates the authorities. The Vatican decided to speak about the human rights abuses in China because this country has declared that it wants to enter the UN and respect the Human Rights Declaration, but at the same time China constantly persecutes the Church.
- Recently you have written a book entitled 'Missione Cina' (Mission China), edited by Ancora in Milan. What is the mission of the Church in China and what challenges does this big country put out to the Church?
- One should stress that the anti-religious politics of the Chinese Communist Party proved to be in vain. The fall of communist ideology has caused a spiritual vacuum to emerge. People have begun looking for ideals and got interested in religion, and many became Christians. The Chinese get to know the Church through Catholics. They see them as people who know why they live, as people of strong faith, which helps them face hardships. This draws people to the Church. There is also some group of people who is fascinated with the Western Church. The West has always fascinated the Chinese, just as we in Europe are fascinated with the oriental culture.
What is the mission of the Church in China? My Chinese acquaintances - scholars and agnostics - used to tell me that the Catholic Church could fulfil a double mission in their country. Firstly, the Church could help restore human dignity in the country, where Confucian philosophy recognises only the value of social and state groups. In China it is the state that gives rights to individuals whereas Christianity stresses the fact that an individual, as a human being, has hereditary and inalienable rights, which the state has to recognise. Secondly, the Catholic Church, with her ideas of solidarity and love, could help soothe social conflicts. Currently, the Chinese authorities fear a violent conflict between the group of rich people and the poor masses.
- Thank you very much for the conversation.