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January-February 2011
Vol. 36, No. 1

China: Looking beyond economics, politics

The following article was written by Sr. Janet Carroll, MM, co-founder and executive director of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau for many years.

During 2010 most of the news from and about China focused on economic issues and its geo-political extension to Africa, South America, South Asia and the Middle East. China has an insatiable quest for natural resources which are crucial to advance its scientific and industrial development.

Economics is ostensibly the name of the game in China, which dominates its foreign trade with many partners, exporting consumer goods far in excess of its imports. Ironically, despite its already being an excessively materialistic and consumer-oriented society, China constantly is prodded to consume more of both domestic production and of foreign imports. In the financial arena, where China is said to hold 40 cents of every U.S. dollar, hard core policy wonks still adamantly refuse to allow its currency to fluctuate on the foreign exchange market.

Other underlying cultural, social and political factors interact with the hard economic data, serving to both catalyze and to exacerbate the situation, including:

  • China’s long deferred but now aggressively pursued recognition of its civilization, rich culture and rightful place in the global community – reflected in a revitalized nationalism often exploited by the authorities – even when at times it is incoherent with its own interests;
  • its bottomless supply of cheap labor;
  • its tight, top-down social and political control;
  • its readily manipulated monetary policies - primarily retention of an under-valued currency;
  • the zealous drive by the leadership - heavily populated by technocrats - to modernize and succeed in every significant sector: technology, communications, science, and business adventurism;
  • and not least, a people with seemingly undaunted capacity to risk.

It ought also to be borne in mind that China’s highly touted, rapidly growing gross domestic product (GDP) – almost on a par with the U.S. – needs in China’s case to be distributed over a population base four times the size of the U.S.

In addition to the factors cited above, in the past six decades deeply ingrained socio-cultural behaviors have been transformed through lived experiences of 1.2 billion Chinese people. This period divides roughly between 1950-80 under Mao Tse Tung and 1980-2010 under the legacy of Deng Xiao Peng. These behaviors have morphed into an incredible optimism vis a vis the future on the part of the Chinese people, who are also driven by an irrepressible determination to realize the promise in long deferred gratification of needs, desires and dreams.

In the latter decades, widespread confidence in existing possibilities – open to all who are willing to work hard – has developed. China’s elite, educated youth, whose massive numbers totally skew the demographics, manifest an unquenchable desire to succeed and repay the trust placed in them by self-sacrificing parents. Yet, more recently affluence is thwarting discipline.

At the same time millions of men, and more recently women, from rural regions are flocking to urban districts, seeking their just portion of the bubbling rice pot. They bear an astonishing capacity to sacrifice, endure, and pay any price to enhance the economic development and social well-being of their families left behind in materially deprived villages.

In attempting to fathom any and everything else going on in China, the larger context must be factored in - especially the recent violent irruption on the Korean Peninsula - where China’s client-state of North Korea has suddenly and irrationally upped the ante for any pseudo peace accord prevailing with the Republic of South Korea.

Coupled with this are China’s own recent aggressive activities – both threatened and taken – in the East China Sea region. Some also see a threat in China’s growing military build-up of both air and seas forces and the potential destabilization of the ever thorny relations with Taiwan.

At the same time, the unbalanced bias in western media to report almost exclusively on the “bad news” from China must be objectively analyzed in the context of political, economic and especially shifting foreign relations policies being pursued by its rivals for power and influence in the region. Foremost among them is the U.S. and its allies in the Pacific region – not least among them Japan, China’s arch foe for centuries – and to a lesser degree Asia’s other giant, India.

Seeking to deepen understanding of China today, we also need to keep in mind how all reality in China is refracted through the prism known as “Chinese characteristics.” This caveat slightly nuances or even radically re-interprets all events. It is China’s autocratic regime which determines what they mean by what they say, and it is not necessarily what common parlance understands anything to mean to anyone else. Perhaps no more salient factor than this should be born in mind by President Obama, on the eve of President Hu Jin Tao’s visit to the U.S.

Two recent events are interesting case studies in applied “Chinese characteristics.” The first, the government’s response to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiao Bo, is a case of restrictions on freedoms of speech, political activism and ultimately, of movement. However, the politics inherent in the award on all sides were largely ignored in the media coverage. Respected China consultant Sidney Rittenberg has questioned whether Liu best embodies the ideals of universal human rights most suited to China, or is he (and other western-educated Chinese dissidents) promoting an unrealistic path? In essence, will pursuit of these ideals, as developed in the West, bring hope or disaster to the Chinese people? What is the best way to represent their political aspirations, given their historical political development and the ethos of governance to which they can realistically aspire in the context of their own culture and heritage?

The other event involves the restrictions on religious freedoms as exercised by the Roman Catholic Community in China. At issue is the Chinese Catholic Church’s desire to be in full union with the Universal Church, under the proper jurisdiction of the Holy See. Regrettably, following several years of real progress towards internal unity and reconciliation, matched by external progress towards the restoration of normal diplomatic relations between Beijing and the Vatican, a sudden breach opened in mid-November with the illicit ordination of a priest not yet approved by the Holy See to be the bishop of the newly erected diocese of Cheng De in northeast Hebei province. The illicit ordination of Joseph Guo Jin Cai was shocking, as it had been preceded by the mutually agreed election and validly executed ordination of 10 bishops for other dioceses in the past year alone. Further, Bishop Guo, a graduate of the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, is well known to many friends of the China Church. It is widely understood that his freedom of conscience in the matter was severely compromised by pressures which forced him to decide between two equally unacceptable options, a Hobbesian choice at best.

Following on the heels of this unfortunate event and despite urgent requests by the Holy See to continue to postpone it, the so-called 8th National Catholic Assembly was convened on December 7-9 in Beijing. This assembly purports to bring together China’s bishops - the canonically designated leadership of the China Church, clergy, religious superiors of women and Catholic laity – all on an equal footing with the quasi political leadership of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA). Due to government imposed organizational structures which are totally incompatible with Roman Catholic polity, this so called National Catholic Assembly is unacceptable as a forum of Church governance.

Of added concern in both instances was the fact that the public security police resorted to rather strong arm tactics to coerce the participation of several legitimate bishops at both the illicit Episcopal ordination and at the Assembly.

For their part, doubtlessly all concerned were burdened by psychological anguish and mental and spiritual stress which outsiders cannot fully understand. For the China Church itself, these two unilateral actions by Beijing constitute a severe setback to the mutually sustained dialogue between the concerned authorities in China and in the Vatican, which had begun to show such promise. In both these matters, and absent a fuller knowledge of the realities on the ground for those concerned, we ought to refrain from rushing to rash judgment – let alone unwarranted condemnation - of our sisters and brothers in the faith in China. Rather we ought to offer our prayer and solidarity with them, giving thanks to God for their prophetic stance. Counter-intuitively, we might ask: is not the very fact that the Church and its leaders are under such severe attack in itself a witness to the ever growing significance and strength of the Catholic Church in China today?

In his 2007 pastoral letter to Chinese Catholics, while condemning actions which are manifestly contrary to Catholic ecclesiology and doctrinal teaching, Pope Benedict XVI affirmed his trust and confidence in the bishops of the Church in China to make decisions in each given situation that are in accord with their consciences and judgments as to what is best for the pastoral good of their local churches. This will, in the long term, strengthen the Chinese Catholic Church, confirm its fidelity and loyalty to the Pope, insure its viability and sustain its renewal and development in the context of China’s current and future evolution as a free and open society – with its best “Chinese characteristics” intact.

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