Years ago a connection of mine who has spent a lot of time in China—someone who has devoted a great deal of his life to attempting to understand the complex, conflicted mindset of the Beijing leadership as it emerged from decades of Maoism—sat down with a prominent party official during a business dinner. This was in the early years just after Deng Xiaoping had begun to unleash what would become a global manufacturing and creative juggernaut out of the middle kingdom.
The official told my source, Mao was dead, communism in China was dead and there was now a vast spiritual void opening up in the collective psyche of the Chinese people—a void that the party had once filled with the heroic imagination of a people on the march into a bright, shining future, a collective light to the world. Now he worried it would only be filled by a deep emptiness or worse that the people of China would seek to fill that emptiness with materialism and consumption. He told my source that he only hoped that Christianity, perhaps the Catholic Church specifically, could revive itself to accept this new responsibility and help fill that spiritual hole left behind by the diminishing role of party fealty and Maoist ideology.
Both things seem to have come to pass. Consumption levels in China have quickly risen to rival those in the West as people there seek to fill the same incompleteness which encourage pointless materialism anywhere in the world. And in recent years, the Catholic Church, along with other Christian, Buddhist and other religious and spiritual and traditional practices have stepped tentatively out of the shadows.
In 2007 Pope Benedict seemed confident that the two churches in China—a Catholic church loyal to Beijing and its underground shadow, loyal to Rome—were on their way to becoming one Christian community again in responding to the profound spiritual need in China. He urged neither side to engage in any activity that could be interpreted as a provocation that might undermine the improving relationship between Beijing and Rome.
It was a position not popular among the members of the underground church—many had sacrificed everything during the dark ages before Deng—but Pope Benedict apparently felt a calculated risk was worth taking toward rapprochement.
The improvement in Sino-Vatican relations has not been steady; there have been many disappointments and setbacks. Priests, catechists and bishops released from prison have occasionally been rounded up again; the fate of some remains unknown. But the overall trend has been positive, if spotty. Until last month that is when the dialogue and the improving relationship seems to have taken a great leap backward.
On November 20th, the Chinese Communist Party broke its tacit agreement with the Vatican not to attempt to ordain bishops without papal approval when Father Joseph Guo Jincai was installed as the "Bishop" of the Diocese of Chengde. Worse other Catholic bishops were apparently forced to attend the ordination. Some went into hiding in order to avoid attending.
A national congress has similarly featured enforced attendance and unusual and aggressive police and security actions and surveillance. Cangzhou Bishop Joseph Li Liangui refused to attend and has apparently returned to the underground to avoid more coercion with “official” Catholic business or worse. Others are likely to follow suit.
It’s hard to say what has provoked Beijing’s anti-Vatican backlash. China has certainly felt unwelcome attention since the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo. China is no doubt weary of being the scapegoat for the West’s recent economic reversals and beginning to resent charges that it unfairly manipulates its currency.
Its population is increasingly harder to control, in greater contact with the West, hungrier for material and political expression and pressing against the limits of a one party system, particularly one whose propelling principals seem ever more difficult to discern. Its economy suffers from the same shakiness that has staggered other powers, some housing markets are straining to burst and its vast population requires a breathtaking rate of job creation. There is no guarantee that given the right economic circumstances and popular restiveness that the mandate of heaven could not pass from Beijing.
The sudden return to form might just be a general resistance to any Western cultural force, particularly one whose loyalties are so inherently questionable. Whatever the cause, the bad old days are abruptly back and we should be paying attention in the West. It is, after all, highly unlikely that Beijing has suddenly felt compelled to about-face on the Catholic Church alone.
In this scenario the church and its disappearing and strong-armed clergy are just the collateral damage to a larger realignment. China’s attitude toward Rome says something about its entire stance to the West, one of tentative outreach or paranoid resistance. It appears that the latter is in ascendancy in Beijing and that will have significance for Western interests far beyond the borders of Vatican City.