The Crucifix and the Sickle

J. FRASER FIELD

Once the Communists took control of China in 1948, they didn't wait to make it known there would be no place for religion in the new order.


Much attention has been paid in the press recently to China’s crackdown on Falun Gong, a New Age sect which the Communist government believes constitutes a threat to internal security. China has been roundly and rightly criticized for its handling of the Falun Gong.

It is difficult for us in the West, with our background in diversity, open-mindedness, freedom of association, etc., to imagine what could possibly be threatening about a group that, according to Canada’s National Post, “mixes watered-down Buddhist theology, Taoist principles and breathing exercises to promote well-being [and whose] devotees appear to present more of a risk to themselves — in terms of sprained shoulders and pulled ligaments — than to the massive Communist edifice.”

But China’s paranoid overreaction to Falun Gong becomes more understandable when seen in the context of its relationship with religious communities of a more traditional bent over the past 50 years.

Once the Communists took control in 1948, they didn’t wait to make it known there would be no place for religion in the new order. Not only was all political power to radiate from Beijing, but Mao Zedong asserted that the Communist Party was also to be the embodiment of all moral order in the country. The Communists would not tolerate the existence of a competing allegiance in the moral sphere, especially one like the Catholic Church which would naturally be looking to Rome rather than Beijing for its authority.

The anti-Christian campaign

Initially, vast purges of Chinese believers and the imprisonment, torture and expulsion of foreign missionaries were carried out. But after two years of virulent persecution, Beijing concluded that the Christian Churches were simply being driven underground and that they could not be destroyed by such means. Instead the Communists began setting up competing churches, strictly controlled by the party, in an attempt to co-opt believers. To this day, these state run “Patriotic Association” churches are the only ones with legal status in the country, and government regulations strictly state that Christians are only allowed to worship in these Patriotic Association churches.

Despite both regulations and brutal reprisals for disobedience, the underground Church has thrived in China. Today, at least 8 million Chinese remain loyal to Rome, worshipping in underground illegal House-churches. (An estimated 4 million Chinese have become affiliated with the Patriotic Association churches.) In 1996, the Communist Party responded to this vibrancy by issuing a document detailing procedures for the step-by-step eradication of the underground Roman Catholic Church — steps that included systematic brainwashing, ideological “struggle sessions,” and criminal prosecution of pro-Vatican Catholics.

In an address on Dec. 3, 1996, Pope John Paul II extolled the underground Catholics of China as “a precious jewel of the Catholic Church” the Patriotic Association he described as “a church which does not respond either to the will of the Lord Jesus, nor to the Catholic faith.”

The Pope's role noticed

Patrick Tyler, in a New York Times article Jan. 26, 1997, on the underground churches, quotes Zou Chunxiang, a Church member living in Jiangxi province. “The government is afraid that if we practice our religion, that this will be harmful to security,” she said. “The government is afraid we will conspire with foreign countries and overthrow the state.” The Chinese Communists are deadly serious about this; all the men in Zou’s family, for example, are in prison or on the run.

But the government of China deserves some credit here. It has comprehended something of the powerful force for freedom and democracy represented by religious communities — something which has almost entirely escaped the notice of political analysts in the West.

Paul Marshall, a senior fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Freedom House, and author of Their Blood Cries Out: The Untold Story of Persecution Against Christians in the Modern World, observes that our “chattering classes,” — diplomats, journalists, political commentators and policy analysts — while so earnest in examining the economic, social and political causes of current events, suffer from a kind of “secular myopia” which leaves them unable to see, let alone understand, the impact of faith upon “the lives of individuals and the lives of nations.”

While the role of the Church in the fall of communism in Europe almost entirely eluded Western observers, it didn’t escape the attention of the Chinese government. In distinction to their Western counterparts, the Chinese are, as Marshall describes them, “perversely aware of the power of spirituality and, as a result, regard religion with deadly seriousness.” In 1992 the Chinese state-run press made note of the fact that “the Church played an important role in the change” in Eastern Europe and warned, “if China does not want such a scene to be repeated in its land, it must strangle the baby while it is still in the manger.” China is busy strangling to this day.

Where dictatorships faded

There is clearly a note of paranoia in all this. The Chinese, in their response to the Falun Gong, make it apparent that they regard any religious organization, however benign, which is not completely under government control, as a subversive threat.

But the dynamism of the Catholic Church in China must surely be one of their gravest concerns. For the Catholic Church has demonstrated more clearly and dramatically than any other, the power of religious communities to help bring down thug regimes.

While the last quarter-century has seen the fall of dictatorships and the disappearance of communism as a global creed, one of the untold stories in this drama is the virtual disappearance of dictatorships in countries with a Catholic majority.

Political scientist Samuel P. Huntington has written that the “third wave of democracy” in the 1970s and 1980s, one which encompassed Eastern Europe, Latin America, Iberia and the Philippines, came in large part from the commitment to democracy and human rights in the Catholic Church. As Huntington describes it, “In the 1960s changes within the Church brought a powerful social institution into opposition to dictatorial regimes, deprived those regimes of whatever legitimacy they might claim from religion, and provided protection, support, resources and leadership to pro-democratic opposition movements.”

The Pope of freedom

Having lived successively under the crushing yoke of both the fascist Nazis and the communist Soviets, Pope John Paul II knows only too well the unimaginable human suffering that is the inevitably consequence of these utopian ideologies. With this background, and since becoming Pope in 1979, John Paul II has emerged as a fearless proponent of democracy and freedom on the world stage.

When Karol Wojtyla became Pope 20 years ago, 22 of 42 countries with a Catholic majority were tyrannies. Today only two Catholic countries unambiguously remain dictatorships: Equatorial Guinea and Cuba.

While the Pope’s visits to foreign countries have always involved a predominantly religious message, neither protocol nor government warnings have held him back from taking advantage of his platform and influence to condemn the principle of totalitarian government and to advocate instead a healthy political system, expressed as “the free and responsible participation of all citizens in public affairs, in the rule of law, and in respect for and promotion of human rights” all to be grounded, of course, in a set of faith-based values.

His visits have brought remarkable changes. There was his first tumultuous return as Pope to his native land of Poland in 1979, one year before the birth of the Solidarity trade union movement. And then again in 1987, a year and a half before roundtable talks led to the collapse of communist rule there.

While other forces were unquestionably at work, Polish dissident leaders clearly remember a landmark shift in public consciousness that arose from the Pope’s visit.

In the Vicar's footsteps

Adrian Karatnycky, in an article May 4, 1998, in the National Review describes how a visit by the Pope tends to first spur religious activity and lay Catholic activism in the form of cultural and then more general discussion groups. This is usually accompanied by a growing influence of the “frequently circumscribed Catholic press.”

“In closed societies,” writes Karatnycky, “these forces become a focus of organized life outside the direct control of the totalitarian state — in short, an alternative democratic Catholic culture that opposes the values of dictatorship.”

Karatnycky goes on to explain how the fact that the Church hierarchy reports to Rome allows it to remain somewhat insulated from interference by the dictatorial state and “ensures a measure of independence for the church community.”

In Eastern Europe — encouraged by the example of a Pope boldly unafraid to speak the truth — religious communities and other groups became more daring, eventually linking up and emerging, as from the catacombs, to begin organizing and agitating more openly, soon to become an unstoppable flood of thousands upon thousands of supporters.

Having witnessed and examined closely what happened in Eastern Europe, the Chinese understand only too well how such forces, if given the smallest breathing room, can quickly escalate beyond the control of the state. Don’t expect Beijing to invite the Pope for a state visit in the near future.

And make no mistake: Thug regimes such China, with a shrewd sense of self-preservation, feel at least as threatened by communities of religious faith as they do by their secular competitors. They understand, as China clearly does, that religious faith is a subversive force, one which, if left unchecked, may well lead to the overthrow of the strongest, most repressive totalitarian regime.

Karl Marx asserted religion to be the opium of the people, a drug which worked to prevent the masses from recognizing and throwing off their chains of bourgeoisie oppression. Irony indeed, that Red China struggles today against that same force of religion, out of fear it might empower the people of China to throw off the chains of oppression forged for them daily by their Communist masters.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

J. Fraser Field. “The crucifix and the sickle,” National Post, 2 August 1999.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

THE AUTHOR

J. Fraser Field is Executive Officer of the Catholic Educator’s Resource Center.

Copyright © 1999 National Post


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