On Thanksgiving Day, 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, a Hong Kong priest, was convicted, along with five others, of failing to register a defunct charitable organization that tried to help pro-democracy demonstrators targeted by the regime.
Ostensibly, the charges stemmed from the group’s failure to submit paperwork to authorities. But Chinese people of faith and governments around the world understood the real message Beijing was sending when it arrested Fr. Zen, known as “the conscience of Hong Kong,” last May. The purpose of the prosecution, said U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price, was to show that China’s government “will pursue all means necessary to stifle dissent and undercut protective rights and freedoms.”
Among the human rights that Beijing is most hostile to is freedom of religion. And how the government has compromised the Catholic Church is a case study in the difficulty of resisting its relentless efforts at repression.
In 2016, when Xi, China’s president and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, first announced his policy of “Sinicization” of religion in his country, the response of the Vatican was to try to accommodate Beijing’s leaders.
Although Pope Francis has generally avoided speaking about the subject – or about persecution in China at all – the pontiff has let it be known that he’s chosen to see Sinicization as similar to “inculturation.” It’s a term that emerged in the 1980s in answer to the church’s troubling history of forced conversions and cultural genocide. In so doing, Francis is drawing on a rich Catholic tradition, not limited to Latin America, and not limited to cultural depredations. It can be as benign as St. Patrick using the shamrock to explain the concept of the trinity to the Irish or allowing priests in China to wear traditional Chinese robes during mass. In a 1975 encyclical, Pope Paul VI stated that spreading the Gospel should entail bolstering existing culture, not subduing it.
Under Francis, the Vatican has latched onto this idea. “Let us not forget that a faith that is not inculturated is not authentic,” the pope told Latin America church leaders in 2021. It is that philosophy that the pope has tried to apply to China. In a rare 2019 interview with a Chinese Communist newspaper, Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin asserted that “inculturation” and “Sinicization” can be “complementary” concepts that “open avenues for dialogue on the religious and cultural level.”
This, then, is the rationale guiding the 2018 pact between President Xi and Pope Francis. Forged in secret (its details have still never been made public), the arrangement gives the government a role in how church affairs are conducted, including the selection of Catholic priests and bishops in China. The quid pro quo, apparently, is that the Catholic Church is allowed to continue as a government-sanctioned institution in China.
“There is substantial evidence that the core of the agreement is ‘power-sharing’ between the Holy See and the communist regime,” Thomas F. Farr told RealClearPolitics. President emeritus of the Religious Freedom Institute, Farr said that Vatican diplomats naively believed such a pact would benefit the Chinese church, and that keeping the agreement hidden would ward off criticism long enough to demonstrate the agreement’s benefits to the church.
“It has not worked,” Farr said.
China hasn’t had representation in the Holy See since 1951, when Mao broke off diplomatic relations and expelled foreign-born priests. President Xi has made no movement toward diplomatic recognition, and he publicly snubbed the pope when both men were in Kazakhstan last September and the Vatican let it be known that it was open to a meeting. “It’s not easy to understand the Chinese mentality,” Francis told reporters. Refusing to comment on Cardinal Zen, the pope acknowledged, “Yes it’s true there are things that seem to us undemocratic,” but added that although progress might be slow, “it always takes steps forward.”
To human rights activists, the problem when it comes to religious freedom in China is that the steps seem to be going in reverse. Five years after his 2016 admonition about “Sinicization,” President Xi tightened the screws. Religious organizations in China “must be actively guided to adapt to socialist society,” he said. “Marxist religious studies” must be strengthened, whatever that means, while at the same time members of religious organizations should not “interfere with the social life” of Chinese young people. In Xi’s telling, Sinicization wasn’t about priests wearing traditional Chinese robes. It was that religious communities should be controlled and led by the party.
Early last year, an official of the CCP issued an ominous warning: Religions that resist being Sinicized are to be treated as “foreign hostile forces … plotting politically to defeat and subvert China,” and as such, should be “resolutely suppressed and eradicated.”
As all this is happening, CCP officials are reportedly engaged in rewriting the Bible (and the Koran) to make them more simpatico with Chinese-style communism.
Nina Shea, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute where she is director of the Center for Religious Freedom, notes that this is nothing new. For more than a decade, she says, the government has worked to control the Catholic Church in China and alter church teachings. China has required bishops and priests to be members of the Catholic Patriotic Association, she told RCP, and they must promise to be independent of Rome.
The diplomats of the Holy See, says Farr, saw the 2018 agreement as a way to unite Chinese Catholics, those who belong to the official Catholic Patriotic Association, and those in the underground church, which has resisted government control.
Why does the Communist Party feel the need to control the church? In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI wrote a “letter to the bishops, priests, consecrated persons and lay faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China,” assuring the Chinese Communist Party that “the Catholic Church which is in China does not have a mission to change the structure or administration of the State.” The church “cannot and must not replace the State.”
Even so, Farr said the Communist Party has reason to see the Catholic Church as a challenge to its power. The Catholic Church teaches that every person, having been created in the image of God, has dignity. “No totalitarian regime worth the name can afford to permit a group like this to have sustained influence,” he told RCP. “At its best – which is to say with its bishops and priests active and its witness to the truth publicly evident – the Catholic Church is a mortal threat to the Communist Party.”
What is happening to the Catholic Church in Hong Kong now mirrors what happened to the Hong Kong Bar Association, Victoria Hui told RCP. An associate professor of political science at the university of Notre Dame, Hui said that whereas the lawyers’ group “used to be vocal, now the whole organization is coopted.”
That is how the Chinese government prefers to proceed, she said: First, silence dissent; next, coopt institutions, and then take them over. “If that doesn’t work, start locking people up.” Using that playbook, Hui said, the government is able “to assert control with a minimum of fuss.”
In the last decade, officials have taken down crosses from over a thousand churches. The South China Morning Post reported in 2017 that the Communist Party has pressured impoverished Christians to replace pictures of Jesus with posters of Xi Jinping.
“The real goal is to rewrite scripture to be in sync with socialist teaching,” one dissident Chinese Catholic priest told RCP. “If you preach against the government, there will be tremendous consequences.” How does the Communist Party keep tabs on what is being said in Catholic pulpits? One churchgoer in China told the Catholic Digest that the government had placed surveillance cameras inside her church.
“They can record the whole mass,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party continues its crackdown on unregistered Catholic communities, according to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Targets have been “lay Catholics, clergy, and at least two Vatican-appointed bishops.” Farr says, “Faithful Chinese Catholics are, unsurprisingly, stunned and demoralized.”
Priests who have resisted demands they join the Catholic Patriotic Association have been taken to reeducation camps, subjected to what those familiar with the treatment describe as psychological torture. Some of the techniques used are familiar – blaring loud music 24 hours a day, glaring bright lights every night, all night long. Some of the pressure techniques are innovative, if not peculiar. Among the abuses suffered by one priest: A succession of government agents played Mahjong next to him day and night without any break for weeks. Though only in his 30s, by the time the priest was finally released he had lost all his hair.
One Catholic who has been a victim of such abuse is Shao Zhumin, Bishop of Wenzhou. AsiaNews reports that in January, Bishop Shao went missing, along with his secretary, Fr. Jiang Sunian. They are considered “underground” clerics because, though the pope accepts Shao as a bishop, China’s Communist government does not. Their sin? Attending the funeral of the “underground” clergyman Fr. Leo Chen Nailiang.