China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2005/Jan

Year in Review: 2004

Last year at this time, both the Mainland and Hong Kong were assessing the damage done during the long weeks when SARS made daily newspaper headlines. The crisis now seems over and, in fact, like something that happened long ago. Periodically, however, the WHO brings us a grim reminder that we are due for something possibly even more deadly and people are often prone to look askance at anything with wings fearing that the next outbreak might be linked to the avian flu.

Hopeful signs on the horizon

For the present moment, at least, there are many hopeful signs on the horizon for China, especially along economic lines. Hong Kong also seems to be back on track with the economy getting better daily. Government authorities are predicting that some 22 million people will have come to Asia’s World City by the end of 2005. On the political scene, however, deeper concerns remain and reveal Hong Kong’s on-going love/hate relationship with the Motherland.

Macau, however, has won accolades from the highest authorities in Beijing. Since the turnover in December 1999, it has enjoyed prosperity and stability. Much of this is due to the charismatic leadership of Edward Ho.

There are other hopeful signs. China has now resumed talks on the human rights dialogue with the United States. According to Colin Powell, US secretary of state, the recent talks were “good, open and candid.”

Another hopeful sign is China’s decision to open its doors to foreign non-government organisations (NGOs) and to cut much of the red tape that made it almost impossible for them to register and function. This may also be a sign that the government is recognising it needs help to cope with many of the social problems within the country. The rural and mountain areas would certainly benefit from the expertise that NGOs can bring.

The Religious Scene: 2004

Since Mao Zedong took over in 1949, the Chinese government has always claimed the right to control all organisations, including religious activities. This did not change much during 2004. The Patriotic Associations, where they are firmly established, continued to exert their influence and authority over all religious sectors.

Signs of change

There are also however, signs of change and, for the most part, these are hopeful signs. On October 19, the Shanghai Daily reported that the Bureau for Academic Research of the Education Commission for the Shanghai Municipality had put the Bible, along with the books about kung fu, on the list of books for recommended (though not required) reading in Shanghai’s secondary schools. Some parents objected. They did not want their children exposed so early to religion. Others were more enthusiastic since it would give the students a better understanding of Western literature.

Another hopeful sign was Shanghai’s request to the religious overseers to extend the right to people belonging to faiths other than the five presently approved (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism and Catholicism). The request was meant to underline Shanghai’s cosmopolitan character. Even certain universities got into this act and called for “religious tolerance, religious liberty and cultural pluralism.” There were no repercussions.

In October, Zhang Xunmou, director of the Religious Affairs Bureau, raised hopes when he mentioned publicly that China would soon enact new laws that would give religious groups more autonomy. These hopes were somewhat dampened later when another official, Ji Wenyuan, told the people to lower their expectations because China had no intention of legislating Western-style religious laws. Nevertheless, Zhang’s statement had already been made.

New religious regulations

On November 30, however, Premier Wen Jiabao signed Decree No. 426 of the State Council to make the new Regulations on Religious Affairs public. Although the regulations contain nothing really new, there are indications that, for the registered churches, at least, religious freedoms have been given added safeguards.

Within the Catholic Church itself there were signs of a rapprochement between the official and the unofficial communities.

Significant Church Events

Delegates at the Seventh National Catholic Representatives Congress re-elected their top leaders for another five-year term: Bishops Michael Fu Tieshan of Beijing and Joseph Liu Yuanren of Nanjing.

Ordination of five new bishops

On January 6, Bishop Peter Feng Xingmao, 39, was ordained as coadjutor of Hengshui diocese, Hebei province. Bishop Feng is the first bishop ordained since 1980 to have obtained a graduate degree. He was appointed by Pope John Paul II and was also approved by the Official Bishops’ Conference.

On February 8, Auxiliary Bishop Paul Ma Cunguo, 33, of Shuozhou diocese, Shaanxi province, was ordained, but the government still refuses to approve his ordination since the request for government approval and ordination were never submitted to the authorities.

On April 29, Coadjutor Bishop Zhang Xianwang, 39, of Jinan diocese, Shandong province, was ordained with papal approval. Bishop Zhang studied at Louvain University in Belgium from 1996-1998.

In May, Father Matthias Du Jiang, 42, vicar general of Bameng, Shaamba, (unofficial) Inner Mongolia, ordained in 1989, succeeded Bishop Francis Guo Zhengji as bishop of Bameng, and finally, on November 9, Father Su Yongda, 46, was consecrated as bishop of Zhanjiang to succeed Bishop Joseph Chen Chu who died in 2003.

Deaths of five bishops

Death claimed five of China’s elderly bishops in 2004.

Bishop Francis Xavier Guo Zhengji, 90, of Inner Mongolia. Catholics, both of the unofficial and of the official Churches, attended his funeral in a rare tribute of unity and respect.

Bishop Michael He Jinmin, 87, Ningbo diocese, Zhejiang province. He spent 20 years in prisons and labour camps.

Bishop Agostino Zhao Jingnong, 95, of Gansu province. He spent 13 years in prisons in Tianshui and Qinghai.

Bishop John Gao Kexian of Yantai died, aged 76, in an unknown prison where he had been confined since the 1990s. His remains were returned to relatives without any explanation.

Finally, Bishop Alfonsus Yang Guangyan, 75, of Zhouzhi diocese, Shaanxi province died on September 4.

Arrests/ Releases

China is still leery of religious groups, fearing that as these gain power, they might become pockets of resistance or opposition. This fear is responsible for an increase in crackdowns and arrests.

One of the more publicised detentions was that of Bishop Wei Jingyi, 46, of the unofficial diocese of Qiqihar, Heilongjiang province. He was arrested while returning from the Harbin airport where he had met with a foreigner.

The Holy See immediately demanded a clarification on the bishop’s arrest. This was the first time that Rome voiced its public concern to China regarding any arrest. The bishop was soon released.

Bishop Julius Jia, 69, was arrested on April 5. Rome again reacted to this arrest, saying “This is inadmissible in a lawful state promising to guarantee ‘freedom of religion’ and ‘respect to preserve human rights.’” The bishop was released on April 14.

During the course of the year, there were numerous other arrests especially among Protestant groups belonging to the house churches.

Other Concerns surfaced in 2004

Public executions

Long standing problems within China’s social structure surfaced during the course of the year. China found itself trying to defend its practice of not releasing statistics on the number of people it executes each year. Amnesty International counts 1,060 publicly reported executions. The actual number is likely to be much higher.

Press freedom violations

China was also cited for violations in the area of press freedom. As the year came to an end, news reports indicated that China had 27 journalists in prisons serving terms of from four to17 years.

Male preference dilemma

Another area of concern was the United Nations’ report that China is at risk of having 40-60 million female children either aborted or killed within the next 10 years. This prediction has alerted China to take a serious look at its one-child policy. China is aware that this shortage of women will have a deleterious effect on society.

Signs of hope

Notwithstanding that China’s road ahead is still full of challenges, the whole world still looks to China with hope and for the promise it holds for the rest of the world, as the Olympic flame begins its journey from Olympia to Beijing, where it is scheduled to arrive on May 5, 2008.

Statistics for China’s Catholic Church (2004)
Number of Catholics10-12,000,000
Number of Dioceses116 (+22 without bishops)
Number of bishops In the official Church In the unofficial Church  71 49
Number of priests In the official Church In the unofficial Church  200 (old); 1,000 (young) 800 (young)
Number of sisters In the official Church In the unofficial Church  3,600 1,200
Number of seminaries Major Minor Unofficial  11 10 10
Number of seminarians In the official Church In the unofficial Church Minor seminarians in the official Church  580 Approximately 710 740
Number of novitiates In the official Church In the unofficial Church  40 20
Number of sisters in formation In the official Church In the unofficial Church  600 600
No. of printing presses1: Shanghai
No. of publication houses3: Beijing, Shanghai, Shijiazhuang
No. of social service centres5: Xi’an, Beijing, Tianjin, Shenyang, Shanghai (Catholic Intelligentia Association)
No. of laity training centres2: Beijing, Shenyang, Zhouzhi (not confirmed)
No. of Church-operated “orphanages”20+ (20 safe low figure)
No. of clinics100+
No. of religious congregations60 (estimate)