China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2008/Jan

Different views on the news in China in 2007

What was the biggest story in China last year? That depends on who is answering the question. Let’s review 2007 from various viewpoints.

Government meetings

The party and the government, which are practically the same entity, held three major meetings in Beijing, with more than 2,000 delegates in attendance at each one. From March 5 to 16, the Fifth Session of the 10th National People’s Congress heard the premier, Wen Jiabao emphasise, once again, “building a socialist harmonious society.” Two Catholic representatives attended the congress, while four bishops, one priest and two laypeople took part in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which was held at the same time.

From October 15 to 20, the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party met. The newly elected Central Committee appointed a new Standing Committee as well as a politburo of nine members. Aware of the problems of pollution and the environment, the stress is now on scientific development.

The congress passed a resolution to amend the Party Constitution, incorporating for the first time, guidelines for work related to ethnic and religious affairs. This was to promote the policy of religious freedom and to assure an active role for religious circles in advancing social and economic development.

Two months later, the president, Hu Jintao, stressed that religions will be a part of socialist China for a long time to come. So it is important to respect religious freedom and to manage religious affairs according to the law. Don’t forget that the party and the government define all these terms.

Economics impacts the masses

Economic changes kept sweeping over China. Some were good, such as better roads in the countryside and more people connected to the Internet. Yet material progress has its dark side. For example, the increase in the number of automobiles has led to worse traffic jams and more. Corruption and greed were contributing factors to mining and industrial accidents, shoddy products and workers enslaved in a brick kiln.

While it helps to pass more safety regulations and to increase the number of inspectors, external restraints are not enough. A depressing number of adults seem to live only for money, prestige and pleasure. People tragically discover at a young age that these do not provide enough reason to get up in the morning. Suicide is now the leading cause of death for those between the ages of 15 to 34.

Resources for coping

Perhaps a revival of ancient wisdom will help. One best selling book in 2007 summarised Confucianism for modern life. A children’s primer from a thousand years ago, The Three Character Classic (三字经), also attracted favourable publicity. Traditional festivals and customs are receiving more recognition. The Golden Week for Labour Day, May 1, will shrink starting this year and three ancient observances, Tomb Sweeping Day, the Dragon Boat Festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival will be made public holidays. The observance of such “intangible cultural heritages” will not only generate tourism but also give people a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves.

Religion received better media coverage last year. High officials were more open in admitting that religion will be part of the Chinese scene for a long time to come and spoke favourably of the contributions of believers to a harmonious society.

Religious activity, like the Internet, continued to be closely monitored. But are more people employed supervising official religious organisations and tracking down unregistered believers, or in policing cyberspace and updating the “great firewall of China?” Both numbers are top secret. However, it is no secret that China, as part of the global economy, cannot live without the Internet, despite spam, viruses, computer addiction and bad websites. Nor can China afford the enormous disruption of a futile effort to abolish religion by administrative means.

The authorities have even learned not to waste their breath arguing against fung shui (风水). When China’s first 16 kilometres of railroad track were laid down in Shanghai in 1876, that innovation provoked protest against bad fung shui, and so Qing dynasty officials closed the line the following year.

Fung shui is now a thoroughly private or at most a family matter. It is not sufficiently organised to present a threat to social harmony. No group will surprise a work crew in 2008 by picketing the construction of a bridge to protect the local fung shui. But in case that happens, then there will be stories on television denouncing an “evil cult” for their “heretical” misinterpretation of an ancient art. Similarly, house churches that keep a low profile have a fair chance of being left undisturbed, while unregistered religious groups which go public get into trouble.

More bibles

Protestants were happy to see the 50 millionth copy of the Bible leave the Amity printing press in Nanjing in December. More bibles and other religious literature are in circulation. In addition to being available in churches, some commercial bookstores now sell them. But supplies remain inadequate for Christians, who now number at least 30 million, or maybe as many as 70 million. A bulk purchase of Bibles, however, will alert the Public Security Bureau to the existence of an unregistered church.

Catholic news

From July 24 to 25, about 500 participants, including 37 bishops, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) with speeches and a visit to the Great Hall of the People.

Over the last 50 years, 170 bishops have been elected and consecrated, 1,800 priests have been ordained, 3,000 sisters trained, 12 major and 18 minor seminaries established, 70 convents opened, and 200 people (priests, sisters and lay people) sent abroad for further studies. As a bridge between the government and ancient Church structures, such as dioceses and parishes, the CCPA has the most to lose from the biggest Catholic story of 2007.

Five new bishops were ordained in 2007: Paul Xiao Zejiang (萧泽江) 40, of Guiyang, Guizhou (贵州贵阳), on September 8. Li Shan (李山) 42, of Beijing (北京) on September 21; Lu Shouwang (呂守旺) 41, of Yichang, Hubei (湖北宜昌), on November 30; Gan Junqiu (甘俊邱) 43, of Guangzhou  (广东广州), on December 4; and Li Jing (李晶) 40, of Yinchuan, Ningxia (宁夏银川) on Dec. 21. All five of these young bishops reportedly are acceptable both to Rome and to Beijing.

Ten bishops died in 2007, at an average age of 88. The first part of the year saw the deaths of Peter Paul Li Panshi (李磐石) 94, of Jiangmen, Guangdong (广东江门), on January 4; Joseph Meng Ziwen (蒙子文) 104, of Nanning, Guangxi (广东南宁), on January 7; Bonaventure Luo Juan (雒隽) 91, of Shuozhou, Shanxi (山西朔州), on March 15; Michael Fu Tieshan (傅铁山) 66, of Beijing (北京), on April 20; Bernardine Dong Guangqing (董光清) 91, of Wuhan, Hubei (湖北武汉), on May 12.

In the latter part of 2007, the Church in China bade farewell to Peter Zhao Zhendong (赵振东) 87, of Xuanhua, Hebei (河北宣化), on July 13; Benedict Cai Xiufeng (蔡秀峰) 92, of Wuzhou, Guangxi (广西梧州), on August 20; Joseph Han Dingxiang (韩鼎祥) 71, of Yongnian (Handan), Hebei (河北永年邯郸), on September 9; John Liang Xisheng (梁希生) 84, of Kaifeng, Henan (河南开封), on September 23; and Liu Dinghan (刘定汉) 91, of Cangzhou (Xianxian), Hebei (河北沧州献县) on December 20. May they rest in peace after their many labours.

Age-wise, the new bishops could easily be the grandsons of their deceased predecessors. Closing the seminaries for over 20 years led to a missing generation of clergy. The old bishops will be mostly gone within five years and thus many priests in their early 40s will have to be ordained as their replacements.

Two letters from the pope

A historic papal letter of June 30 was addressed specifically to the Church in China. China Bridge commented on it last September. November 30 saw the release of Spe Salvi, a reflection on Christian hope. Encyclicals are addressed to the whole Catholic world, or sometimes to the entire human race.

Spe Salvi begins with a reflection on life “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). The Good News of the resurrection and the hope of eternal life spoke to people in the Roman Empire, and the Gospel still speaks to people around the world today.

Christian hope is not just an individualistic hope that ignores one’s neighbours, but rather a hope that moves us to help our world, even though we cannot create heaven on earth. The Holy Father examines how faith in God started to shift to faith in progress about 400 years ago. Advances in science and technology fuelled progress and led to hope for a better world through reason and greater freedom. Humanity would acquire increasing dominion over creation, original sin could be conveniently forgotten and a bright future was guaranteed.

In China, this attitude is captured in a slogan: “science is all-powerful.” Yet pollution and looming shortages of energy and raw materials, not to mention loss of meaning in material possessions, lead many to question the saving power of science and technology. Spe salvi will inspire many homilies in 2008, not only in China but everywhere.

In the long run, Spe salvi may prove to be a more sweeping challenge to China’s ideology than the contents of the pope’s Letter to China.