China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2015/Apr
Recent discussions on religious issues in China
During the month of March, local and international media frequently reported on official statements and on the holding of public debates on religious issues in China. The first occasion was at the 3rd Session of the 12th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC, March 3 to 13) and the 3rd Session of the 12th National People’s Congress (NPC, March 5 to 15).
Both assemblies dealt with religious issues. In the Work Report of the CPPCC, the term, religion, was mentioned only 10 times, less than the number in the reports of the two previous years. But the content was more substantial. The new changes in the report were the following:
1. The contribution of religions to the economic and social development of the country was not emphasised.
2. The control and the adaptation of religions to socialism and the concern for national unity and harmony were set in the context of “governing the country according to the law.”
3. The administration of religious affairs should be strengthened especially in rural areas, so religious professionals can get social security.
4. Contacts and exchanges with Taiwan should be extended to include the areas of religious culture and traditional ethical teachings.
5. The Chinese Conference for Religion and Peace should keep a position of equality and prevent undue interference in dealing with Tibet and Xinjiang issues.
6. The Committee of National Minorities and Religions of the CPPCC should increase external contacts and exchanges.
On March 5, the United Front Work Department’s website published the article, Yu Zhengsheng’s statement on the decision to control religious extremism. It reported that Yu Zhengsheng, the head of the CPPCC, while attending the group discussion of the Committee of the Delegates of the National Minorities and Religions, emphasised that the present situation requires all members to make greater effort to carry out the basic orientations of religious work, to guide clergy and believers to keep united and to fully cooperate with the party in governing the nation in order to guarantee national unity and to increase their positive role in the economic and social progress of the nation.
According to the same report, Yu paid particular attention to the interventions of the 11 delegates, among whom were Bishop Ma Yinglin and Bishop Shen Bin of the officially sanctioned Catholic community.
Bishop Ma emphasised that religious work should be carried out within a legal framework by updating the more than 10-year-old Regulations on Religious Affairs.
He said: “respect the law, practice the law, observe the law and make use of the law… put in the legal spirit when preaching and explaining the scriptures, so as to guarantee the sound development of religious affairs will be on the legal track.”
He also suggested that a better formation of religious professionals and an improvement in their work style be implemented so that they could make a better contribution to society.
Bishop Shen made three proposals: strengthen the structure of the basic patriotic organs by promptly solving the shortages of manpower, living quarters and finances; implement the policy concerning religious properties and improve the formation of religious professionals and teams by supporting seminaries and convents thus creating platforms for the higher education of good leaders.
In the group discussion of the same committee in the morning of March 7, with the leaders of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) in attendance, the director, Wang Zuo’an, expressed the hope that everybody would increase their commitment, vigilance and control in religious work.
In the New Year, he promised SARA would do its best to carry out the basic lines set for religious work, to favour good relationships and harmony among religions, to continue the revision of the 10-year-old Regulations on Religious Affairs in order to guarantee the legal rights of religious believers.
On March 17, the Xinhua news agency summarised the intervention of Zhu Weiqun, head of the Committee of the National Minorities and Religions of the CPPCC, made on the afternoon of March 11.
Zhu first pointed out the four basic orientations of official religious policy namely: to thoroughly and completely carry out the policy of religious freedom of the party, administer religious affairs according to the law, maintain the principles of autonomy and independence, and positively guide religions and socialist society to mutually adjust to one another.
Zhu then elaborated on the last orientation, but it seems he understood it in only one way: “If a religion does not want or cannot adjust to concrete society, it cannot but face extinction…Religion’s historical adjustment is not enough: it should adjust to present-day China.”
The present adjustment, according to Zhu, should be carried out along the following three lines:
．On the basic level, religious circles should be required to love the country, keep the laws, value the guidance of the Communist Party and the socialist system, obey the legal administration of the government, and develop religious activities according to the laws and regulations.
．On a second level, the adjustment requires religious circles to meet all the requests of the masses of believers and in the present social situation, carry out initiatives beneficial to the welfare of the population and to social harmony.
．The third level of adjustment requires religious circles to further discover and promote the contents of the doctrine and rules of their religion which are beneficial to the development of the country, to social stability and to the improvement of morality.
During the National People’s Congress, the premier, Li Keqiang, in his annual work report, after emphasising the urgency of safeguarding national unity and harmony among the minority ethnic groups through respecting all their proper rights and privileges, stated on the issue of religion: “We have to thoroughly and completely follow the basic guidelines for religious work, favouring harmonious relationship among religions, protecting the legal rights of religious circles, promoting the positive role of religious professionals and of the masses of believers in the process of social and economic development!”
Dealing with the issues of the improvement of people’s livelihood and social reconstruction, he also admonished citizens to prevent and eliminate social evils, among which he listed ‘false religions.’
An exciting debate began with the interview of the Vatican spokesperson, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, broadcast by Hong Kong Phoenix TV on March 10, in which he confirmed the present contacts and the positive atmosphere that now exists between the Vatican and China.
But, these are not necessarily aimed at the establishment of diplomatic relations. They comprise just one of the many ways contacts are taking place between two states.
He suggested the possibility that China consider the model of the relations between the Vatican and Vietnam, especially regarding the matter of episcopal ordinations.
According to the Vietnam model, the Vietnam authorities first suggest names of candidates to the Vatican. The Vatican then chooses, appoints and ordains bishops based on the government recommendations.
The interview set off a lot of reactions in China, Hong Kong and western countries, from people and publications concerned with the issue of Sino-Vatican relations, from different sides and from different points of view.
It is interesting to note the content of the reactions. The official position of Beijing, referred to by the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, remained above the issue and just dealt with the matter in general terms. Its spokesperson said: “We are willing to have constructive dialogue with the Vatican… We hope the Vatican can create favourable conditions for the improvement of relations.”
On the other hand, the majority of Catholic sources, mainly UCA News, AsiaNews and Vatican Insider, plus many individuals, directly took issue with the suggestion of the Vietnam Model to solve the problem of episcopal ordination.
Some judged it feasible others underlined its ambiguity and inefficiency even in Vietnam; yet others pointed to the danger of arriving at a bad compromise by accepting the role of the illegitimate Chinese Bishops’ Conference, or even the democratic procedure of the selection of candidates.
Lucia Cheung of UCA News asked: “So why has Father Lombardi resurrected the proposal now? The timing is interesting. His interview with Phoenix TV followed a series of interviews with three Chinese underground bishops by Rome-based media group Vatican Insider. It seems likely that the Vatican is testing the waters to see how far China is willing to go in seeking a common ground for future appointments. But there are competing views of how the Vietnam model actually works…”
Some Hong Kong leftist publications emphasised the impossibility of China agreeing to adopt the Vietnam Model since Beijing would insist on having the final say in choosing episcopal candidates.
They urged the Vatican to face “the historical tradition and the reality of the situation of Catholics in China” regarding this issue.
Two important Hong Kong dailies, close to Beijing, Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao, joined the debate a few times.
In discussing the issue of Sino-Vatican relations, it should be noted, they did not even mention the Vietnam Model. Instead, they brought up the agreement which was put into the hands of the Vatican at the end of last year, to which it has not yet responded.
They specified that, at present, the crux of the problem was no longer relations of with Taiwan, but the episcopal ordinations themselves and the treatment of the bishops.
The two pro-Beijing dailies also announced that a good amount of preparation for the 9th National Assembly of Catholic Representatives, which is due to take place this year, is already underway. It will carry out the election of new leaders and this may provide a serious challenge to the development of relations between China and the Vatican.
If the Vatican takes the same stand as it did in 2010, Sino-Vatican negotiations will most likely fail and the Vatican will bear the brunt of the blame. This seems to be a well-planned and ominous warning!