China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2017/Apr
Land, work, housing and the China Dream
In an excellent article, Is the pope the anti-Trump? (The New York Times, March 4), Austen Ivereigh compares the two leaders. They both appeal directly to the people and are ready to take on the status quo. However, their values lead to vastly different projects – one builds bridges; the other walls.
Ivereigh’s study in contrasts offers a perceptive profile of Pope Francis – the man and his heart.
One project that is close to the pope’s heart is the World Meeting of Popular Movements. “Quietly,” Ivereigh writes, “Francis has over the last four years been supporting and guiding a global association of excluded workers like garbage pickers and migrant labourers, acting as their visible leader.”
In his message to the delegates of the fourth world gathering of the group in Modesto, California, the United States of America (US), in February 2017, Pope Francis says: “I want to encourage and strengthen each one of you, your organisations and all who strive with you for Land, Work and Housing.”
His vision of popular movements is to “work locally, side by side with your neighbours, organising among yourselves, to make your communities thrive.”
Who are our neighbours? On the one hand, they are often seen as unclean, disposable. Pope Francis recalls Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan: “As a Samaritan he was looked down upon, no one would have counted on him.”
On the other hand, the Samaritan’s acts of mercy toward the injured person “teaches us that compassion, love, is not a vague sentiment, but rather means taking care of the other to the point of personally paying for him.”
Our neighbours are the marginalised and those who care personally (not just theoretically or theologically), who work together for a humanising reality.
A particular goal of the World Meeting of Popular Movements is to foster an encounter between Church leadership and grassroots organisations to address the “economy of exclusion and inequality,” by working for structural changes that promote social, economic and racial justice.
The new Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development (part of Pope Francis’ ongoing reform of the Curia), bishops’ conferences and local Church leaders are responding positively.
Cardinals in Brazil champion indigenous land rights and environmental protection of the Amazon. In the US, the Church speaks up for the dignity of migrants and offers sanctuaries and legal aid. In India, “the Catholic Church is 100 per cent with the Dalits (the untouchables).”
The Church is renewing her pastoral mission “in the modern world.”
“Humanity is experiencing a turning-point in its history” (Joy of the Gospel §52), Pope Francis cautions. He points to a “system that has the god of money at its centre and that sometimes acts with the brutality of the robbers in the parable, inflicts injuries that to a criminal degree have remained neglected.”
In Hong Kong, we are familiar with such a system. In Northeast and Northwest New Territories, farmers who have worked the land for generations, but do not own it, are forced to vacate.
People frequently work overtime without compensation, often at the expense of family life. In our neighbourhoods, a cadre of sanitation workers, often elderly, work for low pay and minimum benefits – under government subcontractors.
And housing, instead of a basic right, has become the Holy Grail, beyond the means of most young working people and even the middle class.
Should we care if members in our community live in conditions of indignity and inhumanity? Does it matter, if we are the lucky ones who enjoy the flow of global goods, capital, labour and information?
Pope Francis challenges our indifference: “One looks at those who suffer without touching them… they are talked about in euphemisms, but nothing is done systematically to heal the social wounds or to confront the structures that leave so many brothers and sisters by the wayside.”
He guides our finger into a deeper wound: “When we (disown our neighbours)…, we deny their humanity and our own humanity without realising it; we deny ourselves and we deny the most important commandments of Jesus. Herein lies the danger, the dehumanisation.”
Worldwide, we are reaping the whirlwind and violence of such dehumanisation. We are caught off-guard not only by extreme weather, but also political storms.
Nations rush to build walls or firewalls to keep out the foreign. Seas and islands become the sites of competing military build-ups.
Multilateral organisations, like the European Union and the United Nations, that have kept the world in relative peace for more than half a century, are under siege.
There is anger against institutions, against the elites. No sympathy for refugees or migrants, the perceived hordes of others.
When the person is reduced to living without dignity, counts for nothing, or when a person is deprived of their right to think freely and act responsibly (democratic participation being one of these rights), disappointment and despair give rise to hate.
Such sentiments are ripe for exploitation, as more money is spent to quell terror, domestic terror. The need to preserve stability becomes a legal and social excuse to crush dissent, suppress civil liberties and tighten the power grip.
“These are signs of the times that we need to recognise in order to act,” Pope Francis exhorts. “The ways in which this worsening crisis gets resolved – will depend on people’s involvement and participation and, largely, on yourselves, the popular movements.”
Nearly half of the world’s population lives at subsistence level outside official statistics, often unprotected by laws of the formal economy. They make a living out of what others throw away.
The Church recognises their vulnerable conditions, but also their capacity to organise themselves. It invites organisations of poor and excluded workers to the Vatican and offers them an open space to network, study and share valuable experience about work, organisation and struggle.
Symbolically, the World Meeting of Popular Movements launches a shift from the borders to the middle and makes possible a new relationship between the margins and the centre, as opposed to the usual domination by the centre.
According to one community organiser who took part in the third meeting in Rome in 2016, over 200 participants from 68 countries were there, representing different sectors of the popular economy. They included landless farmers in Latin America, hawkers in Africa, slum dwellers in India and migrant workers in China.
In Beijing, the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference met recently under smog-free skies. No migrant worker was invited.
Official media produced a rap-animation, My Two Sessions, My Say, and simulated WeChat conversations between government leaders and the people, that presented a mirage of democratic representation and accountability. Few people tuned in.
In his speech on the 95th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, the president, Xi Jinping, referred to the people over 100 times.
At the third Plenary Session of the 18th meeting of the Central Committee in November 2013, Xi popularised the phrase China Dream. It has since become the official mantra:
“Comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society, build a strong, democratic, civilised and harmonious socialist modern country, fulfill the China Dream of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Perhaps numeric slogans, a favourite political tool of the Communist Party, give us an inkling of the stuff that the China dream is made of.
In a speech to provincial party leaders in February 2015, Xi outlined the Four Comprehensives. The goal is to “comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society” through these strategic initiatives:
• Comprehensively deepen reform
• Comprehensively govern the nation according to law
• Comprehensively strictly govern the party.
The Four Comprehensives set the stage for high-stakes policies aimed at buffering China’s slower economic growth; new laws to standardise activities, that also increase state supervision over the individual; and a relentless anti-graft campaign that eliminates political rivals.
A 21 May 2015 article in Dangjian, the party magazine supervised by the Central Propaganda Department, traces the term moderate prosperity (小康) to the classical Book of Poetry. That is to say, the people have always wanted it for millennia. The article skips to the late 1970s when Deng Xiaoping invoked the concept to inaugurate the Reform and Opening.
Then it borrows a phrase from the 18th Party Congress: the integration of the five constructions: economic, political, cultural, social and ecological (五位一體) is the means to achieve moderate prosperity.
Six livelihood issues
The 14th meeting of the Central Leading Group for Financial and Economic Affairs, chaired by Xi, gathered in late 2016 to target the following:
• Promote clean winter heating in the north
• Universal implementation of garbage classification system
• Resolve livestock and poultry waste disposal and
• Improve the quality of homes for elderly people
• Regulate the rental market, combat the real estate bubble
• Improve food safety.
The issues could not be more down-to-earth. They showcase a “people-centred development thought.” China’s president explained: what the masses want in life, that’s where economic development should head.
He promised: the state will step up supply-side reforms (invest in capital, reduce barriers to produce more goods and services, stimulate consumer demand), create new growth points and improve long-term growth potential.
We note the China Dream, as coined and interpreted by party leadership, is understood mainly in materialist terms.
Land, work and housing
The Communist government in China has struggled for many years with land, work and housing.
The country has made incredible progress in producing wealth and reducing poverty, though not evenly.
But fast-paced economic growth has been accompanied by pervasive corruption, real estate bubbles, zombie state enterprises that generate more goods than there is demand for and a seriously polluted environment that endangers the people’s health.
“The China Dream is after all the people’s dream,” Comrade Xi Jinping says. At the same time he is elevated as the core of the party, controlling the state, military and economy.
We remember the Church’s teaching about integral development on the 50th anniversary of On the Development of Peoples (Populorum Progressio). We hear the words of Pope Francis: “work locally, side by side …”