Rome (AsiaNews) – One of the greatest ‘bluffs’ in the history of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is now underway in Beijing, behind close doors in the Great Hall of the People. More than 2,000 CPC delegates are talking about ‘religious freedom’ and ‘respect for all faiths.’ At the same time though, persecution and violence against members of religious communities continue—bishops are disappearing, placed in isolation or dying under murky circumstances whilst Protestant activists are getting beaten up or dragged to concentration camps. All this is happening as Hu Jintao’s pet project for a ‘harmonious society’ is on the verge of being incorporated into the Party’s constitution.
The idea of a ‘harmonious society,’ so dear to Party Secretary and People’s Republic President Hu Jintao, calls for greater participation of all strata of Chinese society to China’s development. It implies social reconciliation in a country racked by 200 episodes of violent unrest involving the population and the police a day.
In an interview to foreign journalists, the director of the State Administration of Religious Affairs Ye Xiaowen said that religion has been playing an increasingly important role in the country's economic and social development.
Under new religious freedom guidelines, the government is keen to respect the beliefs of all its citizens, protect their interests and make efforts to facilitate their activeness in social development, he said.
And yet as Ye entertained journalists with his slogans about freedom, in a neighbourhood not far from the Great Hall, an underground Christian preacher, Hua Huiqi, was beaten by police for a second time in a week when he tried to leave home.
Mr Hua, who was under house arrest for his activities on behalf of some Beijing residents whose homes has been seized, was beaten a second time, ostensibly because he tried to leave his home to go to a nearby public bathroom, but in reality because police asked him to co-operate by providing a list of people he had contacted, and he refused.
Ye Xiaowen, 58, has been at his post since 1998. His job is to hunt down underground Christians, treat them as common criminals for disturbing the peace because they meet in private homes to pray, rejecting the control of patriotic associations.
A few years ago Protestant groups released figures showing that their co-religionists had suffered 23,686 arrests, 4,014 sentences to re-education camps, and 129 deaths.
In the last few years persecution against evangelical communities has indeed gotten worse. One of the latest reports AsiaNews published on October 8 of this year refers to the ‘discovery’ of nine Protestant leaders who had disappeared in July.
Missing bishops and priests
Ye Xiaowen does not treat Catholics that much differently. Since he came into office in 1998 the underground Church has been decimated despite some positive steps taken by the Chinese government towards the Vatican.
In a country that today takes pride in being modern and forward-looking, four bishops vanished into the hands of the police. Three are underground bishops; the fourth is recognised by the government. They are:
1) Mgr James Su Zhimin (diocese of Baoding, Hebei), 74, disappeared in 1996 after being arrested. In November 2003 he was seen in a Baoding hospital under police custody for heart and eye treatment. He eventually disappeared again a few days later.
2) Mgr Cosma Shi Enxiang (diocese of Yixian, Hebei), 85, was arrested on April 13, 2001. Ordained bishop in 1982, he has spent 30 years in prison. He was arrested in December 1990 and released in 1993. Since then he has been in forced isolation until his most recent arrest.
3) Mgr Julius Jia Zhiguo (bishop of Zhengding, Hebei), 74, is held by police at an unknown State Guest House. He has already spent 15 years behind bars and has been repeatedly arrested. He was re-arrested because he wanted to circulate a pastoral letter with his comments about the Pope’s Letter to Chinese Catholics, and because he was planning to ordain a few underground priests.
4) Mgr Martin Wu Qinjing, official bishop of Zhouzhi (Shaanxi), 39, has been in the hands of the police and of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) since March 17 of this year. He is probably held in forced isolation in Lintong or Xian, and subjected to “study sessions.” He is not allowed to see any of his parishioners or priests. Mgr Wu Qinjing was consecrated in 2005 by the late archbishop of Xian, Mgr Anthony Li Duan. He is recognised by the Holy See, but not by the CPCA. For the latter, whose goal is to set up a Church independent of Rome, his ordination was illegal because under the control of “foreign powers.”
Fr Joseph Lu Genjun is among the last priests to be arrested. The 47-year-old clergyman is the administrator of the diocese of Baoding (Hebei) and has already spent three years in a camp. He was arrested in August 2004; released; then re-arrested on February 18, 2006, and has been held ever since in an unknown location without trial or even charges pressed against him. He was arrested with Fr Paul Huo Junlong 52, also an administrator at the diocese of Baoding.
According to AsiaNews’ sources, at least 11 priests are currently under arrest.
Suspicious deaths in prison
The disappearance of these clergymen is raising a lot of concern within the Chinese Church. Whether in prison or in isolation, bishops and priests are being subjected to physical torture and psychological pressures that are harmful to their health. In the last two years, two underground bishops have died in detention:
a) Mgr Han Dingxian (diocese of Yongnian/Handan, Hebei) died on September 9 at the age of 68. He went missing two years ago, taken by the police. Before he died he was brought to a hospital in Shijiazhuang. Police got some of his close relatives to visit him just a few hours before he went into a come and died. A few hours after his death (at 11 pm), his remains were cremated in the early morning and buried in a public cemetery, effectively denying his parishioners and priests the right to see him, say goodbye and bless him. Altogether Mgr Han spent almost 35 years of his life in prison.
b) Mgr John Gao Kexian, underground bishop of Yantai (Shandong), died during night of January 24, 2005, in a hospital in the city of Bingzhou (Shandong). He was 77-years-old. He had been in police custody for five years. The day after he died his body was cremated and immediately buried in the presence of a few police officers. As was the case for Mgr Han, no one, parishioner or relative alike, was allowed to attend Bishop Gao’s burial. He, too, died without the comfort of religion, nor was his body blessed.
As a result of the violence they receive many bishops and priests are sick and weak when they leave prison or come out of isolation. For example, Mgr John Fan Zhongliang of Shanghai, 87, is now free but very ill and under constant surveillance; Mgr James Lin Xili, 86, of Wenzhou (Zhejiang), is in isolation after three years of prison that truly taxed his body.
Two priests in Wenzhou, Fathers Shao Zhumin and Jiang Sunian, were recently freed but have to undergo medical treatment for hearth, lung and hearing problems that resulted from the violence they were subjected to whilst in prison.
Religions as engines of the ‘harmonious society’
Yesterday Ye Xiaowen boasted that all religions are growing in China but failed to say that according to a recent university study, growth is especially strong in underground communities, outside the control of the State Administration of Religious Affairs.
A Shanghai Normal University survey (see (AsiaNews of February 2, 2007) indicates that at least 300 million Chinese believe in religion; that is three times what official figures claim.
Perhaps Hu Jintao does not realise that a quarter of his people is denied religious freedom (which is formally protected under the constitution). For this reason, they cannot fully participate, nor contribute to his pet project, i.e. building a ‘harmonious society.’ Hence, the lack of religious freedom not only marginalises hundreds of million of people, but their creativity is wasted in trying to cope with an adversarial state.
Why instead not allow them to make a contribution to society? On the eve of Maoism’s demise in the 1980s China’s agriculture was chocked by state planning. All it took was for Deng Xiaoping to let people farm their own land and buy and sell their own products on the market for production to rise by 300-400 per cent. The same could happen to religion.
Many communities, both official and underground, offer services to the poor, the elderly, the disabled, farmers, and the illiterate whom the state has forgotten.
Religious freedom can reduce non-violently the same potential for social unrest the Party fears so much. Greater contacts with foreign Churches and religions can increase cultural and economic ties to the benefit of China itself.
Chinese people in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, Canada, and United States help out their communities of origin, funding schools, health clinics and universities. Churches in Europe and the Americas do the same.
Religious freedom is useful to both society and the economy. It creates empathy abroad and encourages creativity and solidarity at home. It is a source for morality in a society with a high suicide rate and even greater levels of corruption.
Perhaps only religious freedom might ensure a truly ‘harmonious society.’