06/08/2005, 00.00
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Persecution in Hebei, a liability for Hu Jintao's plans

by Wang Hui
Letter slams Wang Zhenguo, Religious Affairs Bureau director in Gao Cheng County, for building a 'harmonious society' with violence and terror.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – Underground Catholics in Hebei have sent AsiaNews a letter denouncing the persecution visited upon them. A wave of violence has in fact been unleashed, they tell us, and it is the work of their County's Religious Affairs Department which has declared an all-out war against the Church. 

The long document names those responsible: Wang Zhenguo, Religious Affairs Department director for Gao Cheng County and Chen Xiuyun, deputy governor of Hebei province and director of the United Front Department. 

According to the letter's authors, the officials' anti-religious attitude is based on nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution and runs counter to the moderate policies of China's President Hu Jintao, who has been preaching the virtues of development based on a "harmonious society" for the past two years.

Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, has the highest concentration of Catholics in the country: some 1.5 million, mostly in the underground Church.  According to a list published by AsiaNews last March, of the many isolated, imprisoned or otherwise unaccounted for clergymen, at least 8 bishops and 13 priests are from Hebei.

For local Catholics, ideological reasons (rigidly Maoist Communism) and economic factors explain the violent policies of the Religious Affairs Department. For them, the fight against religion becomes a smokescreen to conceal the fact that provincial officials have failed to develop Hebei's economy. In the purest imperial tradition (whether Roman or Chinese), Catholics serve as scapegoats to be persecuted.

The letter also points to another important factor in the Religious Affairs Department's persecution: its profound ignorance on religious and spiritual matters.

The letter contains some information already published by AsiaNews (on April 28, 2005):

1) the arrest of a group of priests for having participated in a spiritual retreat;

2) the solitary confinement of Bishop Jia Zhiguo and other bishops upon the death of John Paul II until the election of Benedict XVI.


Bishops in the underground Church are happy to see walls marked with Hu Jintao's slogan "let us build the harmonious society of socialism".  One feature of a harmonious society is a fair justice system, that is, a system in which the interests of the various segments of society are coordinated, one that sees conflict resolution among social groups handled correctly, one where justice and equity are realistically realised and protected . . .

But this harmonious athmosphere is absent in Hebei province. Here, the pro-Vatican underground Catholic Church is still defined as "a negative, underground force." 

Local authorities will stop at nothing to persecute Catholics. And all this thanks to one man, Wang Zhenguo, the director of the Religious Affairs Department for Gao Cheng County. 

His attitude towards religion is right out of the Cultural Revolution. His hatred for the underground Church and his atrocities towards the faithful are an embarrassment even for his own colleagues.

Some have tried to keep a lid on him by telling him that he was just a few years away from retirement and that there was no point in humiliating so many people. But Wang pays no heed to anyone and keeps on abusing his power.

He told the faithful that if they continue adhering to the underground Church they were doomed. He threw underground priests out of Gao Cheng County, telling each that "if I see your face again, it will be war and you'll be my enemy".

Destroying Catholics

People are freed or jailed at Wang's whim. Lying to the faithful is not beneath him if it means getting them to adhere to the official Church. In one case, he announced that Pope Benedict XVI would visit China in October and that the best way to prepare for his arrival was to join the official Church.

As a public official, Wang Zhenguo's word represents the government's voice, but his behaviour is particularly damaging for the Chinese government's image.

When he speaks, he always shouts, swears, insults and humiliates the faithful and priests of the underground Church. For the local population is a perfect thug.

One example among many: A Catholic village had the right permit to build a church, but Wang told its residents that if they built it he would bomb it. The faithful replied that if he bombed the Church they would invite the press and give out photos of the event. Thankfully, fear of a bad press toned down his zeal.

But this proves that Wang Zhenguo has no clue as to what it means to "realistically realise and protect justice and equity".

For him, repressing underground bishops and priests is no different than repressing "bulls, demons, serpents and ghosts" as clergymen were once called during the Cultural Revolution. Pushing them to the ground and forcing them to shout 'Long live the Communists' are his way of building [President's Hu] "harmonious society".

Ideology and ignorance

Wang is free to do as he pleases because he is backed by provincial authorities. Hebei province, whose territory surrounds Beijing and Tianjin, could be rich but is instead poor.

The provincial government is largely responsible for its persistent economic underdevelopment—it has pursued political campaigns [against religion] to cover up its failure.

Provincial authorities deliberately complicate matters by playing politics with the underground Church. Issues are made bigger than they are and lies are spread just to enhance their political prestige.

They have set up a Catholic Church Unit for the sole purpose of crushing the underground Church. It is led by Chen Xiuyun, deputy provincial governor of Hebei province and director of the United Front Department.

Other members of the special unit come from the Provincial Religious Affairs Department and the Provincial Public Security Bureau.

The theoretical bases for the fight against the underground Church come from a long series of studies inspired by socialist theory according to which the Church must be oppressed. Among these studies, there are several with titles worth mentioning such as Inquiry and reflection on the question of the Catholic Church underground movement in Hebei: history, present and strategy, by Fu Jin-Duo (5th volume, published by the Advanced United Chinese Front); Inquiry into the question of the Catholic Church underground movement in Hebei province after the reforms and opening, edited by Xu Lin (Academy of Social Sciences of Hebei); Seeking countermeasures to the influence and infiltration by religious movements and basic organisations in Hebei's countryside, edited by Prof Zhang Lianyue (Central Institute of the Communist Party of Hebei); Investigation in Dong Lu village, Qing Yuan County, edited by Prof Huang Yunming (Hebei University)

Such studies are indicative of a certain state of mind, i.e. the unwillingness of the Hebei Religious Affairs Department to understand Catholic doctrine and the motives behind the underground Church's desire to remain in communion with the Holy See.

What such studies do show is that the Department is not interested in reaching out and working with the underground Church, allowing it to explain itself. Instead, they show that it is more interested in repressing and controlling the Church, if not outright eliminating it.

The Department's level of ignorance about Catholicism would be funny if it were not so tragic as demonstrated by one of its officials who went so far as to ask underground Catholic priests to believe in a 'Chinese' God. In his view, the Chinese must have faith in a Chinese God, not a 'foreign' God.

The "war" against John Paul II's death

One might have thought that the Religious Affairs Office was on a war path against an enemy power when Pope John Paul II passed away.

Police vans descended upon the village of Wu Qiu, where Mgr Jia Zhiguo, Bishop of Zhengding, lives. Dressed for military action, police officers surrounded the church and set up a command post; then they called in for reinforcements and kept the church under 24-hour surveillance—12 guards taking turns monitoring every corner of the building. Outsiders were barred from going near the church and the Bishop was not allowed out. The whole place was under tight control until the new Pope was elected.

Even non Catholics in the village thought the whole thing unbelievably ludicrous. It also showed that the Religious Affairs Department did not have the foggiest idea about what the death of a pope implied; it highlighted their total ignorance as to what goes on in the Church in such a situation.

This kind of ignorance is a dereliction of duty on the part of the authorities. Officials should have at least some basic knowledge of religion.

For instance, a spiritual retreat led by a Bishop is something quite normal in both the underground and official Church.

Elsewhere in China, Religious Affairs officers would not intervene, but for the Hebei Department, especially its Catholic Church Unit, a retreat was a 'grave incident' to be investigated.

[After this year's Easter celebrations,] Bishop Jia led a retreat for the clergy after informing local authorities. But someone informed provincial authorities and nine police patrol cars drove into the village and took away the priests.

Nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution

Some Hebei public officials have a mindset still stuck in the age of the Cultural Revolution. They insulted the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, because they considered him an anti-communist. Didn't he overthrow the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe, they said.

Sadly, they can't grasp the fact that these bygone regimes followed the same extremist and totalitarian paths of the Cultural Revolution.

The current Chinese government and the Holy See both seem opposed to totalitarian extremism. The Holy See itself is impressed by China's successful [economic] reforms and its greater openness. Why would it want to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, if this were not the case.

Hebei's relative economic underdevelopment is directly related to the resistance put up by those who yearn for Mao's times and oppose reform and openness.

Unable or unwilling to defy orders from the central government, such officials take out their frustration on the underground Church.

Some officials have however shown some compassion for the fate of the underground Church and in several occasions have criticised their colleagues' extremism.

In practice, persecution is counterproductive for it reinforces Catholics' faith. In fact, over the decades, their ranks have swollen, not shrunk.

Persecution will not solve the problem of the underground Church. What are needed instead are communication, compassion and mutual respect.

Of course, repression might make someone's carrier, but it will certainly not build Hu Jintao's much vaunted "harmonious society".

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