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Can the Vatican and political reforms save China?

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Political tensions are mounting around China and only massive liberal political and economic reforms in Beijing could help stem the tide. The Vatican could be of some assistance.

The recent telephone call between US President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen appears to be a signal of the new American administration’s intentions toward China. The phone call, whether intentional or the result of a miscalculation, was followed by some ominous anti-Beijing tweets from the President-elect that China considered an affront, although it tried to minimize the incident in its official reaction.

Taiwan, de facto independent but de jure part of One China, is perhaps the sorest spot in Beijing’s foreign map. It is a reminder of the failed total unification of Chinese land after the civil war with the KMT nationalists that ended in 1949.

Moreover, Beijing fears that if Taiwan (which like Mainland China is inhabited by an ethnic Han majority) were to proclaim formal independence, there would be troubles. This could fan pro-independent forces in the Mainland. About half of China’s Mainland is made up of areas with large non-Han ethnic minorities, such as Xinjiang, with Muslim Uighurs; Tibet, with Lamaist Tibetans; and Inner Mongolia, with Mongolians. Why should an island that is over 90% ethnic Chinese be independent and regions with major non-Han minorities be subject to Beijing? This could break up the country and incense Han ultra-nationalist sentiments.

Trump’s telephone call is no isolated incident. A few days earlier the future National Security Adviser Michael Flynn said that China supported Islamic terrorism and rearmament in North Korea. This accusation is extremely serious, as the US has officially been fighting Islamic terrorism since 9/11 in 2001. The claim surfaced in the past several times but was then put on the back burner. Its return from a senior member of the future administration could be a significant signal of plans to try to politically quarantine China.

Lastly, at least so far, there is the Russia card. Moscow’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country was ready to renormalize ties with America, while President Vladimir Putin was busy negotiating a peace agreement with Japan (the two countries still have only a truce after World War II). The realignment of Russia with America and its cozying up with Japan could de facto complete an encirclement of China, just as the 1971 US rapprochement with China helped to tip the balance against the USSR at a crucial moment in the Cold War (see also http://www.atimes.com/trumps-temptations-war-asia/).

In the world of globalization, booming e-trade, instantaneous telecommunication, and delocalization of production, the old arsenal of geopolitics—strategic isolation and attempts to divide a country—look like dulled tools. What really counts is economics. Despite previous talks of a trade war with China, as Trump promised during his campaign, the reality here is unfavorable. Any number of trade sanctions against China could backfire for the US.

But China’s economy is sputtering, tugged back by the growing drag of non-performing loans. Chinese entrepreneurs and a rising number of members of the middle class, uncertain about China’s political climate (see also http://www.atimes.com/latest-china-stock-crash-spotlights-urgent-need-for-financial-reform-sisci/), try to pour funds out of the country. Therefore, Beijing is steadily tightening controls to stem money outflows, fearing a possible fracture in its markets.

In this situation, political prickling could help to create new problems of domestic confidence in China and pry wider social and economic cracks in a country that could be eventually forced to bend to foreign pressures or implode. This prickling could fan ultra-nationalist sentiments, which could eventually concentrate against Beijing, considered too weak before nasty foreign powers, and spin out of control in Beijing’s arcane political maneuvers.

These steps far outweigh the recent progress China achieved in the South China Sea with neighbors like the Philippines and Malaysia. Through a mix economic support and territorial concession (China’s withdrawal from some of the contested areas), Beijing managed to shelve disagreements with them and open a new phase. But this headway apparently only dented the overall perception of China in the region and the world.

The reasons for this new overall annoyance with China are many. But in a nutshell they stem from the dissatisfaction of many foreign countries with Chinese political reforms and the projection of its own “soft power,” which often is not soft at all but very hard, essentially demanding services in return for cash handouts as if the world were eager to become some kind of help to Beijing’s patrons. Non-Chinese feel little or no love in dealings with Beijing whose officials are often insensitive to local mores and arrogant. It seems all about buying and selling, but even business is not all about buying and selling.

Furthermore, China has grown economically but it is still politically obscure and impenetrable, and has an extremely different political system from most of the world. It is not necessarily about right or wrong; it is about sets of measurement. Most of the world uses Western liberal standards of politics, but China uses its own system, and the two are not communicating. A standardization is required. Yet before going into this, we have to take a religious detour.

The Vatican card

In the middle of all this gloomy news for China, the global press is reporting a dissonant set of news: there is a thaw between Vatican and China. This is not just another establishment of diplomatic ties. It is extremely complex because it plays on many levels.

It deals with major religious questions at the heart of the moral compass of many men, especially (but not only) in the West: Is it right for the Holy See to have dialogue with an atheist state with a poor human rights record? Does it mean that China is right in doing whatever it is now doing? And what does this mean for the countries and people opposing China or some of its policies?

It touches on the problem of whether this reconciliation would mean some kind of “blessing” from the church to the Communist Party that has ruled China since 1949. Communist parties in the 1950s were excommunicated, and the Vatican was instrumental in helping the fall of the Soviet Empire. Therefore it could be siding against Beijing now. But then the Holy See was also crucial in protecting the communist regime in Cuba and helping re-institute diplomatic ties with the US, for decades Cuba’s archenemy. And it now has normal relations with Vietnam, also a communist country.

Normal ties between the Vatican and China would likely impact ties between the US and an array of countries worried about Beijing and China. Could this ruffle or un-ruffle feathers there? And in what terms? In fact, the combined influence of the Vatican and China compels every country to recalculate its stance on China if and when these ties were to be established.

Moreover, there is the historical element. After millennia of political and cultural separation, China is joining this world, dominated by Western values, political “measuraments” and vision for more than 500 years. Can the Vatican play a cultural and political role here, as for centuries it represented the bulwark of Western values and vision? Can these ties help to transform the church, which is perhaps now more than ever striving to keep ahead of a fast-changing world with a prophetic stand.

From the Chinese point of view, normalization of these ties could be a massive push continuing the movement of modernization started with the fall of the imperial system in 1911 and the May 4 movement. Therefore it could have major implications for all kinds of internal reforms. Or it can be turned into a fig leaf to protect the party’s status quo.

The direct and indirect impact is so massive that of course it raises all kinds of concerns. Yet for the church, while considering all of this, the telling consideration is the life of the church in China.

In recent months, some media argued that it is not necessary to rush in improving ties with Beijing because the communist government in power will fall within in a few years.

The church agenda

Normalization may or may not be forthcoming but the question remains of whether or not to hurry. This is an issue that has its charm for the church, where time is counted in centuries and there has never been great sympathy for communist governments. So why not wait a few years, or even decades, to quietly arrive in China, without stooping to compromises imposed by the godless communists?

It is an important point, and here we would like to offer a number of reasons why this line of thinking may cause damage to the Chinese people and to the church from the church point of view. The process should be hurried up, certainly within a reasonable period of time, though not within days or weeks.

Not acting now and waiting for the end of communist rule is a historical perspective similar to that of the 1700s, which brought the withdrawal of the Jesuits from the imperial court and the return about a century later of Catholics supported by French cannons. Beyond the question of whether the communists are good or not, for Catholics (a faith that comes from the West) to wait for the collapse of this regime is a clear political vote that goes beyond Cold War preferences. It becomes symbolic of the way Western foreign powers (and maybe even Asian powers) think of China: You deal with China after wiping out an oppressive regime (whether the 18th century Manchus or today’s communists). If the communist regime collapsed, the Catholics could come to China as they did in the 1800s, as an ideological tool of foreign domination over the Chinese. Later it took decades, until the 1920s and 1930s, for the church with the nuncio in Beijing, Celso Costantini, to get rid of France’s protective shield, as Cardinal Pietro Parolin also suggested in a speech in September.

It could be then very risky, but perhaps it may still be worth it to not pay the heavy duties of consistency and faith, one could argue.

In the event of returning to China after a communist collapse, however, the Holy See would face a Chinese church deeply divided into winners and losers. The winners would be those who never surrendered, and the vanquished would be the “collaborators.” It would be a very deep division and a huge humiliation for the losers, who would be men without faith (because they split from Rome) and homeless (because the government has fallen). Rome won’t be able to simply ignore the losers as they would be a deep wound in the body of the global church.

Such a division would certainly be deeper than today, where Rome seeks agreement with the government but does so without winners or losers. Now the two communities, divided by the choices they made in the 1950s, when some went underground and other joined the official bureaucracy, can both boast contributions to the ongoing dialogue and both had to give up something. Without normalization now the differences and divisions in the Chinese church could be multiplied a thousand times in a possible future. Assuming that the regime collapses—which is unlikely with this regime, given that it has proved capable of profound adaptations—then the church would be lost for decades or centuries, as it was with the Jesuits and the Manchus.

Beijing’s breakthrough

Looking at the prospect of waiting for decades or centuries, what happened in recent months should be noted. The Chinese government has granted in principle that the pope has a role in the selection of bishops. That is, for the first time in the long history of China, the emperor has taken a step back on spiritual matters and has separated the power of political and religious authorities. The emperor’s role historically blended the various aspects of governing and those of the supreme religious and spiritual leader. He was the son of heaven (tian zi), and the sky was the supreme deity. He officiated state and religious rites. Of course this cult-Confucian culture was much more vague, secular, and imprecise compared to the Muslim caliphs or Byzantine emperors, but the principle remained and was so strong as to be for almost two centuries the center of the Catholic debate in the 17th and 18th centuries.

On one side were “collaborators”: Jesuits who gave a “light” interpretation of Confucianism, that it was not a religion but merely a state ritual. On the other side, there were the Franciscans and Dominicans who believed that Confucianism was indeed a religion and the Jesuits had betrayed their faith by paying homage to the religious role of the emperor.

Mao continued in a sense the emperor’s spiritual role. Although officially atheist, Mao had risen in every practical aspect to the role of demigod, the explicit object of a personality cult. Deng Xiaoping eliminated the cult of personality, but the party did not give up his absolute dominion over the spiritual sphere, and in many ways, it returned to a Confucian situation of ambiguity in the role of the state with regard to religion. Everything was then complicated by other facts.

The Manchu court, where there were Jesuits, did not really understand the relationship between the pope and “his” priests, but it felt very strong as the center of “all under Heaven,” so it could overlook certain disputes between Catholics, who had no great impact on the government. Instead Deng’s communist Politburo felt weak, and through the work of Christian missionaries, experienced the weight of Western “colonization” of China. Deng therefore had many reasons to fear the increasing influence of the pope and his priests in China.

Today Xi in principle grants the church much more than has been achieved in millennia by any religion. China officially embraces the principle of modern states that separates religion and civil life, and while regulating civilian life, takes into account the needs of the various religions. It is much more than the Jesuits ever got, and the result of 20 years of intense discussions, which opens the door to even more freedom for other religions and to a new principle of freedom of belief in China.

This concession then opens the door to perhaps the most important element: the church’s role in helping China’s transition to a “normal” country and its full integration in the international context. If the church has been able to accomplish together with China recognition of the principle of separation between politics and religion, then perhaps the church could also be useful to China in other fields, such as to help the world understand China.

This inclusion of China in the international context, dominated for over half a millennium by Western standards, is in fact perhaps the most important political and cultural issue nowadays. The attention to China began with Paul VI (who wrote to Mao), was continued by John Paul II (who opened negotiations with Beijing) and Benedict XVI (who wrote the letter to Chinese Catholics), and ends with the current push by Pope Francis, apparently part of the new fundamental role of soft super power for the church.

The Vatican’s new global spiritual projection

On many international matters, the Holy See is taking a unique position in the world. The pope has become a beacon for many Muslims scared of terrorists but without spiritual support from their clergy. Islamic countries do not accept refugees from Libya or Syria, who instead go to the West under the pope’s encouragement. This is a profound message to the Islamic world, where the individual believer feels like a victim and his clergy ought to be good shepherds. Only now the good shepherds for them are not anywhere else but in Rome.

At the same time, the pope is doing his best to mend ties with the world of Orthodox Christians and with the churches that came out of the Protestant reformation, especially the Lutherans and Anglicans. In some ways, for the first time since about the 7th century, when Islam emerged as a separate faith from Christianity, we see the shadow of a great reconciliation of monotheistic faiths. This is a risky course for the orthodoxy of the Catholic faith. But the stakes are momentous, and perhaps we need to think of the period from 3rd to 7th centuries AD to have terms for comparison.

That was the time of the great crisis of the Roman Empire, when the empire split in two, east and west, with two capitals, Rome and Constantinople. But it was also the time of the affirmation of Christianity as the faith of the empire at the expense of the then widespread Zoroastrian cult of Mithras. Zoroastrianism instead became the official faith of the Persian Empire of the Parthians, the historic rival of Rome and bridge to India and China. The bond of Christianity with Rome gradually led to the expulsion of Zoroastrianism from the empire that dominated the Mediterranean, while the Muslim invasion of Persia led to the substitution of Islam for Zoroastrianism in that area of the world and possibly to the strengthening of an Islamic identity distinct from Christianity.

Today the inspiration of the pope with regard to Muslim refugees, besieged by civil wars and terrorists, creates a historic opportunity to begin to mend the deep fracture of more than 15 centuries ago. At the same time, the sense of siege on the old Europe, in a world whose axis of gravity has shifted to Asia, blurs the difference between Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox, which for centuries, when Europe was all the world that counted, had seemed fundamental.

This brings us back to China. Between the 3rd and 7th centuries, China was the scene of wars and massacres like no other. There was the collapse of the Han Dynasty, and the empire was not reunified again for half a millennium, with the rise of the Tang Dynasty. The range is similar to that of Roman-Persian history, which in that case led to the rise of the monotheistic religions, while in China it led to the spread of Buddhism and the arrival of Christianity and Islam.

In both cases, the spread of these religions also seems to be a response to centuries of extermination wars and plagues that probably reduced by two-thirds the population of these areas.

Making historical comparisons is always a gamble, and looking at them across millennia increases the risk to the Nth degree. Of course, today, as perhaps in the 3rd century, there seems to be a glimpse of the end of the Roman Empire and the Han Dynasty—only then the world was separated into zones of influence with little contact, compared to the many rapid means of communication today. But today there seems to be a similar sense of disbelief to that of past centuries. Then, many could not believe that the Roman Empire or the Han Dynasty were falling apart, and now many are failing to wake up to the new era on the horizon. In this, the Catholic Church today may have a unique role because it is the world’s largest unified religion and also the largest and strongest institution in favor of peace on the planet.

Beyond the help of the Church

But the help of the church and its growing influence can only go so far. China is about to become the largest economy in the world, overtaking America, and yet its political process is not transparent. Nobody knows how the next Chinese leaders will be selected, and nobody can root for or against a candidate in the way the world cheered on or booed for Trump or Hillary (see also http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/NJ25Ad02.html). This makes the Chinese system deeply flawed and unreliable in a world used to transparency and for the Chinese entrepreneurs operating in a world market that also expects political transparency. How can investors and normal citizens make long-term plans if they simply do not know how the next leaders will be chosen, yet these leaders will have enormous power to overhaul whatever was decided before. So there is no real sense of security.

This situation could be bad but tolerable when the Chinese economy and politics was puny and not globally influential, but now that it is about to become the largest economy, and thus the largest influencer of everybody’s welfare, this will become unbearable internally and internationally. Nor can China count any longer on the fact that a challenge to China is a challenge to the global economic welfare, of which China is such a big part. In a world of massive economic uncertainties, taking on a big economy, like China, might create business opportunities larger than the ones which it will cancel. Besides, America in the 1980s took on both the USSR, a formidable political power, and Japan, a rising economic power, and won them both. Is China now a bigger adversary to the US than the USSR and Japan combined in the 1980s? Maybe not.

Yet a clash might not be inevitable. Here, the Vatican and other initiatives can help, but China must change radically.

There must be an open and transparent system for selecting leadership, providing long-term security and predictability of their rights and duties to investors and citizens, who will feel protected and assured by the state independently of who is president. In a nutshell, China needs massive liberal reforms. At the same time, it also needs stability, because rocking the enormous Chinese boat and tearing the country apart will impose enormous costs on the Chinese and people of the whole world. Liberal reforms and stability are not antithetical, as some conservatives in China are keen to say. They are in fact mutually related and without going too far, South Korea is an example of smooth transition from an authoritarian regime to a liberal democracy without sacrificing stability or economic growth.

Moreover, China has to step out of the old and scary Leninist-nationalism as the de facto national ideology that seems to want to impose its own narrow self-interest on everybody. In its role as a growing international leader, it has to adopt some kind of international liberalism. President Xi Jinping perhaps is de facto already moving in this direction, as in the recent APEC conference in Chile when he defended free trade against the protectionist rumblings from Washington.

Yet the next test will come from small, unruly North Korea. Will the growing threat of young Kim Jong-un, (the 3rd Kim to rule the country) push South Korea’s new president, ready to be cowed into submission? This will be even scarier for Japan and the US, which are under growing and direct threat from the new nuclear and missile capabilities of Pyongyang.

The first challenge that Beijing then has to face, while advancing at the same time all other items in its agenda, is how to effectively rein in young Kim. Again here there can be short- and long-term solutions. Kim must be put under control effectively and definitely and not simply bought off for a short period of time, as happened so far. At the same time Beijing could try to help to create a new Asian geography of which a peaceful Korean peninsula is part. For this, China itself must reform and then take on a new global role.

The global conditions are no good. In western countries for decades, after World War II the middle class rose in numbers and affluence. In the past years the trend has reversed. The middle class, the bulk of political consent, has been shrinking in numbers and declining in income. This western phenomenon seems the string linking the vote for Brexit in the UK, for Trump in the US and now against Constitutional reforms at the recent referendum in Italy. Tomorrow this could bring the success of an extreme right candidate in France. These people are losing jobs and expect living standards worse than those of their parents. For them the initial benefits of globalization, cheaper goods and low inflation, have been now overshadowed by less jobs less paid. For them China, the beacon of this world, where living standards have been improving and Chinese investors buy up their old factories, a country that is so different and incomprehensible, could easily become a convenient scapegoat pushing local politicians on an old unpleasant path.

 

Francesco Sisci
Francesco Sisci is an Italian sinologist, author and columnist who lives and works in Beijing. He is the contributor for Il Sole 24ore, and a frequent commentator on international affairs for CCTV and Phoenix TV.
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