Continued Vatican Silence in China

The decision of Pope Francis to “trust and engage” with Chinese Communists is already a decision with severe consequences for Chinese Catholics on the ground.

Xi Jinping is the Chairman of everything in Communist China. He is the Head of the Communist Party, the President, the Chief of the Military; all power flows into his direct control. Civil, military, and strategic oversight belongs exclusively to him and to the Communist Party of China. There are no other power or leadership sources in China— no independent judiciary; no regional or community leadership activists; no alternative educational, religious, or social groupings. Power is invested in one political party only and in one individual, as the head of this party.

On March 2018, President Xi was voted “leader for life” of the Chinese Communist Party. Effective opposition to the rule of Xi is currently non-existent. There is no free press, no free internet, no uncontrolled communication or telephone networks. There is no free religious expression and no freedom of association nor the ability for individuals or groups to organize or transmit information that may be considered harmful to Chinese Communism. Foreign companies who conduct business in China are heavily monitored, their communications observed, and their movements and contacts followed and documented. 

A vast network of surveillance cameras, commonly portrayed as security to detect crime and terrorists, constantly monitors the movements of citizens. The truth is that facial recognition cameras monitor and collect information on your friends, travels, web searches, even shopping habits, ensuring that Communist officials know more about their citizens than any other nation on earth.

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Andrew Hastie is the member for Canning (WA) in the Australian Parliament, a former special air service regiment soldier who has served in Afghanistan, and, most recently, Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. Hastie makes a powerful and valid statement on Western vulnerability:

Right now, our greatest vulnerability lies not in our infrastructure but in our thinking, that intellectual failure makes us institutionally weak. If we don’t understand the challenges ahead for our civil society, in our parliaments, in our universities, in our private enterprises, in our charities then choices will be made for us. Our sovereignty, our freedom, will be diminished.

As a priest in Australia who is familiar with Chinese aggression, I would add that it is very important for the Catholic Church worldwide to also be alerted to the serious threat that China poses to fundamental freedoms.

Throughout the world, Catholics take many freedoms for granted, particularly the freedom to express the teachings of Christ to a wider world. Increasingly, in China this freedom is overridden, restricted, or violently crushed. Catholics have been on the receiving end of decades of persecution, arrest, detention, and discrimination.

The Chinese Communist Party has no incentive to grant basic rights of freedom of faith to Catholics. Indeed, years of repressive behavior toward Catholics continues into current times with no signs of changing Communist practices.

Recently, we have witnessed the repression of the basic freedoms of Hong Kong citizens. Chinese Communists are more authoritarian and less concerned with the rights of Chinese citizens than at any stage in their seventy-year history.

The Chinese military is also undertaking an aggressive regional build up which, despite many warm words of peaceful intentions, have seriously worried regional states including Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, and Australia.  Freedom of navigation through the South China Sea is largely prohibited with few regional countries wishing to engage the “peaceful” actions of the Chinese state.

The reality for those who live near China, particularly the people of Hong Kong and Taiwan, is that economic power is quickly transforming into geo-political power, with the Chinese state seeking to influence, control, and ensure that near neighbors, trading partners, and its own citizens are conforming to the day-to-day dictates of the Chinese Communist Party.

Chinese military ambitions are also expanding. China now operates a military base in the strategically important Gulf of Aden nation of Djibouti, giving it significant access to the Indian Ocean and blue water naval capabilities beyond its immediate region.  Its militarization of the critical trade routes within the South China Sea is now complete, allowing China to impose military pressure and inhibit all but the strongest nations from using the region as a through-traffic trade route.

Perhaps the most concerning of all issues in China’s global rise is its brutal repression of internal dissent. This repression is especially significant toward ethnic and religious minorities and those who seek to highlight lack of democratic freedom or freedom of speech. The disturbances that have recently flared in Hong Kong point to the increasing desire of Chinese Communists to control and restrict citizens and political movements and to prohibit calls of democratic freedom from evolving.

All this begs a deeper question for Catholics: what is the Vatican doing in relation to this increased surveillance, control, and repression of Chinese citizens, especially Catholics? Why hasn’t the Vatican expressed any concern or focused any media attention on the severe clampdowns of personal and religious freedoms? Why has the pope not spoken about the disturbances in Hong Kong and their wider ramifications? Why is His Holiness not defending free speech, democratic rights, or indeed the rights of practicing Catholics within China?

These are serious questions, and the Vatican’s silence in relation to these essential human concerns not only brings ignominy on Pope Francis and the wider Church, but more importantly it allows repression and human rights violations to continue without scrutiny. When the Vatican is silent on such issues, it betrays the fundamental call of Christ to set individuals and peoples free. When the Church refuses to speak on such issues, it betrays its mission but more centrally risks damaging the very notion of who it is.

What has caused the Vatican to be so frail and disempowered in its responses to severe Chinese attacks upon human rights and to be acquiescent to the persecution of its own Catholic faithful?

Late in 2018, the Vatican authorized a largely secret agreement with the Chinese Communist Party which advised Chinese Catholic priests and bishops to comply with Chinese law and register officially with the government. This process has additionally seen recognition of former “State authorized Catholic Churches” as now being in communion with the Pope (a fundamental definition of what it means to be a Catholic).

The consequences for the Vatican have already been both disappointing and grave. Many bishops and priests recognized by the Vatican have continued to adhere to membership in the Chinese Communist Party, a dual loyalty that seriously questions their commitment to the worldwide Catholic Church. Hong Kong’s emeritus Cardinal Joseph Zen has rightly warned such an ongoing situation could “risk the death of the Catholic faith in China.”

A Vatican statement of June 2019 acknowledges the quagmire: that the agreement, rushed and naively advocated by Pope Francis, is not working. The statement acknowledges “the limitations and intimidatory pressures faced by many Catholics.”

Cardinal Zen has sadly noted: “The Chinese Communist party has already reneged on its promises to respect Catholic doctrine.” The Cardinal further suggests that many “underground Priests and those who have worked with great tenacity to achieve changes had hoped for the support of the Holy See.”

It would appear such hopes have been thoroughly misplaced. The decision of Pope Francis to “trust and engage” with Chinese Communists is already a decision with severe consequences for Chinese Catholics on the ground. Chinese Communists are unable to tolerate opposition, know nothing of democratic process, and have shown brutal ruthlessness against Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Falun Gong. And they now appear focused on Hong Kong and Catholicism.

We in Australia can privately laugh at the Qantas (our national airline) kowtow to Chinese Communists which sees Qantas no longer refer to Taiwan as the Republic of China. The papal kowtow will never be seen in writing, but it is witnessed clearly in Vatican silence on freedom and democratic hope in Hong Kong.

[Photo: Chinese Catholic worshippers wait to take communion at an “underground” or “unofficial” church near Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, China(Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)])


  • Fr. James Grant

    A former Anglican, Fr. James Grant was received into the Catholic Church and ordained as a Catholic Priest in September 2012. He is the first Chaplain appointed to an A league soccer club in Australia at the largest Australian club, Melbourne Victory. He is involved with 9MM and 45ACP pistol and rifle competition and is completing PPLH training. In 2013 he established the Father James Grant Foundation, implementing programs for de-motivated young Australians. The “Mission Engage” program has now helped around 800 young Australians find their first job.

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