Hu embarks on a political pilgrimage

2009-07-02Asia Times

BEIJING - Next week, Hu Jintao starts an official visit to Italy, the first for a Chinese president in 10 years. As with his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, Hu will have a chance to look first-hand at what was for millennia - from the Magna Grecia in the south to the Roman Empire to the Renaissance - the cradle of Western civilization. He will thus get a glimpse at the origin and development of the process of modernization - or "Westernification" - that China is embracing at the moment.

This, in a nutshell, is the significance of Hu's trip to Italy. It means very little and very much: There is no huge political agenda but enormous philosophical significance. It would be a tourist trip for many heads of state, but for the People's Republic of China (PRC), where the search for and fine-tuning of new theories is the soul of the political process, this could be a crucial inspirational stepping stone as the country prepares for the next generation of leaders and the political agenda of the 2012 Party Congress.

Italy managed to mold together modernization and tradition, and this is something that China has been trying to do on a grand scale in recent years, blending its past with modernization and also making the necessary leap to future developments.

In this situation, as with Jiang, Hu will come as close as possible to breathing the air around one of the pillars of Western civilization - the Papacy, the Holy See, the Vatican, the headquarters of the largest unitary religion in the world. For centuries, the Vatican has been part of the very way of thinking in the West. The idea of balancing powers came from the Roman republican tradition of two consuls, the democracy of the Greek city-states, preventing a concentration of power; it continued with the balancing of clashes and friction between the emperor and senate during the Roman Empire, and for centuries it was embodied in the talks and dialogue between European kings and the popes - the political and religious powers of the Western world.

During all that time, China had only the idea of concentration of power in the hands of the emperor. If the emperor failed to hold on to power, the empire would break up (as happened many times in the past 22 centuries) or the dynasty would fall. Religious leaders simply had to obey to the emperor, in one way or another. But since the beginning of Deng Xiaoping's reforms, China has forfeited the idea of an emperor, a single paramount leader. China's decision-making process is developing fast and learning from the West, and China is looking around for inspiration. As the Vatican is part of this Western tradition of balancing powers, it is inescapable for the Chinese leaders.

Jiang, at the turn of the 21st century, started the process of normalizing ties with the Vatican, a process that stalled for a few years after the Holy See decided to canonize 120 Chinese martyrs on October 1, 2001, the PRC's 51st National Day, the first PRC's National Day in the new millennium.

After a few years, the process restarted. Two years ago the pope issued a groundbreaking letter to Chinese Catholics that, for the first time since the beginning of the Cold War, recognized the legitimacy of the PRC and thrashed the old hostility between Catholic believers and the officially communist Chinese government. It said that a good Chinese Catholic ought to also be a good Chinese citizen.

The Chinese have since also tried to thoroughly understand the mechanisms governing the Church, which are often almost unfathomable in Chinese political culture. Here, the Chinese Foreign Ministry officials, who had possibly the most difficult task in the history of Chinese foreign affairs, played a crucial role. They have been grappling with both a political and cultural challenge, trying to explain to Chinese leaders the foreign logic of the Vatican and to convey to the Vatican the political and cultural concerns of China. This discussion was often painfully difficult, with each side sensing they were talking past each other.

At the moment, it is not impossible to imagine a future breakthrough in the relationship, which could bring together for the first time ever the head of the Eastern civilization - the heir of the Chinese emperor - to meet the spiritual head of the Western world.

This might not happen, but if it does, one should not forget the long-term contributions of two men who are often considered at odds with each other, yet who each embodied the very survival of the Catholic Church in China - Anthony Liu Bainian and Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun. Their lives and personal experiences could hardly be more different. However, as from different sides of the same mountain, they both contributed to the historical exchange of ideas between China and the church.

Liu Bainian, born in Hebei province to a family that has been Catholic since the 17th century (the "aristocracy" of Chinese Catholicism), was instrumental in shaping the Catholic Patriotic Association. This organization, now bitterly criticized by many Catholics in China and abroad, most likely made possible the very survival of the Chinese Catholic Church.

The association all along kept in touch with Rome through people who came from Rome, Hong Kong or the Philippines, home to the largest Catholic community in Asia and whose Nuncio and cardinals officially had competence on China. With those contacts, not all of which were officially sanctioned, the Chinese Catholics managed to hold lines of communication with the Pope and stay in tune with the teachings of their seminars. Without the association, most likely the Chinese Catholics would have been scattered around China, cut off from any developments in Rome for decades, and left with basically no teachings or seminars.

Even the most despised official seminars played a crucial role in the survival of the "underground" church, the one that refused to collaborate with Beijing. Many young Catholics from the underground church attended part of the course of official seminars for decades, but they took off, leaving the seminar before graduation.

This practice, tolerated by the Patriotic Association, enabled the "underground" clerics to have a modicum of formal theological education. Without it, most of them would have simply lapsed into some form of heresy, and Rome would have to start its evangelization from scratch in China. On the other hand, Liu showed the extremely suspicious Chinese leaders that a good Catholic could also be a loyal PRC citizen. In principle, the two things were not in contradiction. This possible blending was the basis of trust needed for talks with Rome.

On the other side of the mountainous wall was Joseph Zen, from Shanghai, who converted to Catholicism in his teens. The whiz kid of Chinese Catholicism was sent to study in Turin, Italy, where he joined the Salesiano order. He played a crucial role in improving ties even before he was ordained as a bishop. In 1989, he advised seminarists against joining the Tiananmen demonstrations, and soon after he was invited back to Shanghai to lecture at the local seminar. At the same time, he kept his standing with the underground Church, still adverse to talks with Beijing, by supporting the anti-Beijing, pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and being quite vocal against Beijing on many issues.

However, despite his open opposition, in crucial moments, he did not life impossible for Beijing - unlike other opposition movements that decided to cause problems during challenging times for China. When he was ordained - against Beijing's wishes - cardinal in February 2006, Zen unfurled the PRC flag in the Vatican for the first time. He could have chosen to show no flag, or a Taiwanese flag, that of the Republic of China, which still holds official ties with the Vatican. His choice of the PRC and the new Hong Kong flags was a clear declaration of political loyalty to the PRC government. The pictures of these flags in St Peter's Square are neatly posted on his office wall in Hong Kong.

Two years later, on the eve of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games and after violent anti-Beijing protests in Tibet, he agreed to scale down processions marking the first anniversary of the Pope's letter to the Chinese. This gesture was crucial because religious activities in that moment, when China was feeling vulnerable because of the Olympics, could have suggested that the church had deep enmity for the PRC.

Conversely, the Vatican's willingness to understand and accommodate Chinese needs proved that Rome could be an honest partner, unlike other opposition forces. At the same time, Zen offered strong public criticisms against the Hong Kong government and some of Beijing's policies. This held together - and ultimately in check - the underground Church, which at times had a fierce animosity against the Beijing government.

In many ways, Zen's role was similar to that of his saint of inspiration, Giovanni Bosco, who lived in 19th century Turin and spoke strongly for the underprivileged, but ultimately remained loyal to the Savoy king.

Hu's trip to Italy, and taste of Rome, will owe at least a little to these men. And so will Pope Benedict, who more than any of his predecessors has been pushing for normalizing ties with Beijing.

See also
China's Catholic Moment ( First Things, June/July 2009.
A Catholic Church of China ( La Stampa, March 23, 2009.
The Catholic "destiny" in China ( La Stampa, July 31, 2008.
The Vatican and Beijing warm up ( La Stampa, December 19, 2007. (2009-07-02 Asia Times)


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