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The Dollar Sign or the Cross: Which Faith Will Save China?

September 05, 2007

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The Dollar Sign or the Cross: Which Faith Will Save China?

In Beijing I had a friend and confidante, an academic who was a Communist Party member, and a Buddhist. In the capital city of what is arguably the most brainwashed and intellectually and morally barbarised country in the industrialised world, she was one of the tiny handful of marginally independent-minded and authentically inquisitive Mainland Chinese I have ever met. She was an admirer of the Indian mystic poet, Tagore, and through her conversations with me had begun to consider some possible parallels between the Buddhist and Christian cardinal virtues of compassion and belief in a transcendent Truth beyond the rusted, fettering claims of economic determinism. But our communications ended abruptly when she sent me an email entirely out of character, in which she recited Communist Party talking points about “€œreligion”€ which were easily identifiable as words not her own. In paraphrase, she said:

1. Contrary to what I believed “€“ misinformed as I was about China, by hostile Western forces and their propaganda “€“ China not only has full freedom of religion, but even requires its scholars to take
“€œreligion classes”€, to understand all major world religions;
2. China was exploited by Foreigners who were aided and abetted by Christian missionaries;
3. Chairman Mao “€œmade some mistakes”€, but at least he was Chinese, and it’s better for China to be afflicted by a Chinese tyrant than by Foreigners, regardless of the extent or quality or effects of the affliction;
4. The Communist Party is right to assert absolute control over all Christian churches, so that
Foreigners will never again use Christianity as a surreptitious means of weakening and exploiting China;
5. “€œI am not a Buddhist.”€

In other words, my correspondent had been subjected to “€œre-education”€ by the Communist Party, and ordered to “€œcorrect her thoughts.”€ The Party had been monitoring her (as they monitor the words and thoughts of all Party Members), and could not tolerate or countenance her ungoodthinkful thoughts.  Consequently, the Party emptied her of herself and filled her with itself, and now she loves Big Brother, or at least professes to do so in any monitored email exchanges with Foreigners.

But what does she really believe? In Communist China, the answer is complicated in a way very unlike the American way of confusing professed beliefs with actual beliefs, often complicated further by discord between what we actually believe and what we think we believe. In a recent letter from an American friend of mine, he asked me, “€œare the Chinese split-minded vertically, unlike Americans who are split-minded horizontally?”€ By “€œsplit-minded”€ he meant holding two irreconcilable beliefs while wilfully refusing to think about the discord, as Americans tend to do in their conscious minds (eg, consider how many professed Catholics advocated the war in Iraq against the Pope’s advice); he was speculating that perhaps the Chinese vertical split is not between conscious thinking and the “€œunconscious”€, but rather between consciousness and conscience.

This question stumped me for the longest time, until I replied, “€œThe Chinese are not split-minded. Rather, their minds are like sheets of fungible thin paper upon which something is written one day and discarded and forgotten the next. Chinese minds and memories are fungible.”€ Why fungible? Because, for the most part, for over 2,000 years China has been alien to what the great humanist physicist Jacob Bronowski called the “€œhabit of truth”€, a habit exclusively of Western origin. But “€œhabit”€ is the operative word; love of truth is written by the Holy Spirit on the hearts of all men, or so Christians say, and so say many Jews such as Bronowski was. China has simply never been a land where love of truth”€”as opposed to subscription to politically empowered lies”€”has become a national habit, or even been acknowledged as desirable.

Yet there have been heroic individual exceptions to this rule throughout China’s 2,200 year existence as a centralized and essentially theocratic state “€“ China’s theocracy being one of apotheosized living despots such as Chairman Mao and his original prototype and self-proclaimed role model, Qin Shi Huang Di, the First Emperor (reigned 221 BC “€“ 210 BC). One such exception and exemplar was the Han Dynasty historian, Sima Qian (145-90 BC), the Emperor’s official court historian “€“ all Chinese histories being “€œofficial”€ to this day. Sima Qian was sui generis among Chinese historians in his attempt to revise China’s written history in a way that would not merely serve the political purposes of the moment, but actually reveal and lead to better understanding of the truth for its own sake; in this aspect, he was a kindred spirit to Thucydides. Among his tasks was to relate and to criticize the first “€œCultural Revolution”€ of the First Emperor, the orgy of book burnings and wholesale destruction of China’s culture and its independent scholars, from which China was just beginning to recover during Sima’s lifetime; you could call it another era of China’s “€œopening”€ and liberalization, albeit a strictly monitored and circumscribed one, similar to China’s painstakingly cautious and still despotically inconsistent gestures of reform today. Still, half a loaf is better than none, and today’s China occasionally produces starvation rations of reform, better than the total moral and intellectual (not to mention literal) famines enforced by the First Emperor and Mao.

Here is Sima Qian on the First Emperor: “€œ The First Emperor trusted his own judgment, never consulting others, and hence his errors went uncorrected. The Second Emperor carried on in the same manner, never reforming, compounding his misfortune through violence and cruelty…. At that time the world was not without men of deep insight and an understanding of change. The reason they did not dare exert their loyalty and correct the errors of the ruler was that Qin’s customs forbade the mentioning of inauspicious matters. Before their words of loyal advice were even out of their mouths, they would have been condemned to execution. This insured that the men of the empire would incline their ears to listen, stand in an attitude of solemn attention, but clamp their mouths shut and never speak out.”€

Alas, this rule of the First Emperor has been China’s mode for over 2,000 years, and the likes of Sima Qian have been the exceptions. But there is yet another exception to this rule: The attitudes and words the Chinese present to Foreigners have generally tended to differ from what they say among themselves, including what they are permitted to say among themselves either privately or in public. Within strictly circumscribed limits, for the sake of maintaining China’s “€œface”€ among Foreigners, the Chinese are allowed occasional license to mouth some words in front of Foreigners which otherwise are not acceptable topics for discussion among Chinese. One such Western dupe, a “€œuseful idiot”€ in the tradition of Lincoln Steffens”€”who said of his visit to Stalin’s Russia, “€œI have seen the future, and it works”€”€”is a Cato Institute “€œanalyst”€ named Daniel Ikenson, who recently visited China and wandered into one of its Potemkin Village shows, “€œEnglish Corner”€ at Renmin University in Beijing, and then reported his findings in a stomach-churning article in National Review.

Ikenson wrote: “€œRenmin University, also known as the People’s University of China, has an enrollment of almost 19,000 and is one of China’s most respected schools. It was founded in 1950 by the Communist party.”€ 

Correct. Personally I know Renmin University all too well. I worked there from 2002 to 2003. It is indeed the Communist Party’s own special university, as Ikenson says: “€œThe children of many Chinese officials were educated there, and three generations of Chinese leaders, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin, have paid special attention to the school’s development. So I was especially surprised by what I learned.”€ But I”€™m surprised by what Ikenson didn”€™t learn, or was unwilling to think about. Renmin University (or “€œRenDa”€) is one of the training grounds for the Communist Party elite, and for the most part it’s a propaganda factory in which any and all dissent from the Party Line is quashed prophylactically, nipped in the bud before the slightest germination. “€œFor the most part,”€ but not entirely; as the Communist Party is somewhat more heterodox and full of internal ideological disputes mostly unwitnessed by Foreigners, there are in fact a considerable number of high-ranking Communist Party members who sincerely yearn for authentic liberalization and “€” in the long term “€”some kind of rule of law and liberal democracy in China. One of them remains a personal friend of mine, a true Chinese knight, a true scholar and gentleman who understands what chivalry and honour mean. Mind you, such men and women are not “€œlegion”€in the Chinese Communist Party, but their numbers are considerable and they are the “€œleaven in the bread.”€

However, these were not the people Ikenson spoke with when he ventured into the Potemkin Village showpiece of “€œEnglish Corner”€, as he describes: “€œIt was about 8 P.M. on a Friday when I ventured onto Renmin’s campus. In a courtyard near the school’s east gate, I discovered some 200 students who were exchanging views about history, economics, politics, and culture. It was U.S. history, economics, politics, and culture that they were discussing “€” and they were speaking ENGLISH.”€ (emphasis in the original.)

Well, yes, they were speaking English. Not because they have any great love or respect for Anglophone culture or for the ideals of Western civilization, but because they regard English as a utilitarian “€œbusiness tool”€ with which to make more money. The vast majority of Chinese regard the English language with contempt, as a mere business tool. (That is, by the way, exactly why most of them speak and write English wretchedly.) And RenDa’s “€œEnglish Corner”€ is not unique to RenDa; it is a standard, nationwide institution at all Chinese universities, great and small, and its purpose is nothing more or less than to be a venue in which Chinese students can “€œpractice their English”€ in tightly monitored and controlled ways. But interest in, or admiration of, Anglophone or Western civilization has virtually nothing to do with their purposes.

Ikenson continues: “€œI had stumbled upon “English Corner,” Renmin’s version of Speakers’ Corner, that eminent temple of free speech in London’s Hyde Park.”€ No, Mr Ikenson, it’s nothing like Hyde Park. In Hyde Park you won”€™t be arrested for displaying a picture of the Dalai Lama, or for disseminating photographs of the Tienanmen Square Massacre.
He goes on: “€œThen someone suggested that I give Lincoln’s address. The crowd roared in agreement. Embarrassed, I admitted that I hadn’t committed it to memory. “No problem,” said a student, as he handed me a printed version. “€œWe would really like to hear a famous American address given by a native English speaker.”€

They said this because they wanted to emulate your “€œnative speaker”€ pronunciation of English, not your political heritage.Ikenson goes on: “€œ I ignored the possibility that I could be arrested for subversion, and climbed the soapbox. Again, the crowd joined me in reciting Lincoln’s final line.”€ But as an American visitor, and as a member of the CATO institute, the possibility of Ikenson’s being “€œarrested for subversion”€ was more remote than being struck by lightning. Furthermore, the students didn”€™t care about, or believe in, Lincoln’s final line; they just wanted to hear how it is pronounced tonally by a “€œnative speaker.”€ Mr Ikenson played the role of a dancing monkey, and didn”€™t have a clue.

Ikenson continues his dance his print: “€œChina is changing, and there may be no better symbol of that change than Renmin University “€” the alma mater of China’s Communist party where, today, students quote Lincoln and contemplate Jefferson.”€ No, Mr Ikenson, they”€™re not “€œcontemplating”€ Lincoln and Jefferson “€” or at least 99 percent of the cynical and opportunistic youths YOU met were not. They were contemplating your pronunciation as a “€œnative speaker”€ of English, while holding you and your country’s political heritage (at best) in contempt at best, or with hatred.

And worst of all, the Chinese hold in contempt all Foreigners who willfully become conned by China’s superficial showpieces.The Chinese”€”among whom I count several true friends, several true enemies and many neutrals with whom I will continue to engage in the spirit of “€œRealpolitik”€”€” are not stupid. Foolish, yes, but not stupid, and they can see through moral cowardice as easily as through crystal; thousands of years of suffering under the reigns and rules of moral cowards has trained them to do so. On the other hand, generally speaking, even the most cynical “€“ and sometimes, especially the most cynical “€“ of Chinese have always understood the practical wisdom of treating with authentic respect, and negotiating in good faith with, Foreigners who truly have the courage of their convictions.

And Pope Benedict XVI is one. He, and his recent letter to all Catholics in China, are models of effective, realistic diplomacy from which all Western states and diplomats can and should learn.
In his recent letter, Pope Benedict asserted his authority over all Chinese Catholics, including over those who “€“ for reasons of political and personal pressure, including threats to their family members and their infant children’s welfare “€“ are not yet able to attend any Catholic Church which acknowledges allegiance to the Vatican. To this day, any and all Catholic Churches in China which acknowledge the authority of the Pope are outlawed. The Cardinal Kung Foundation “€“ dedicated to the memory of the Chinese Catholic martyr, Ignatius Cardinal Kung (1901-2000) “€“ is one of the best sources of information about the Chinese Communist Party’s persecution of the Roman Catholic Church in China.

For the past 50 years or so, many Chinese Catholics have been pressured to worship and receive the sacraments in the official “€œChinese Catholic Patriotic Association.”€ This group’s priests all are authentically anointed through apostolic succession, and their sacraments are valid, yet they remain under the thumb of the Communist Party, and to some extent their ministries are compromised by this subjection.

However, the number of Chinese Christians in churches approved and unapproved has been increasing exponentially. Pope Benedict’s ingenious response to this situation has been a kind of Kung Fu move: At once, as he refuses to concede any ground whatsoever to the enemies of the Church, he also avoids attacking them directly. His letter to all Chinese Catholics, including those who practice in the schismatic “€œpatriotic”€ church authorized by the Communist Party, is a brilliant piece of verbal martial art:  He does not attack the enemy, but rather holds his ground in a flexible way, patiently waiting for the enemy to exhaust itself. I cannot and should not dissect his entire letter here; our readers can enjoy reading it for themselves; but here is one of his crucial passages:

“€œFinally, there are certain Bishops “€“ a very small number of them “€“ who have been ordained without the Pontifical mandate and who have not asked for or have not yet obtained, the necessary legitimation. According to the doctrine of the Catholic Church, they are to be considered illegitimate, but validly ordained, as long as it is certain that they have received ordination from validly ordained Bishops and that the Catholic rite of episcopal ordination has been respected. Therefore, although not in communion with the Pope, they exercise their ministry validly in the administration of the sacraments, even if they do so illegitimately.”€

In other words, Pope Benedict has seized the initiative from his enemies, the Chinese Communists who have assailed the Church, and without surrendering any iota of the Church’s truths, he has in effect said, “€œALL Catholics in China belong to the Church of Christ, and not to the Chinese Communist Party.”€

So speaks a man who represents the “€œhabit of truth.”€ Like a traditional Chinese martial artist, Pope Benedict has avoided “€“ and allowed all Chinese Catholics to avoid “€“ the assaults of the Communist Party. Yet he has conceded absolutely nothing to the enemy, who will inevitably exhaust themselves as all purveyors of lies do.

And here endeth the lesson, not only for the Catholics among our readers, but for all men of goodwill who, according to their own lights, hope for the people of China to come out of the darkness “€“ or rather, to come out of it once again, as there have been some times in China’s 2,200 year history when China was a very enlightened civilization indeed, as the late Pope John Paul the Great understood. Hence John Paul’s passionate desire to visit China before he died “€“ thwarted, perhaps as part of a Divine Plan, just as Moses was not allowed to go into the Holy Land. Pope John Paul understood the immeasurable potential of the great and ancient civilization of China to become a new, powerful locus of the war of the Church against the World. The superstitiously materialist doctrines of those who preach that “€œfree markets”€ will inevitably give rise to liberty in China, have borne no fruit to this day, contrary to the fantasies of the likes of Ikenson and his ilk. As long as we men of the West “€“ the heirs and (even if now half-hearted or apostate) representatives of Christendom and of our parent religion, Judaism “€“ as long as we represent our civilization to the Chinese as one of cynical, opportunistic materialism, the Chinese will just laugh in our faces, take and exploit our technology and then laugh harder”€”even as they weep inwardly for having seen their spiritual aspirations (held by all Sons of Adam) betrayed. By us.

But I know another China. I know a China “€“ and I have some Chinese friends “€“ who know how to weep for the best reasons. They, our Chinese brothers and sisters, have been spiritual orphans for all too long, long-sufferers under usurping spiritual stepfathers, of whom Chairman Mao was merely the latest incarnation. In my experience, no other race on Earth are so prone to weep “€“ for sincere, personal reasons “€“ as are the Chinese. In this sense, they are not so cynical after all, and Pope John Paul was right to perceive in the long-suffering people of China that they are a people who are potentially very close indeed to the Holy Spirit, as Christ said of His friend Nicodemus.

But my, our, Chinese friends will continue to weep, indefinitely, unless and until we men of the West engage with them with a courageous “€œhabit of truth”€ instead of superstitious faith in economics.

John Ball is a legal scholar who recently left China after living there for almost a decade. Image courtesy of Asian Christian Art.

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