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May 5, 2006 2:24 pm

Church, State, and China

The Vatican’s excommunication of four Chinese Bishops poses some intriguing parallels to the struggles the Church had with European rulers over who should appoint the bishops of the realm. Of course there are also great differences. In China there are two Catholic Churches: the state approved one and the underground Vatican-approved one, and neither comes close to a majority of the populace. Still, it is intriguing to see an old church and state problem reemerge in that quite different context.

Of course Catholicism is not the only religion the Beijing would co-opt. The Chinese have selected a new Panchen Lama as part of a long term campaign to bring Tibetan Buddhism under its control. There is also its sustained opposition to the Falun Gong (actually Falun Dafa) movement

It is right and proper to denounce the Beijing government’s interference in religion. However, I think it is useful to remember that roughly 150 years ago China underwent a terrible period of religious civil wars, the most important being the Taiping Rebellion. Roughly 20-30 million died as a direct result of the rebellions. As many more died of starvation and disease related to the disruptions they caused.

The story is, of course, more complex than that. This strife was related to the continued control of the Imperial power by a foreign, Manchu, dynasty. It also occurred in the time that European powers were first asserting their superiority, though I have not seen a clear explication of the relationship between imperialism and the religious uprisings. Be that as it may, I think that the leadership of any country with such a background would be leery of any powerful religion that would set itself as independent from or in opposition to the state.

Do I know that the Chinese leadership is influenced by that past. No, I don’t. But it seems logical to assume that the leadership’s predilection to keeping all power it its hands would be strengthened by historical examples of faith leading to bloody revolution.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 5/6/2006

Dave, you are right that my comments on the Taiping rebellion should not be used to excuse religious intolerance from the current regime. I did not intend to do so.

Still, part of being a nistorian is understanding the fears and motivations or oppressors, and sometimes those fears have a basis in fact. That does not justify their actions any more than Stalin's legitimate fears of the Capitalist West justified starving the Ukraine as part of collectivization. But evaluating those fears is still a part of understanding Stalin.

Dave Stone - 5/6/2006

One could just as easily turn this argument around. After all, there is living memory in China of the 50-60 million who died during the Great Leap Forward, and the large number (I'm not aware of a consensus number) who died during the Cultural Revolution. You can't blame those on religion, but you can blame them on autocratic power untempered by democracy and civil liberties.

My point: let's not dignify thuggish interference with religious liberty by explaining it as a judicious conclusion from careful study of history.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/5/2006

An Episcopal priest at Chapel Hill once said to me that Rome was there before mere Protestant traditions like my own and it would be there when they had faded from view. I'm now inclined to think that is so. There is only one Roman Catholic Church in China -- the one that is obedient to the Holy Father in Rome -- and currently along side it is a pretender that has the support of the Chinese state. When "Red China" has transmogrified into something quite unlike it has been, practicing Roman Catholics in mainland China will find their way back to Rome.