China: Olympic rings - or shackles?

China: Olympic rings - or shackles?

Babette Francis

When the 2008 Olympic Games were awarded to Beijing seven years ago, China undertook to improve its compliance with human rights.

Steven Mosher, President, Population Research Institute, USA, did not believe the Chinese promises. Formerly a Stanford University scholarship student in China, Mosher had observed first-hand its policy of compulsory abortion after one child and lobbied strenuously, but unsuccessfully, against China being awarded the Games.

His forebodings appear to have been realised. Economic progress has occurred in China but without political reform. China's use of brutal force and massive arrests of Tibetans is only one aspect of its violations of human rights.

The Olympic torch has been a propaganda disaster with images of Chinese police scuffling with Tibetans in London and Paris. Fr Raymond de Souza, a Canadian commentator on human rights, observes: 'China got its bloodstained fingers burnt ... The torch relay brings to mind another image of 'sacred' objects being held aloft, this one on the Web site of the religious liberty organisation, Aid to the Church in Need.

'That's John Han Dingxiang, Catholic bishop of Yong Nian, under house arrest. Bishop Han spent 35 years in forced labour, imprisonment and house arrest for his fidelity to Rome. Knowing that faithful Catholics were watching for him, he would come to his caged-in balcony and raise aloft the cross of Jesus Christ.

'The image on the site was taken from a camera hidden in nearby bushes. Like the torch relay, the Chinese secret police are no doubt on hand, but there are no staged crowds, amoral corporate sponsors, no craven Olympic officials - just a lone prisoner of conscience trying to do what he could to bear witness to the faith and strengthen the flock.

'When Bishop Han was dying last September, the Chinese regime permitted no one from the Church to be at this bedside. He was cremated soon after death and buried by night. His grave marker made no indication of his religious faith or that he was a bishop. Such oppression is routine in China; there are today bishops and priests in prison'.

Kevan Gosper, Australian Olympics official, described Tibetan protesters as 'professional spoilers', but has not criticised China. Gosper may not have read the 2007 report Bloody Harvest by Canadian MPs, David Matas and David Kilgour, which alleges the Chinese government executed thousands of Falun Gong practitioners and harvested their organs for transplants.

The entire female population of China is subjected to forced sterilisation and abortion for those who do not submit to state rules on family size. And China executes thousands of its citizens annually, many for the crime of challenging the government.

Religious suppression

China systematically suppresses religious liberty, imprisons Catholic bishops and priests, and persecutes Protestant house church leaders. Mr Shi Weihan, leader of a Beijing house church, is one who has been rearrested after having been previously released without conviction, and only recently has he been allowed to meet with his lawyer or have his family told where he is imprisoned.

Hong Kong Catholic diocese's Justice and Peace Commission (JPC) and Commission of Labour Affairs, as well as the Union of Hong Kong Catholic Organizations in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, joined six Protestant groups: Christians for Hong Kong Society, Christian Industrial Committee, Christian Institute, Christian Patriotic Democratic Movement, Student Christian Movement and Women's Christian Council, in a letter calling for the release of human rights activist Hu Jia, jailed for writing on the internet criticising mainland authorities.

The letter also asks the Chinese government to stop detaining human rights activists and placing their families under house arrest. Hu's wife, Zeng Jinyan, and their infant daughter have been forbidden to contact the outside world since his arrest.

Todd Nettleton, spokesman for Voice of the Martyrs, says that in the months leading up to the Olympic Games things are getting worse, referring to the case of Alimujiang Yimiti, who is in custody charged with 'subversion of the national government and endangering national security'. Yimiti could face the death penalty simply for being Christian.

The Church in China is one of Pope Benedict's top priorities. No country in Asia has received as much of his attention. During his first consistory in March 2006, he gave a red hat to Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, outspoken bishop of Hong Kong.

In January 2007 Benedict convened a summit of Holy See officials and Chinese bishops from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, reviewing the Holy See's strategy to help the Church and Catholics in mainland China, and considering how to work for an understanding with Beijing to resolve problems and open the door to diplomatic ties.

Taking recommendations from that summit, Benedict wrote a letter in June 2007 to Catholics in mainland China and set up a permanent Commission for the Church in China which brings together Vatican officials, Chinese bishops from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, and China experts from religious orders with links to the mainland Church. It met in March 2008 to review reactions to the Pope's letter and to reflect on ways to move ahead.

Benedict also invited Catholics worldwide to join in a Day of Prayer for the Church in China on 24 May, the feast of Our Lady Help of Christians, who 'is venerated with great devotion at the Marian Shrine of Sheshan in Shanghai.' (The Chinese authorities recently banned a pilgrimage from Hong Kong to the Shrine).

The Pope has frequently expressed the Holy See's desire and willingness for 'constructive dialogue' with China. Delegations from both sides have met on several occasions and talks continue, though perhaps not as 'constructively' as the Holy See would wish.

Vatican officials have noted that while Beijing welcomes cardinals visiting from Belgium, France, Scotland, USA and Vietnam, it shows no such readiness to allow the world's two Chinese cardinals, Paul Shan Kuo-hsi and Hong Kong's Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, a Shanghai native, to visit the land of their birth.

Cardinal Shan, who is suffering from lung cancer but devotes his time to giving talks to a wide range of groups including university students, doctors, prisoners and non-Christian religious groups, was in Rome in March to attend a meeting of the Pope's Commission for the Church in China, expressed optimism about the future of the Church in the mainland, 'because we are in the hands of God, and from history we know that no dictatorial regime will last forever.

'If we compare the actual government of Beijing (today) with the government of Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping, there is a big change, a big change,' he said.

As for persecutions and trials over the years, he believes 'God uses them to purify us.' Despite everything, he concluded, 'the number of Catholics has increased almost five times in over 50 years - and that's a miracle!'

Breaking shackles

Following the Olympic torch protests, China has announced it would soon open fresh talks with aides to the Dalai Lama. It would be the first meeting between the two sides for over a year.

However, in New Delhi thousands of Tibetan exiles residing in India marched to demand the release of the Panchen Lama, the second highest-ranking figure in Tibetan Buddhism who they say has been a prisoner in China since 1995.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government needs to talk not only to the representatives of the Dalai Lama but to Vatican envoys, representatives of the Falun Gong and Protestant church leaders. Religious liberty is indivisible.

In August we should not have to depend on fuzzy images from hidden cameras to show us violations of human rights in China. Somewhere there is another individual like Bishop Han holding up the Cross. The huge media contingent at the Games could ensure that the Olympic torch illuminates not only sporting achievements but helps break the shackles restricting religious freedom in China.

Babette Francis is the National & Overseas Co-ordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc., a NGO having special consultative status with the Economic & Social Council of the UN (babette@endeavour

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