The Pope and the Dragon: A Godless Ostpolitik


And seeing the multitudes, he had compassion on them: because they were distressed, and lying like sheep that have no shepherd. – Mt 9:36

In an interview last month with Asia Times, Pope Francis opined at length about China. China, where Communist policies have ended the lives of roughly 100 million men, women, and children, and where a ruthless “one child policy” has easily claimed the lives of four times that many unborn babies. China, where human rights are routinely and flagrantly violated. China, where authentic Catholicism is outlawed, and real Catholics — laity and clergy alike — are often imprisoned, tortured, or even killed. China, where the government demands the right to appoint Catholic bishops to its farcical Patriotic Church, whether the Vatican likes it or not.

In a conversation that spans over two thousand printed words about this China — sovereign enemy of human dignity and authentic faith — Pope Francis somehow neglected to mention God even once. Surely, you ask, he at least mentioned the name of Jesus? Not even once. Oppressed Catholics? Not even once. (This from the same man who thinks nothing of referencing a pagan “deity” in one breath and quoting a Chinese communist revolutionary in the next.)

His approach to the subject of China — at times obsequious and never confrontational —  is evidence of the Vatican’s turn to Ostpolitik under his watchThis term,  meaning, “Eastern policy,” originated in West Germany during the Cold War. Ostpolitik was an attempt was made at détente between the Western world and the Soviet Bloc. If there were any question of whether Francis meant to harken back to a 1960s diplomacy between the free world and Communism, he twice references Yalta — unasked, and really, somewhat out of context — making the comparison rather hard to ignore.

A word cloud of the papal interview on China. The biggest words are the most frequently repeated.

A word cloud of the papal interview on China. The biggest words are the most frequently repeated.

On the other side of the issue is the 84-year old Chinese-born Cardinal, Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong. He is a fierce critic of China’s oppressive policies and the state-sanctioned (and out of communion) Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which exists as a socialist surrogate for the real Chinese Church, which has been forced underground. Cardinal Zen was raised to the curia by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 – a move some Chinese clerics saw as evidence that the pontiff-emeritus endorsed Zen’s outspokenness. Cardinal Zen gave his own interview with Asia Times last month, and unlike Pope Francis, he was less-than-thrilled about the Vatican’s soft-pedal attempt at smoothing over Sino-Catholic relations:

What makes me restless is the sight of our Eminent Secretary of State [Cardinal Pietro Parolin] still intoxicated by the miracles of Ostpolitik. In a speech last year, at a Memorial for Card. Casaroli, he praised the success of its predecessor in having secured the existence of the Church hierarchy in the communist countries of Eastern Europe. He says: “In choosing candidates for the episcopate, we choose shepherds and not people who systematically oppose the regime, people who behave like gladiators, people who love to grandstand on the political stage.” I wonder: Who had he in mind while making this description? I fear that he was thinking of a Cardinal Wyszynski, a Cardinal Mindszenty, a Cardinal Beran. But these are the heroes who bravely defended the faith of their people! It terrifies me to realize this mindset and I sincerely hope that I am wrong.

On the day that an agreement is signed with China there will be peace and joy, but do not expect me to participate in the celebrations of the beginning of this new Church. I disappear, I will start a monastic life to pray and do penance. I will ask the forgiveness of Pope Benedict for not being able to do what he was hoping that I could do. I will ask Pope Francis to forgive this old Cardinal from the peripheries for disturbing him with so many inappropriate letters.

The innocent children were killed, the angel told Joseph to take Mary and the Child and flee to safety. But today would our diplomats advise Joseph to go and humbly beg for dialogue with Herod!?

If Herod and his massacre of the innocents seems a bold comparison, consider this: China’s hellish one-child policy is estimated to have taken the lives of at least 400 million Chinese babies, often against their parents’ will. And yet, when asked about a China that “sacrificed that which has always been most dear to them, their children,” the most forceful language Pope Francis could muster up was to call this policy a “mistake.” Said Francis:

Here in Rome, if you walk around, you will see very few children. Perhaps behind this there is the fear you are alluding to, the mistaken perception, not that we will simply fall behind, but that we will fall into misery, so therefore, let’s not have children.



Taking up the theme, in the Year of Mercy, what message can I give to the Chinese people? The history of a people is always a path. A people at times walks more quickly, at times more slowly, at times it pauses, at times it makes a mistake and goes backwards a little, or takes the wrong path and has to retrace its steps to follow the right way. But when a people moves forward, this does not worry me because it means they are making history. And I believe that the Chinese people are moving forward and this is their greatness. It walks, like all populations, through lights and shadows. Looking at this past – and perhaps the fact of not having children creates a complexit is healthy to take responsibility for one’s own path. Well, we have taken this route, something here did not work at all, so now other possibilities are opened up. Other issues come into play: the selfishness of some of the wealthy sectors who prefer not to have children, and so forth. They have to take responsibility for their own path. And I would go further: do not be bitter, but be at peace with your own path, even if you have made mistakes. I cannot say my history was bad, that I hate my history. (The Pope gives me a penetrating look.)

No, every people must be reconciled with its history as its own path, with its successes and its mistakes. And this reconciliation with one’s own history brings much maturity, much growth. Here I would use the word mentioned in the question: mercy. It is healthy for a person to have mercy towards himself, not to be sadistic or masochistic. That is wrong. And I would say the same for a people: it is healthy for a population to be merciful towards itself. And this nobility of soul … I don’t know whether or not to use the word forgiveness, I don’t know. But to accept that this was my path, to smile, and to keep going. If one gets tired and stops, one can become bitter and corrupt. And so, when one takes responsibility for one’s own path, accepting it for what it was, this allows one’s historical and cultural richness to emerge, even in difficult moments.

In reading this, one has the impression he might be discussing a failed economic policy, not state-mandated brutality and Mass slaughter. But even if we look past the limp rhetoric, the word “mistake” is an odd choice. After all, does this sound like a “mistake” to you?

Mei Fong tells the routine story of a girl who managed to conceal an illegal pregnancy until the baby was almost due, when family planning officials surrounded her hiding place at night. ‘She ran and ran and ran until she came to a pond. Then she ran in, until the water was at her neck. She stood there and began to cry.’

Through her tears she explained that she needed the baby to stop her husband and his parents abusing her for not producing a son. This was the mid 1990s, but the same thing could have happened in rural China at any point in the past 1,000 years, except for the dénouement. Officials dragged the girl from the water, and hauled her off to hospital where the baby was killed. Even if it had been a boy, the only way the family could have kept him would have been by paying a fine of between two and ten times their annual income.

If it was a girl, she would have been strangled at birth in the traditional way. Mei Fong herself was born in Malaysia to Chinese parents who already had four unwanted daughters. ‘Be glad you’re not in the old country,’ her family told her as a child: ‘You’d never have been born.’ Sons are essential to carry on the family name as well as to support ageing parents, and bury them when they die. Infanticide, always a standard solution to the problem of surplus girls, meant that the one-child policy was skewed by gender imbalance from the moment it became law in 1980.

It originated with military planners specialising in rocket science, the only body of government technical advisers to survive Mao’s purges intact. Their recommendation appealed precisely because its drastic simplicity took no account of human behaviour or feelings: ‘The country had been so beaten and demoralised, its intellectual capital so sapped by the Cultural Revolution, the idea of rationing children, in the same way as coal and grain were rationed, made sense.’

What? Is this not an opportunity for Francis to speak against a “throwaway culture,” at the very least?

There are countless stories such as that of Mei Fong, dating back decades, and they’re not for the faint of heart. In his 1993 book, A Mother’s Ordeal: One Woman’s Fight Against China’s One-Child Policy, Population Research Institute president and China expert Steven W. Mosher recounts the experience of an undercover Chinese journalist who sought to expose the government-mandated “Family Planning” operations in 1991:

Later, the journalist visited the hospital [where the Chinese abortions were performed] herself, where she saw ‘hundreds of women — some more than six months pregnant — . . . packed in dark corridors and makeshift tents, waiting to be operated on in the ‘abortion center’ in the hospital courtyard. Next to it was a public toilet. I went in: there was simply nowhere you could put your feet; it was filled with blood-soaked toilet paper. Behind the toilet stood a line of waste-bins: the aborted babies — some as old as eight months — were put there, then dumped somewhere else.

Why were so many women in line for these ghastly procedures? Mosher explains:

Insider accounts of China’s family planning programs have been rare — and are always published under pseudonyms — no doubt in fear of governmental reprisals. Those that have appeared provide independent confirmation of the kinds of abuses that will be described here. For instance, a Chinese journalist (“Liu Yin”) was allowed to accompany the members of a family planning “task force” on a village raid whose mission was to arrest eleven women who had become pregnant without authorization. Her account, which was published in a British newspaper, describes how five of the women were forcibly dragged from their homes in the middle of the night and taken to the county hospital. The other six had fled, but their families were warned that “if [the women] did not go to the abortion center within a week their houses would be pulled down. This was no bluff. On the way back from the raid, I saw six collapsed houses. No family in the village is allowed to provide shelter for the people whose houses have been destroyed.”

The fact is, China performs over 9 million abortions annually — more than the rest of the world combined. Does this not merit, if not an outright condemnation for fear of diplomatic reprisals, then at least a statement of heartfelt sorrow over this tragedy from the Vicar of Christ? Does a question about China’s slaughter of hundreds of millions her own children not constitute a sufficient “context” wherein “the Church’s pastoral ministry” is appropriate, and would in fact not indicate that she is “obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines“?

Clearly not.

And what of the brave Catholics who are imprisoned in China for living their faith, and not joining up with the schismatic Patriotic Church? In his 2007 testimony before the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the late Joseph Cardinal Kung revealed the reality of Chinese Catholicism to the West:

I believe that most if not all of you who are here today understand that there is no religious freedom in China. Yet you may be shocked to learn that all of the approximately 40 underground bishops in China have been either arrested and are now in jail, or under house arrest, or under strict surveillance, or in hiding, or simply have disappeared.

We know for sure that six bishops are now in jail. They are Bishops 1) HAN Dingxiang 韓鼎祥 of Yong Nian 永年, Hebei, 2) LIN xili 林錫黎 of Wenzhou 溫州, Zhejiang 浙江, 3) SHI Enxiang 師恩祥 of Yixian 易縣, Hebei, 4) SU Zhimin 蘇志民 of Baoding, Hebei, 5) YAO Liang 姚良 of Xiwanzi 西灣子, Hebei, and 6) ZHAO Zhendong 趙振東 of Xuanhua 宣化, Hebei. They are all in their 70’s or 80’s. Three of them have disappeared. (HAN, Shi and SU). Out of these three, Bishop Su has disappeared for approximately 10 years, Bishop Han has just disappeared approximately one year ago after being detained approximately 5 years, Bishop SHI has disappeared almost six years. We do not know whether they are dead or alive.

Kung went on to relate in more detail the imprisonment, beatings, torture, and disappearance of members of the true Chinese clergy. He also discussed the difficulties Catholic leaders have in even tracking the whereabouts of the imprisoned:

Priests, seminarians, nuns and laypersons face similar harassment. We know for sure that there are approximately 25 of them in jail or in labor camps. This list is by no means complete, because of the difficulties in obtaining details. Many cases are not reported here. My educated guess is that there are hundreds in jail. Sometimes, the government simply removes a priest or bishop and do not place them into the jail system, so that there is no official record of this religious prisoner. This is one of the new methods of persecuting the underground church.


From the two examples of Bishop Su and Father Lu together with the above ten arrests that I have presented, you can see that religious persecution in China is not ancient history. It is on-going. The persecution continues when China is making significant economic progress, when China has joined the World Trade Organizations, and when China will host the Olympic Games in 2008.

Where are the words of hope for Chinese Catholics from the Roman Pontiff? Where is the solidarity? Where is the message of encouragement to those undergoing severe trials and suffering simply for remaining faithful to Christ and His True Church?

There is only silence. Vacuity. Platitudes. An interview that may as well have been given by some secular head of state looking to curry favor with Beijing.

In 2007, Cardinal Zen said that it was time for the Vatican to take a more uncompromising line in its negotiations with China. Nine years later, things have moved in the opposite direction, with no end in sight.

There are some 12 million Chinese Catholics who have no churches to worship in, no choice over government-mandated contraceptive implants and restrictions on family size. There are untold Chinese who suffer unspeakable brutality at the hands of their own government and who desperately need the hope, the joy, and the transformative understanding of redemptive suffering that comes through Gospel message.

Who will shine the light of Christ for the Chinese people? Sadly, not His Vicar.

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