The Dragon and the Cross


Telegenic Chinese Premier Wen’s visit to Australia reminds us that China is not only Australia’s major customer for raw materials, but is also a world power in its own right.

As befits a culture with 5000 years of recorded history, and more than 2000 years as a nation state, China is showing herself to be a deft political player: notwithstanding European and American imperial exploitation in the 19th century, warlordism that characterised the Chinese republic in the first half of the 20th century, and Maoism that did little to project Chinese culture and politics, except among the cynical, the young, the naive and the romantic.

However, since its turn to market economics signalled by Deng’s tour of the south in 1978 China has realised economic growth that is the envy of the world and the country is again a significant force in the world of real politics.

But the cost of this turn to the market has yet to be fully calculated, and the ruling regime has realised that economic growth in itself is not a guarantee of continued stability for the Chinese State. The recent National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference meetings in March adopted an 11th five year plan that made quality of economic development a priority in the next planning period.

Coupled with this concern for social and geographic equity in economic life, is the realisation that, in the rush to be rich, greed, cupidity and corruption are destabilising China. Protests by peasants at the theft of their farmland by cadres of the State and Party are now paralleled by protests by the urban middle class at the failure of municipal authorities and at the breaching of obligations by development companies.

Cardinal Joseph Zen

Property owners who buy into urban developments find that local authorities and property managers don’t protect their interests. In fact, by continuing to develop available land within and next to previously sold developments, they act against the interests of individual home owners. Could the new middle class become as restless as the farmers?

The joining of peasant and urban middle-class unrest is not what the Party wishes to see. The rationale of the turn to capitalism ‘with Chinese characteristics’ is that wide ranging economic development can be separated, or contained, from democratic political change. Will this be the original innovation in national governance that contemporary China may yet demonstrate? But conventional wisdom posits that economic development presages political change.

The larger contradiction the regime grapples with is reflected in an interesting dance macabre underway at present. Hong Kong’s turbulent priest, the fatefully named Joseph Zen, was appointed cardinal by Pope Benedict in March. A keen supporter of religious freedom in China, and a voice for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, the former Bishop Zen of Hong Kong has been a critic of China.

The mainland regime counters by challenging the patriotism of those calling for democratic reform. In Chinese Communist usage the terms ‘democrat’ and ‘patriotic’ are mutually exclusive. For example, virulent attacks have been mounted against the ‘patriotism’ of Martin Lee, the redoubtable Hong Kong democratic politician.

Interestingly enough, Cardinal Zen’s appointment has not been met with criticism by the Communist regime itself although the mainland’s proxy Catholic Church criticised his appointment. Zen is the source of stories in the Hong Kong press that the regime has approached him, surprisingly, about the establishment of diplomatic recognition between the mainland and the Vatican.

Despite this, the central Government may be treating Cardinal Zen’s enthusiasm for a diplomatic reconciliation with caution. Members of its liaison office in Hong Kong didn’t accept an invitation to attend a church reception on Friday 31 March where the new Cardinal told foreign dignitaries and Hong Kong officials that he wanted to assist the favourable developments in Sino-Vatican relations, which he views as imminent.

However, the question of diplomatic recognition may not be a matter within the remit of the Hong Kong liaison office of the central Government.

And, significant figures in the Hong Kong Government, including its Chief Executive, Donald Tsang, are devout members of the church. In Hong Kong, the regime has a shining example of hierarchically organised religion being no bar to effective communist governance where market values are all pervasive.

Catholic nuns during a requiem mass for the late Pope John Paul II
in a state sanctioned church in China.

Diplomatic recognition of the mainland by the Vatican could be significant for both sides. The Vatican would finally gain access to the Catholic congregations in China that have been under the direction of Catholic clergy appointed by bishops who have hitherto not been beholden to the Vatican although contact has been going on for some time between the Holy See and underground Chinese Catholics loyal to the Vatican.

Recognition of the mainland would necessarily mean that the Vatican would no longer recognise Taiwan; a significant step in the ongoing cross-strait diplomacy that Beijing conducts against an independent Taiwan.

Notwithstanding the previous Pope’s role in the demise of Eastern European Communism, and the traditional enmity between Church and Communism, the two similarly sized autocracies of approximately 1.3 billion people each, may have common interests.

Beijing, which is mounting a campaign to return to Marxist values to counter graft and corruption, may now see merit in coming to a rapprochement with another authoritarian hierarchy with expertise in social control.

Intractable problems are presented by structural weaknesses in the Chinese legal system that does not allow for an independent judiciary in the context of a mass pervasive political party. What Beijing noted and fears from the collapse of Eastern European communist States were the twin failures of socialist economy and socialist ideology. The Chinese regime is committed to, and to a significant extent has established, a market economy. It is promoting consumerism, but without a legal system that can effectively articulate and protect political and property rights.

What it seeks is stability. And, it may be hard to convince the Chinese people that the values enshrined in the Party that stole the ‘iron rice bowl’, justify the unequal economic developments of the last three decades. Can the Chinese people have faith in a more equitable future under Marxist values?

As China tries to contain its booming economy and seeks to convince its population to change their frugal ways to spend and not save, could religious piety, via the Catholic Church, be deployed as a counter to the rising expectations that rights and duties should be effectively guaranteed by law?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.