Thursday, March 14, 2013

China elects new president as Vatican elects new Pope

Blinked and you'd have missed it, but while saturation coverage of the Papal election at Vatican City continued on many news channels around the world, there was another election of perhaps far more significance taking place - in China. In fact both elections might have significance both for China, the Catholic Church, and in particular Chinese Catholics who have been hounded or ignored by both sides.

China's president elected

Less than two decades ago a change of leadership in China would have been of little significance. However, China is well and truly on the world map, both politically and economically. Now the second largest economy in the world, China wields significant clout and influence, second only to the United States.

While many eyes focused on the inauguration of Pope Francis I, China was welcoming in Xi Jinping as its new president [BBC / CNN / Guardian / Washington Post]. And while the former Cardinal of Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, faces many challenges, so too does the new Chinese president.

Scandals & corruptions

The Catholic church has been rocked by scandal concerning misappropriate behaviour by Catholic priests. China has itself been thrown into turmoil over allegations of corruption which have threatened to tear the ruling Communist Party apart.

Xi faces more than the challenges of putting the Communist Party leadership in order. He also needs to face up to the increasing environmental problems that affect many people's lives.

Environmental concerns

In recent months China's cities have suffered from some of the worst air pollution in decades [FT]. But it is not just the air that is filled with dangerous toxins. The land is also saturated with pollutants and so too are many of China's rivers. In the last week it was reported that nearly 6,000 pigs had been dumped in the Huangpu River which runs to Shanghai, an indication that regulations and strict laws are failing to prevent individuals and corporations polluting the land, air and watercourses [BBC / Sky / CNN].

Anti-corruption drive

Xi has already launched a highly publicized anti-corruption campaign and called on officials to reduce the daily reams of official documents and speeches they churn out. He has banned all forms of ostentation surrounding leaders' events. There will be no more red carpets, welcome banners or traffic-inducing motorcades. And lavish government banquets have been cut down to just four dishes and a soup!

But these are just minor changes to what is actually needed. Xi needs to rein in widespread corruption that is believed to be deep rooted within the country's leadership. Xi has promised to bring down the "tigers" and the "flies", a reference to bureaucratic corruption at all levels of society.

New direction

So far Xi appears to making good on promises of weeding out corruption and bring about reform to the way China is ruled. Days before his official inauguration Xi appointed a reformist member of China's decision-making politburo as his vice-president, snubbing the country's top censor who had been widely tipped for the post. Li Yuanchao, 62, steps into a post that many expected to be filled by Liu Yunshan, 65, a former propaganda minister who was made responsible for propaganda and ideology in the powerful seven-man politburo standing committee in November. Liu was reportedly backed by former president Jiang Zemin, who stepped down in 2003. He is also known for his iron grip on the Internet [IBT].

Xi Jinping is said to have a great deal more charisma than his predecessor Hu Jintao, and is even looked upon, by at least some members of the public, as a man who might bring about change. Xi's appointment of Li as his right hand man is an apparent snub to former President Jiang Zemin who himself had helped foist Hu Jintao into power and who were both hand picked by the late Deng Xiaoping.

Silent voices

But in a country like China it is difficult to gauge the real mood of the people. Sky News travelled to a small town where only a year earlier Xi Jinping was met by enthusiastic villagers. But on their arrival they found checkpoints and a mysteriously empty village where no-one appeared willing to speak.

Sky's Mark Stone met only silence as he rolled into the impoverished Chinese village of Luotuowan. While officials let the news crew past the roadblock, their paperwork and passports were checked by police and details taken down.

But there seemed to be little to film, and hardly anyone to interview. The only person who was not camera shy, spoke only of praise for the new Chinese leader.

"I got up in the morning and it was cloudy, then suddenly Xi Jinping arrived and the sun came out. He's an honourable man. Close to the people. He's like a bright light from heaven," said the only apparent resident, and the only one willing to speak to the Sky News team [Sky]. 

Politics & religion

Calls for reform and democracy are never far away in a country where the iron grip of the state is all pervasive. There are strict controls of the Internet preventing the free flow of information, especially where such information could rock the status quo. Free assembly and protests are generally forbidden, though can often be overlooked if such demonstrations serve the interests of the state or are seen as a way to let of public anger. Religion too is also strictly controlled.

Mao Zedong was particularly suspicious of organised religion, seeing it as a threat to his own powerbase. To stamp out this threat Mao expelled foreign Catholics and set to work on taking over Catholic run schools, churches and other institutions. Ties between the Vatican and Beijing were broken off in 1957 when China expelled the Papal Nuncio, the diplomatic representative of the Holy See, and Pius XII excommunicated two bishops that Mao himself had appointed. Mao then created the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, but Chinese Catholics, estimated at more than 3 million at the time, were far from safe. Hundreds of Chinese Catholics are believed to have been executed, while others were persecuted.

Rift with Vatican

Beijing and the Vatican had already severed diplomatic ties in 1951 after the Vatican recognised the Nationalist government in Taipei. But even after Mao's death and well into China's opening up policy, a rift still exists between the Vatican and the state sanctioned Catholic church in China.

In a letter written by Pope Benedict XVI [Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger] in 2007, he referred to the agents of the Association as "persons who are not ordained, and sometimes not even baptised", who "control and take decisions concerning important ecclesial questions, including the appointment of Bishops."

Now, following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis I some Catholics in China are hoping that relations will improve. "We hope the new Pope can improve the Sino-Vatican relations and that the relations can be normalised as early as possible, so Chinese Catholics can enjoy a normal religious life," said Bishop John Fang Xingyao, bishop of the Linyi diocese in Shandong, soon after the new new Pope was announced.

"Never ending crisis"

In recent years Sino-Vatican relations have been rocked by a series of bishop appointments made by the Chinese church without papal approval. In July 2011, Bishop Joseph Huang Bingzhang, bishop of Shantou , Guangdong, was excommunicated from the Vatican because he had not been endorsed by Rome.

In 2010, Beijing chose Fang, who is recognised by both the Vatican and Beijing, as the chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, a body denounced by the Holy See in 2007 as being incompatible with church doctrine.

At the same time, Bishop Joseph Ma Yinglin, from the Kunming diocese in Yunnan province, who was ordained without papal approval in 2006, was selected as president of the Chinese Catholic Bishops Conference. Ma, who is not recognised by the Vatican, said he hoped all the conflicts between China and the Vatican on the appointments of bishops will pass [SCMP / NYT].

Nonetheless Sino-Vatican relations are seen by many in the West as a "never ending crisis" [Vatican Insider].

China, as a country, has many problems to sort out at home, from reform and the economy to environmental concerns and corruption. The Catholic Church too has many problems to address, least of all the continuing allegations and fallout surrounding priests and cardinals who abused young priests. Sino-Vatican relations are probably the last issue on the agenda for either side.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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