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Paris, Wednesday, October 11, 2000

The Catholic Church Worries China

By Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune
HONG KONG - China's strongly worded attack on the Pope's Oct. 1 canonization of 120 Chinese and foreign missionary saints is reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. It suggests real concern in Beijing about any beliefs which the state cannot control. Such language may also indicate that the leadership's control of the propaganda machinery is now weak.

This fear of beliefs was already obvious in the case of the Falun Gong movement, which is proving more widespread and persistent than could have been imagined two years ago, in the face of a barrage of propaganda against it and the widespread arrest of adherents. But the Falun Gong, despite having a leader resident in the United States, is hard to characterize as anything other than Chinese in its origin and practices.

The Catholic saints on the other hand can be portrayed as criminal foreign missionaries or their Chinese dupes. Xenophobia is the preferred weapon against the adherents of the papacy.

It is of course quite true that Christian missionary activity, especially in the latter part of the 19th century, went hand in hand with Western imperialism, treaty ports and the humiliation of China.

The Western traders and government representatives may have had little personally in common with the missionaries who suffered much discomfort as well as death to bring Christ, schools and public health to China.

But both were part of the same Western expansionism and treated as such during the Boxer rebellion, the populist anti-foreign and anti-Christian movement suppressed by an international force in 1900. Most of the new saints lost their lives to the Boxers, who have mostly been seen as a patriotic movement.

Some Catholics might question the Vatican's wisdom in canonizing so many victims of Chinese patriotism. However, the propaganda goes way beyond linking missionaries to imperialism. According to the current propaganda, the Christian martyrs were not just misguided agents of imperialism. They were positively and personally very evil.

Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, describes St. Albericus Crescitelli (1863-1900) as a serial rapist who violated wives prior to their weddings, and as an evil money lender to impoverished peasants.

St. Auguste Chapdeleine (1814-56) employed bandits to spread the gospel, Xinhua says. Other new saints are denounced as smugglers, traders in Chinese relics and so on. The Vatican's canonization investigators may sometimes be too forgiving of saints as well as other sinners, but did they really overlook so many mortal sins?

Islam may have no Pope claiming universality, but it too is under attack by China's centralizing, ethnic-Han state. China's use of phrases such as ''Muslim extremists'' and ''fundamentalists'' are often accepted without query in the West and Russia where knee-jerk anti-Muslim sentiment finds a ready press.

But in China, as in Chechnya, the words are a handy misnomer for what are in effect nationalist movements which just happen to be among adherents of Islam. Turkic peoples of China's Xinjiang Province plant bombs in Urumqi in protest against Han colonization of what they regard as their country, not to promote radical Islam. Yet for Beijing to admit this would be to admit how deep is the racial divide between the Turkic peoples and their Han overlords.

The problem for Beijing is not necessarily of religion or spiritual concepts per se. The fear of the leadership is that as the opiate of Communism wears off, other beliefs of all sorts, -spiritual, secular, ethnic nationalist - will erode its authority.