Focus on China

  • March 25, 2008

{mosimage}The showdown in Tibet between Chinese troops and Tibetans demonstrating to protest Beijing’s oppressive rule have achieved the kind of global prominence in the media that religiously minded Chinese can only dream about. It’s the usual sad fare: dozens of deaths and violent repression of riots and protest marches remind the world that China is still the world’s largest dictatorship.

The protests have fanned out far beyond the barricaded borders of Tibet. Even in Canada, Tibetans and their supporters took to the streets to support their friends and relatives back home. They are a reminder of previous similar (in their rarity) outbursts: the student uprising suppressed bloodily in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the Falun Gong uprising a decade later.

But times are different in today’s China. The government has invested untold hope for international accolades in its 2008 Olympics slated for this summer in Beijing. It wants to be known as a global power befitting its enormous population and booming economy. Its own rhetoric brims over with talk of human rights, compassion and peace.

Its own action, however, tells a different story. For Christians in China, a tiny minority of the 1.3-billion population even though they count in the tens of millions, it is also a familiar story. Despite growing economic prosperity and freedom of movement, China remains a Communist state and officially atheist. The ideological chiefs in the government continue to fear the power of religious faith and use the armed might of the state, along with its police, to carefully control religious practice. Chinese are increasingly allowed to worship at altars other than those devoted to the official ideology, but the institutional expressions of religion are watched like a hawk. Over the years, The Catholic Register has carried countless news items on priests and bishops routinely arrested and released days, weeks or months later without charge. Pressure, subtle and not-so-subtle, to co-operate only with government-approved religious associations is a fact of daily life.

This suspicion of organized religion continues to bedevil the sputtering talks between the Vatican and Beijing over improving relations. For Beijing, the only terms for discussion are the government’s terms, which doesn’t lend itself to progress.

But today China can no longer suppress religion in relative silence. The World Wide Web, cell phones and other electronic media provide too porous a communications network for Chinese authorities to block off all messages to the outside world. China may decide that crushing dissent trumps its international reputation, but it won’t be able to do so with impunity.

For better or worse, the looming Olympics are a wedge for those in the world who care about religious freedom in China. Tibetans are leading the way, spilling their own blood in the process. They deserve the sympathy of all those who care about human rights. Their sacrifice is not just for their own cause, but for all humanity in China. For this, they need support and prayers.

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