The Italian journalist, Guido Santevecchi, recently reported in the Corriere della Sera that sixty Christian churches had been demolished in China. This is an excerpt from the article published on May 31:
[…] AsiaNews, an agency of the Pontifical Institute for Catholic missions, collected photographs of 64 Christian churches demolished during the first five months of this year. The reason (excuse) was always the same: violations of urban planning rules.
Wenzhou, known as the “Jerusalem of China” for the cupolas that dot its skyline, registers about 15% Christian (protestant and catholic) out of 9 million inhabitants. Relations with the communist party seemed to have relaxed. Then something happened. The faithful say that everything started when the party’s provincial secretary, Xia Baolong, came to visit the city, a man very close to Xi Jinping: he would have said that cross is too visible. And the subordinates would have immediately “discovered” the violation of the plan. In reality, the presence of their faith was too visible: the communist party is afraid that the people’s ideological crisis is opening the door to god after the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s death, and the unrestrained opening of the market economy.
In Italy, there are three authoritative media organizations that have potential daily readerships of over 800,000: the Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica, and Alberto Forchielli (he easily surpasses these numbers with his combined Facebook and Twitter fans). It’s worth it to deepen the discussion opened by Forchielli’s colleagues at the Corsera.
Alberto, from your position as a privileged observer of Chinese affairs, can you tell us what’s happening? Even though not a Vatican correspondent, I was able to consult confidential documents on the matter even before the New York Times diffused the news, which was then reported by the Italian press. The issue is representative of the Chinese culture of saying one thing and doing another, of forging agreements they don’t uphold. I’ll explain myself. On the one side, at the vertices of power, China is trying everything possible to find an agreement with the Vatican to have diplomatic relations with Pope Francesco, who is the most influential person in the world today. Obama goes to him, and China cannot afford to not meet him at the level of international image. In this sense, despite their economic power, they’re still a 2nd tier country. On the other hand, because they break every kind of agreement they sign, at a local level, the authorities are pursuing their own interests—or those they deem as such—as the stories about the destroyed churches tell. For them, this schizophrenic attitude is normal.
Do the conditions to sanction an accord exist? Pope Francesco has a singular charisma. He is the man of the poor. He is adored everywhere, especially in the Americas and Africa, huge regions of interest to the Chinese. Also, Francesco is the first Jesuit pope. The Jesuits are great propagators of Catholicism worldwide. They have played an important role in China, from the missionary expeditions of Matteo Ricci between the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries. Therefore, Pope Francesco, by nature and vocation of his Order, could be tempted to sign a pact with China.
Is the agreement appropriate? It would be devastating. With an agreement between the Vatican and China in the good faith of Pope Francesco, China’s strategy of signing accords and not keeping them would be legitimized. The Catholic Church has a 2,000-year history. It is history. China is a de facto “dynasty” that’s been behaving like we’ve witnessed since 1949. The Vatican should think long and hard. The only solution that comes to mind is to place China under observation. After ten years of respecting the rules, they can make an agreement; otherwise we’ll talk about it after another hundred.
What is the most striking case of China disregarding an agreement? The WTO was a failure. The Chinese didn’t respect the commercial agreements set forth by the WTO and if we could turn back time, the West would not sign the agreement again. And the US, who knows China well at this point, does not want to sign any kind of bilateral investment treaty.
What is the underlying problem? Sociologists say that Chinese expats do not integrate into foreign communities, and that students studying at the best universities do not bring the cross-cultural knowledge expected as such a high level of specialization. Meanwhile, having production capacity and reserves to spend is not sufficient in the business world. You have to establish your counterpart’s trust, maintain business etiquette, and instill hope rather than fear. Essentially, the Chinese are not mature enough. They have an enormous sense of power, but they’re incapable of endearing themselves, especially to the West.
Do you have another illuminating example? Small-medium German enterprises have great production capacities, they innovate, and have strong exports; they are the most desirable objectives for Chinese investors that need quality and can afford them with their financial resources. But, of 593 German SMEs sold to foreign companies in 2013, only seven chose Chinese capital.
What was the reason? It’s simple. Managing complex situations, respecting rules, customs, and dialoguing with social organizations to guarantee welfare are not China’s strengths. The fear of giving in on these aspects has dissuaded the Germans from trusting their Chinese counterparts, who on paper seem to have the requisites for becoming credible partners.
In conclusion? You can buy a company, but a socio-economic model is not for sale yet, let alone universal spheres like religious beliefs and individual rights.