China cracks down on ‘New Citizens Movement’

Chinese legal scholar and activist Xu Zhiyong is in prison for “gathering a crowd to disturb public order.” A court in Beijing upheld that sentence today. Several other people with the ‘New Citizens Movement’ went on trial this week and face significant jail time. The group has held small protests and called for public disclosure of Chinese officials’ financial assets. For more about the crackdown on these anti-corruption activists, listen to our interview with Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch.

UPDATE: Xu also has a new book out, in Chinese, about how to be a good citizen in China.

The book is broken into three parts. The first details the growth of Mr. Xu’s political awareness as a young lawyer suddenly exposed to the brutality visited on Chinese petitioners. In the second part, he outlines his ambitions for a democratic China, with separation of powers and a military with allegiance to the state rather than a party. The final section contains various writings and documents, including Mr. Xu’s recollections of conversations with police in the wake of his arrest last year.

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Military tourism and some tough diplomacy are on the agenda for Chuck Hagel in China

Chuck Hagel got a special treat in China this week. The US Secretary of Defense was given a tour on the Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. Nothing really signals a national desire to project military might beyond one’s own shoreline quite like an aircraft carrier. The Liaoning is China’s first, and it’s clearly a symbol that Beijing intends to be a more serious player in the Asia Pacific. But giving Hagel a personal tour is also a sign of China’s willingness to respond to Washington’s calls for more transparency. 

“The Chinese seized upon the opportunity of the Hagel visit,” says retired US Admiral Michael McDevitt. “Currently the military-to-military cooperation [between Beijing and Washington] is in a good place. It has been for the last 13 or 14 months.”

The US and China are also dealing with some tricky disagreements on security matters, and several of them came up during a joint press conference with Hagel and his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Chang Wanquan.

Hagel repeated US objections to China’s creation of an air defense identification zone in the East China sea late last year, which extends to areas claimed by some of China’s neighbors. The American defense chief was quoted in the Financial Times:

“Every nation has a right to establish an air defence zone, but not a right to do it unilaterally with no collaboration, no consultation,” Mr Hagel said. “That adds to tensions, misunderstandings and could eventually add to, and eventually get to, dangerous conflict.”

Things apparently got testy between after Gen. Chang criticized Japan for making trouble in the East China Sea and the Philippines for illegally occupying Chinese islands in the South China Sea, according to the New York Times:

At one point, Mr. Hagel appeared impatient, wagging his finger. “The Philippines and Japan are longtime allies of the United States,” he said. “We have mutual self-defense treaties with each of those countries” he continued, adding that the United States was “fully committed to those treaty obligations.”

There is a widespread view in China that the US government’s ultimate goal is to contain a rising People’s Republic. During the appearance with Hagel, Gen. Chang  was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying that China, “can never be contained.” According to the FT, one Chinese official told Hagel during a meeting that, “the Chinese people, including myself, are dissatisfied” with remarks made by Hagel during his visit to Japan before landing in China. 

Hagel brought a message of reassurance to the Japanese. “Yes, we are drawing down some of force posture. But make no mistake,” the defense secretary said. “We are not retreating from the world.”

The Pentagon still has 400,000 men and women stationed outside the United States in 100 countries, Hagel said. “We still have by far the largest defense force in the world, the biggest budgets in the world,” he added.

Adm. McDevitt says nobody seeks a full-blown military confrontation in the Asia Pacific; not the US, not China and not Japan. But there is always the possibility of an accident leading to unintended consequences.

“Each side trying to support its position on these claims raises that possibility,” McDevitt says. “That’s one of the messages, I think, that Secretary Hagel is bringing. The more you keep pressing these things, the higher the probability of an accident. And we don’t know where that would lead.”

Questions about the Pentagon’s budget beyond 2016 are another issue. McDevitt says potential cuts in defense spending could have a direct impact on US military capabilities in the Asia Pacific. “Reassuring our friends and allies that our re-balance strategy is credible, in the face of Chinese military modernization,” McDevitt adds, this is something that presents a real conundrum for Hagel in Asia.

“The challenge is convincing everybody that we can still do what we are obligated to do by our treaties,” McDevitt says.

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The bishop who stood up to China

Reuters has done a long report about Shanghai’s Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, and it’s got some fantastic background about Ma himself, the controversy around his resignation from the Chinese Patriotic Association, and the broader history of Roman Catholics in China. The piece offers speculation about a possible accommodation between Beijing and the Vatican over Ma’s status.

The Chinese government has privately signaled it could appoint Ma as the next full bishop of Shanghai, a position now vacant, and release two long-jailed bishops loyal to the Vatican, according to a source close to the Holy See. This person said several people had conveyed that message to a Vatican official in private meetings.

Any change in Ma’s status is likely to be gradual, the Vatican source said, given opposition from the Shanghai government, still furious over Ma’s repudiation of the official church.

It’s interesting indeed if talks between the Vatican and the Chinese government are ongoing. Another thing that jumped out at me is the possibility that the Vatican would sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which Beijing is insisting on if the two sides normalize relations.

 

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Shanghai Catholics attend funeral service for late bishop

The funeral Mass for Bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang happened over the weekend. AsiaNews reports that 5,000 people were in attendance, but not Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, the Shanghai priest under house arrest.

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Shanghai Bishop’s death highlights the divide between Rome and Beijing

Roman Catholic bishop Joseph Fan Zhongliang, head of what’s known as the underground Catholic Church in Shanghai, died this week. He was either 95, 96 or 97 years old.

The Catholic leader passed away after a long illness and was under house arrest at the time of his death. Authorities in Shanghai granted permission for Catholics to hold funeral services for the late bishop, including a Mass at St. Ignatius Cathedral. Fan’s body, however, was not allowed to be taken to a church. It remained at a funeral home.

Fan became a Jesuit priest in 1951, but he refused to join China’s official church, known as the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which rejects the authority of the Vatican in Rome over religious affairs in China. In 1955, Fan began a twenty year stint in prison and labor camps. Along with many others from the Christian faith in China, he was arrested during one of the Communist Party’s political campaigns and sent off to prison in Qinghai province, where his job was reportedly carrying corpses to the cemetery.

With the blessing of John Paul II, Fan became the bishop of Shanghai in 2000. But he was never recognized as such by Chinese authorities and the Catholic leader was put under strict government surveillance. “They carried out a certain kind of house arrest to prevent him from having much contact with the outside world, including Catholics in Shanghai,” Anthony Lam, a senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Center in Hong Kong, told the New York Times.

Archbishop Savio Hon Taifai, a Vatican official originally from China, wrote that Fan Zhongliang lived by the Chinese proverb that says, “It’s better to be broken jade than intact tile.”

Within the context of his situation and the political regime, Bishop Fan’s external freedom was always restricted, but not his interior freedom: a good Jesuit through and through, he always embraced God’s will.  This is why he was a symbol of freedom for all Catholics because they only thing [sic] he sought was the right to live according to the guarantee of freedom of religion and his loyalty to the Pope. This was also why he had to suffer, but his witness made Catholics even more determined and more in love with their country. They were and are committed to strive for the good of their country and a greater humanization of their city. Love for God and love for the Pope does not preclude love for one’s country.

Hon also made a public plea to the Chinese government to allow another bishop from Shanghai, Thaddeus Ma Daqin – who is currently under house arrest – to celebrate the funeral Mass for the late Bishop Fan.

“It would be a respectful gesture towards religious freedom and towards an elderly person, such as Msgr. Fans. In addition, Msgr. Ma Daqin’s presence would guarantee not only a fitting funeral, but also an experience of fraternity and harmony among Christians, from which the entire city could only benefit.”

Bishop Ma is a controversial figure. He was named Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Shanghai in July 2012, notably, with the approval of both the Vatican and the Chinese government. But during Ma’s ordination ceremony that same summer, he announced that he was quitting the Catholic Patriotic Association. He has not been seen publicly ever since. And cooperation between the Vatican and Beijing on appointing bishops has ground to a halt.

China did not follow up on the suggestion from Father Hon to let Bishop Ma preside at a funeral service for the late Bishop Fan. Had the government done so, it would have been a significant development toward warmer relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the People’s Republic. The two broke off all official diplomatic ties in 1949.

But Pope Francis might have been trying to reach out to China himself recently, when he revealed that he had exchanged letters with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “We are close to China,” Francis said in an interview with an Italian newspaper. “I sent a letter to President Xi Jinping when he was elected, three days after me. And he replied. There are relations. It’s a great people that I love.”

In what may be seen as a response to any perceived overtures from Rome, the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times ran a story today quoting an official from the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

“China will always safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity and it never allows foreign forces to interfere with religion. The Vatican should respect China in terms of the personnel of a diocese,” Liu Yuanlong, vice president of Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, told the Global Times.

UPDATE: Apart from memorial services held this week, the public funeral for Bishop Fan is evidently scheduled for this weekend, on March 22. That means there is still time for a major breakthrough. It will be interesting to see who is allowed to celebrate the funeral Mass. Someone who closely follows Catholic life in China forwarded me an unconfirmed account that said members of the clergy in Shanghai from both registered (with the CCPA) and unregistered (so-called “underground”) churches were allowed to co-celebrate memorial services there for Bishop Fan. The priests also sang hymns written by Bishop Ma, according to this account.

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Russian moves in Ukraine are giving China a headache

Soon before he was thrown out his job as Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych visited Beijng in December 2013 to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, and announce a substantial new Chinese investment package for Ukraine worth $8 billion. The two countries have boosted their military and trade cooperation in recent years. As VOA reports, the Yanukovych government “agreed last year to a deal for China to lease five percent of the country’s land to grow crops and raise pigs for sale to Chinese state-owned companies. As part of that deal China promised to build highways and bridges in the country.”

Then there were reports like this one about China agreeing for the first time to extend its nuclear umbrella to include Ukraine. One expert I talked with earlier this week mentioned the nuclear umbrella story and I thought… wow, that seems like a pretty big deal. It appears to be wrong though, as the Arms Control Wonk points out here. I didn’t get into the nuclear umbrella issue with my story that ran on Thursday, but here you go.

For more reading on the bind that China finds itself in after Russia’s takeover in Crimea, see Elizabeth Economy’s excellent piece on the CFR site, and Peter Ford’s story in the CSM from Beijing.

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“Politically Incorrect Souls”

This is a really wonderfully written article by Jennifer Ruth at Portland State about Chinese documentary filmmaker Hu Jie, who she describes as the “Errol Morris… or Claude Lanzmann… of China.” Hu became obsessed with the story a young die-hard Communist Party member named Lin Zhao and he spent several years doing a film about her. Lin was persecuted as a “rightist” in the late 1950s and thrown into prison. But as Hu said about her in his film, Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul, “This girl continued to think for herself when the rest of China stopped thinking.” Many thanks to Ruth (though a bit humbling to follow such a fabulous piece) for linking to the story I did about Hu for PRI’s The World!

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