Is the West finally realizing the severity of the threat posed to international security and human rights by the People’s Republic of China?
The British government recently released an assessment of security risks to the U.K.’s telecom network from Chinese giant Huawei, which could allow Beijing to conduct cyberattacks and espionage if it has access to the country’s next-generation 5G networks. Earlier in March, the EU severely warned Italy over its decision to join China’s new Silk Road initiative, an international economic plan that will offer Beijing access to Italian ports. Meanwhile, closer to home, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford announced that he would be meeting with Google representatives to discuss the company’s assistance to China’s People’s Liberation Army. This followed a statement by Dunford before the Senate Armed Services Committee in which he claimed that Google was “indirectly benefiting the Chinese military.”
Western nations should be worried about the cozy relationship between China and the tech industry. Despite the tremendous boon to economic development across the world that’s resulted from China’s rise, it remains one of the most totalitarian police states on the planet. Beijing becoming a dominant player in international capitalist markets has done little to alter its government’s oppression of its people. Indeed, technological advancements taken from the West and re-engineered in China are allowing it to exert a level of control over its people—using technological surveillance and artificial intelligence—that’s reminiscent of the dystopian novels 1984 and Brave New World. Between one million and three million people have been or are currently being held in government-run re-education camps in China’s western Xinjiang Province, an attempt to stamp out the threat posed by ethnic and religious minorities, especially the historically Muslim, ethnically Turkic Uighur population.
We should have known better than to think a globalist economy and participation in various international organizations would be enough to transform a virulently corrupt, tyrannical, and atheistic Communist Party that killed millions of its citizens during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Certainly many Chinese dissidents and promoters of political and/or religious freedom have been telling us otherwise for years. Among them is Cardinal Joseph Zen, whose recent book, For the Love of My People I Will Not Remain Silent: On the Situation of the Church in China, serves as a fitting coda to a man who has devoted his entire life to serving the persecuted Catholic Church in his home country.
The book is a series of lectures in defense and clarification of a 2007 letter by Pope Benedict XVI to the Chinese Church. That missive is particularly salient today given the Vatican’s recent overtures to the Communist Party and its state-sanctioned version of the Catholic Church. In January 2018, Pope Francis announced that the Vatican would recognize those bishops appointed by the Chinese government. Since the agreement with Beijing, the underground Catholic Church has suffered persecution of its leaders and members, leading Cardinal Zen to call Rome’s decisions a “betrayal” of faithful Chinese Catholics.
According to Zen, many of those in the Vatican responsible for its relationship with Beijing are overly confident in the Church’s “Ostpolitik” policies, employed towards the Soviets of Eastern Europe in the final decades of the Cold War. Ostpolitik sought a more conciliatory approach to the oppressive, atheist governments of the the Eastern Bloc, in the hope that collaborative measures might strengthen goodwill between both parties and create more freedom for the Church operating under Soviet rule. Yet, Zen argues, the policy saw few positive results, and in many cases even strengthened the hand of communist political authorities. Indeed, Francis’s successor, Benedict XVI, called Ostpolitik a failure, while his successor, Pope John Paul II, was quoted as saying “enough!” in regard to the policy.
Yet many Vatican leaders have applied this same policy to China, with disastrous results. Benedict XVI’s letter to Catholics in China, which Zen highly commends but warns was manipulated by Ostpolitik parties within the Vatican, was purposefully mistranslated into Mandarin, under the auspices of communist authorities, in order to obscure the pope’s real message. Under Francis’s pontificate, senior Vatican official Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo famously and bizarrely claimed that “China is the best implementer of Catholic social doctrine.” Such overtures are made despite the fact that the organizations and meetings of China’s “official” public Church are closely controlled by the government. Zen calls Chinese government officials “rapacious wolves” for their decades-long track record of persecuting, imprisoning, and murdering Chinese Catholics.
“The Chinese are masters at playing with words. The gentlemen in the Vatican are no match. Moreover, for the Communists there is no truth; truth is what is needed for the success of the party.” So says Zen, who has little if any optimism regarding Rome’s recent overtures. Indeed, he claims the Vatican is actually helping Beijing to destroy an ecclesiastically independent Catholic Church, creating, Zen says in jest, a “great solution…a great unity!” The joke is that under this unity, religious freedom is being obliterated in favor of a homogenous, communist-dominated paradigm. There is no hope of gaining anything by trying to come to terms with the government, says Zen. He compares such attempts to proposing that Joseph and Mary should have tried to find some common ground with Herod the Great, who killed scores of children in the environs of Bethlehem in his attempt to murder their child Jesus.
Of course, Zen’s text is focused on issues related to freedom of religious belief and practice. But the lessons from it apply far more broadly to the political and economic threats posed by a Chinese communist regime that pays expedient lip service to Western conceptions of freedom and justice while vitiating those same ideas at home. We would be foolish to think they won’t do the same abroad. This is what makes the West’s (and Silicon Valley’s) collaboration with China—be it Google’s AI China Center in Beijing (which aids Chinese military research) or the company’s censored Chinese search engine, called Project Dragonfly—so disconcerting. While marginalized Uighurs suffer in communist re-education camps and persecuted Catholics endure a tightening of the screws (perhaps both figuratively and literally), Google managers reject their typically open peer-review processes in favor of a closed-door “performance review” of Dragonfly. Perhaps Google should invite Joseph Cardinal Zen to their next “Talks at Google” event. He certainly has a message they need to hear.
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.