Catholicism and other cults
SCMP June 4
It is with a degree of trepidation that one writes about
others' beliefs. Normally beliefs are a personal matter, whether about
religion, philosophy or practices. But when our political leaders start
to draw distinctions between "good" and "bad" beliefs they themselves
ask to be subjected to scrutiny of a different order than applied to
housing and education policy.
Chief Secretary Donald Tsang has doggedly followed his
boss in casting doubt on the bona fides of the Falun Gong and raising
the possible desirability of laws to outlaw "cults" which are deemed
dangerous. For these purposes the very word "cult" seems a loaded term,
applied to the likes of voodoo and tending to denote a belief that educated
people are not expected to take seriously.
Mr Tsang himself is a great respecter of religious beliefs,
being a devout Catholic, a well-known regular churchgoer who sent his
son to a Catholic boarding school in England. In Hongkong, the Catholic
Church has come out as a stalwart defender of the rights of falun gong
members to pursue their peaceful practices. So let us hope that on matters
of belief and conscience Mr Tsang listens to the advice of his spiritual
leaders more than to the demands of his temporal one.
Mr Tsang should be especially sensitive to this issue
given the uneasy relationship which exists between the Catholic Church
and Beijing. It was only last year that Beijing launched a strong attack
on Rome for making saints of Chinese people whom the Chinese Communist
version of history describes as murderers, rapists and running dogs
of the imperialists.
The Catholic church may too big to be threatened by the
kind of legislation being considered to "deal with" the falun gong.
But what about the law on treason and sedition which is supposed to
be enacted in accordance with Article 23 of the Basic Law? Fortunately
the government has so far avoided that touchy issue. But a government
which can outlaw "cults" which irritate Beijing will surely not find
it difficult to view the Catholic Church, with its spiritual allegiance
to a "zhongnanhai" in Rome, with its vastly different interpretation
of history and the precedence that it gives to spiritual over temporal
power, as subversive.
The Catholic church may stand by the dictum: "render unto
Caesar (the emperor) the things that are Caesar's and to God those that
are God's". But to an atheistic politburo, what belongs to God? How
long will it be before here, as on the mainland, only "patriotic" Catholics
will have freedom of worship and organisation?
The problem, Mr Chief Secretary, is not the nature of
falun gong beliefs but the unwillingness of a system used to absolute
power to live with the fact of organised groups who may not share the
philosophy of the ruling clique, in this case the Communist Party. It
is falun gong's organisation, not its practices or beliefs -- which
are not entirely clear to outsiders such as myself -- which is the problem.
Over the years Hongkong has had no shortage of "cults"
of one sort or another, some apparently devoted more to making money
for their leaders than leading followers to enlightenment. Some "cults"
such as Life Dynamics attracted some local glitterati into costly feel-good
sessions, others have had charismatic appeal at the other end of social
scale -- foreign domestic helpers. International new age beliefs such
as Scientology have had moments in the sun.. But it is hard to discern
any social harm emanating from such groups, transient though most have
been. Doubtless they give comfort and a sense of belonging to their
Communists fear cults more than most because they were
a cult, an atheistic cult devoted to the teachings of 18th century German
philosophers, who organised themselves into a political force which,
using the tactics of Lenin, succeeded in seizing power. Now they have
power but few vestiges of their original beliefs. No wonder they feel
vulnerable, see dangers in every shadow.
That's not unique to Communists. Indeed, observe the
way over the years Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore has used allegations of
aiding and abetting "Communism" as excuse to jail without trial assorted
people, including Catholic activists, to whom the ruling party took
exception. Is this the route that Hongkong wants to follow?
Note how Chief Executive Tung has been quick to accept
Beijing's claims that the falun gong encourages self-immolation. He
argues that the public may need protection against cults such as the
Jim Jones-type mass suicide venture. Mr Tung may be an expert on the
difference between arson, accident, insurance claim and spontaneous
combustion. After all, it was his family's ship the Seawise University,
ex-Queen Elizabeth, which mysteriously caught fire in several places
while being re-fitted in Hongkong in 1972. At the time it was widely
blamed on "Communists" but no definitive version of the fate of the
great ship has yet been provided. Perhaps the same mystery will continue
to surround the recent Tiananmen human fires, at least until the verdict
on Tiananmen 1989 is re-visited.
Even if some falun gong fanatics did try to kill themselves
on Tiananmen, that hardly condemns the whole movement as suicidal. Remember
the Vietnamese Buddhist monks who in 1968 set themselves on fire in
protest at the war? Did that discredit all Buddhists? Not at all. Indeed,
there are many in Vietnam today who view their sacrifice as both heroic
and effective in shortening the war.
Donald Tsang had the opportunity last week in his journey
to the West to contemplate another reason why organised beliefs are
viewed with concern in Beijing. They often coincide with non-Han nationalism.
Tibet is so obvious an example as to be not worth further discussion.
But what about Xinjiang, a province which is roughly 50% Han Chinese
and 50% "minorities", most of whom are also Muslims?
He must surely too have noticed that most of the population
of Urumqi, Xinjiang's smoggy capital, is Han while 90% of Turfan, his
other Xinjiang stop, are Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language and are
Muslims. Till Mao transplanted Hans, and industries, from eastern China
in the 1950s and 1960s, the Uighurs were the majority in the province.
Why is Bejing now so keen to "develop" Xinjiang that
it instructs its Hongkong shoe-shine boys to lead an investment expedition
there? Minerals apart there is little to attract people or money this
far westward. Water resources, agricultural potential, access to the
sea and the world all suggest that the future of China lies in the east
and south more than in the west and north.
Colonization of Xinjiang under Mao was a costly, economically
inefficient exercise carried out for political reasons. Now the region,
burdened with transplanted old smoky industries like cement, desperately
needs private investment if it is not to fall further behind. If it
continues to lag, many of the descendants of the Hans who were moved
there by Mao will drift back to the better opportunities now available
in their original homelands in the east. Many are doing so already.
The demographic balance is shifting back towards the Uighurs who stay
home and have a higher birth rate.
If Mr Tsang's expedition had gone just a little further
west, it would have come to Kazakhstan. Twenty years ago Kazakhstan,
under the iron grip of Moscow and with nealy half its population consisting
of ethnic Russian would have seemed as permanent a part of the Soviet
Union as Xinjiang is of contemporary China. But the history of central
Asia is always full of surprises and in the end it is usually the original
inhabitants, the Turks, Mongols etc who reassert themselves.
The primary identity of the Uighurs is linguistic, not
religious. But religion provides a unifying force too. Hence combatting
"Muslim extremism" has become the "respectable" aspect of Beijing's
suppression of Uighur nationalism. In this it gets symnpathy from the
west, which has its own anti-Muslim neurosis, and from the ex-Soviet
states of the region, notably Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, whose current,
former Communist bosses like to present any opposition to their one-man
rule as "Muslim fundamentalism".But dont assume these are permanent.
Non-Hans seem destined to link religion and ethnic identity. Religion
becomes, contra the Karl Marx dictum, stimulant not opiate.
Han China, with its language and cultural identity, may
be able to get along fine without an ideology or set of beliefs other
than commitment to national development and material progress. But its
citizens may hanker for more, in which case the party may have reason
to fear any quasi spiritual movement such as the falun gong.
So where does that leave Hongkong? Surely it is a reminder
that in 1997 it was returned to Chinese sovreignty not to the currently
ruling party, and that a China which is to stay united must, like India,
be tolerant of a wide range of beliefs from qigong to Marx, Money Worship
and Mohammed via varieties of Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity, and
not forgetting Confucius. ends
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