Communism, 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 members.

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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