Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Beijing

The Triumph of Hope over Experience

There is something about China—its historical and cultural riches, its amazing variety, its economic dynamism—that causes outsiders to suspend their disbelief about its current governance. We tend to see the China we want to see, a form of self-delusion abetted by China’s leaders. Although they are by no stretch of the imagination democrats, senior leaders do need to win support within the Communist Party, secure the docility of the “Old One Hundred Names” (China’s regular Joes), and keep foreigners—partners as well as adversaries—in line. The long rise to the top of the Chinese system involves impressive formation in the art of persuasion.

Mao Zedong’s leadership cost the lives of tens of millions of people and brought China to the brink of self-destruction, but he was lionized by many in the West.  Deng Xiaoping is still widely celebrated as a pragmatist and healer, the anti-Mao. But this conveniently ignores Deng’s history as a willing enabler of some of Mao’s bloodier transactions.

China’s leaders come up through what is probably the world’s most efficient (and most extensive) system for talent spotting and development. Rising stars are given many opportunities to hone their skills in managing–or out maneuvering–their foreign counterparts.  This typically involves mastery of two skills that would, at first blush, appear to be poles apart.

The first skill involves creating a sense of shared purpose, which is accomplished through the projection of very genuine courtesy and hospitality, somewhat less genuine modesty and–something to which CEOs are particularly susceptible–a beguiling pragmatism. The aim is to convince foreign VIPs that, at heart, China’s Communist leaders are a familiar type: busy people who want to get things done.

The second skill involves creating a sense of vast difference, which is accomplished by borrowing the settings and at least some of the pomp of imperial China (the very layout of Beijing is designed to inspire awe), and by relentlessly invoking China’s almost unimaginable size. Senior Chinese officials typically open meetings with statistic-laden lectures designed to display their impressive grasp of the facts, especially those facts that illustrate how much bigger China is than the visitor’s own country.

The combination normally encourages the desired degree of sympathy and admiration, suggesting that China’s leaders are really just like us, except that they face problems that are many times larger. So, it’s only natural that they have to cut a few corners when it comes to distractions like human rights. At the end of the day, don’t we both want the same things?

Actually, we don’t. China’s leaders really want to ensure perpetual rule by the Communist Party. And they will tolerate no rivals when it comes to charting China’s political, economic, social and–although they don`t speak in these terms–spiritual and moral development.

Then Canadian ambassador David Mulroney and his wife Janet Wakely in Yunnan, China in 2012

Which is why I worry about the latest high-level negotiations involving envoys from the Vatican and counterparts in China’s “religious affairs” bureaucracy. My concern, which is stoked by stories like this, is that Vatican negotiators may be falling prey to China’s two-pronged diplomacy, convincing themselves that China’s leadership is as eager to support religious freedom as the Vatican is. This suspension of disbelief is, if not helpful or desirable, at least understandable given that the objective of the talks is nothing short of allowing Chinese faithful a fuller and richer participation in the universal Church.

And, optimistic assertions aside, that goal is tremendously important because, China’s Catholics, like other believers in China—think of Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uighurs– actually aren’t free to worship, at least not according to most definitions of religious freedom.

As worrying as this seeming naiveté on the part of the Vatican’s negotiators is, I am not entirely without my own sense of optimism. In his wise and pragmatic letter to Chinese Catholics of 2007, Pope Benedict effectively collapsed the walls separating the “underground” and “patriotic churches”. Benedict’s call for charity and reconciliation encouraged Chinese believers to look through and beyond the sterile ambitions of the controlling Communist Party, confident that the Church and its faithful will ultimately prevail.

We need to take heed of Benedict’s reminder that hope becomes a more viable option when it is accompanied by faith and charity. China’s communists are not the first, and almost certainly not the last, to try to bend the Church to their will. But simply creating more space for belief and believers has a wonderfully subversive effect. China’s Catholics yearn to be better connected to their brothers and sisters beyond China’s borders. This is something that is, ultimately, beyond the control of the Communist Party.

The title of my posting is borrowed from Dr. Johnson’s definition of second marriage. Let me close with Tennyson’s words on a more apposite theme:  “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of”.