Although how they cast their votes remains largely unclear, the attendance of the three bishops has helped to make the story of the biggest constitutional change in over three decades.
The three bishops were among those who participated when the Communist party held its 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) that on 11 March made the historic decision of accepting 21 amendments to the Chinese Constitution, including a clause that allows an infinite term of office for President of the State and to add the so-called “Thought of Xi Jinping” in the Preamble.
The most remarkable change in the Fifth Amendment in the history of the Chinese constitution is the “sanweiyiti” which means three offices in one person. This consists in merging the three main roles: Party General Secretary, President of State and President of the Central Military Commission, all without time limits. Before the amendment, the post of State President was limited to a maximum of two 5-year terms. Nonetheless, the Global Times noted that changing the constitution did not necessarily imply “that the Chinese president will have a lifelong tenure.”
Even though it is not known how they voted, the mere appearance of the three bishop-delegates has already helped to shape China’s history as this was the greatest constitutional change in 36 years, Wang Zhicheng, who is a correspondent for Asian news asserted.
One of them is Bishop Joseph Huang Bingzhang of Shantou, who was publicly excommunicated by the Holy See in 2011. He is the government-appointed bishop whom the Holy See has asked twice Bishop Zhuang Jianjian, the ordinary of the diocese, to step down to give way for him last October and December.
The second one is Bishop Guo Jincai of Chengde, who was illegally ordained without approval of the Pope in 2010. At the time of his ordination, the Vatican indicated that there was no Chengde diocese in the Catholic hierarchy, and thus could not recognize him when denouncing his episcopal ordination. Guo, who is the secretary general of the government-controlled bishops’ conference, is still awaiting the Holy See to recognize him as well as the Chengde diocese.
The third one, Bishop Fang Jianping, was also formerly an illegitimate bishop ordained in 2000. However he was subsequently pardoned by the Holy See. Nonetheless, many Chinese Catholics argued that the decision to pardon him came too soon as Fang did not show any remorse. He has since participated in three illegal episcopal ordinations either as the consecrator or a coordainer after he was pardoned.
Addressing News reporters on the sideline of the NPC few days later on whether Chinese Catholics should support President Xi Jinping, Bishop Fang said, “of course,” asserting that “as a citizen of a country, citizenship should come before a religion and belief.” When he was further asked whether God or the Communist Party is more important, Bishop Fang, who is also a vice chairman of the bishops’ conference, said, “what’s God’s return to God, and what’s the country’s return to the country.”
The China-Vatican accord has been at the centre of concern for many Hong Kong and Taiwan media during the current two sessions-the annual meetings of the NPC and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Even Wang Yi, Minister of Foreign Affairs, was asked about the imminent accord that is to be signed later this month. Wang noted that, “China and the Vatican are going through constructive dialogue”. Similarly, Wang Zuoan, the director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, also said that “China has always been sincere about improving China-Vatican relations and has made great efforts to do so.” However, Wang Zuoan failed to disclose details of the accord on bishops’ appointment, but pointed out that they have the same expectation on bishops as with religious personnel of other religions. These expectations include the hope that they will foster patriotism and the love to their religion. He observed that this is not only for the proper development of religion, but also makes positive contribution to social harmony.
The accord has led to anxiety, disappointment and anger among some Catholics in both the open and underground Church communities. Most of them feel that the Holy See has made too many concessions. They were equally unhappy that the Vatican remains silent on the reoccurrences of cross removals.
The latest incident of Cross removal was a Catholic Church of Shangqiu diocese, central Henan province, on March 9 without prior notice. The Catholic Church of Yining in northwestern Xinjiang also had a similar fate on March 2. The action involves removal of Crosses from the domes and the tympanum, as well as external decorations and crosses, and the Way of the Cross within the church by order of the government. What is more distasteful is that these actions took place only a few weeks after the meeting between the Chinese and Vatican delegations, which reportedly culminated in the drafting of a “historic” agreement on the nomination of bishops in the Chinese Catholic Church.
The Chinese government sees the Cross as a symbol of “a foreign religious infiltration”. Prayer activities have been outlawed even in private houses. In every private house religious conversation or prayer is forbidden. Under the new laws on religious activities, proposed last September and implemented last February 1st, worship can only be conducted in the church, at the times permitted by the government. Any other place and time are considered “illegal”. The penalty includes the threat of arrests and re-education of the victims. Those who do not adhere to the regulation could also face imprisonment, fines and even expropriation of the building that hosts such religious activities. Moreover, children and young are people prohibited from entering churches. As a result, every church must display a sign at the entrance stating that the building is “forbidden to minors under the age of 18”. In a sense, religious revival threatens the Party.
Observers of the incidences of church destruction have termed it “a new Cultural Revolution”. The term Cultural Revolution has quite a historical connotation in China: In the period from 1966 to 1976 the Red Guards led by Mao and the “band of the Four” enforced the most severe form of communism by destroying churches, temples, pagodas, prayer books, statues, paintings to annihilate all religion.
However, current wave of “Cultural Revolution” is supported by a new slogan: “sinicization”- this means “adhering to and developing religious theories with Chinese characteristics”, adhering to the principle of “independence”, adapting religion to socialist society and resisting “religious infiltration from abroad”.
It is worth noting that the churches in reference are not illegal buildings, but rather formally registered houses of worship. This means that the underlying philosophy behind “sinicization” is submission to China’s Communist Party, which must act as an “active guide” on matters of religion. This overbearing control of the Party on religions can only be explained by fear. It has been pointed out that China is experiencing a spectacular religious renaissance, to the extent that an estimated 80% of the population has some form of spiritual beliefs. Furthermore, at least one fifth of the Party members secretly practice some form of religion. What this means is more control and persecutions in the future.