Dominating the Vatican news cycle over the past week was a controversial statement made by the Chancellor of the Vatican’s Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences. In a Spanish interview, it was the Argentine Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo who said upon returning to Rome from Beijing: “Right now, those who are the best at implementing the [Catholic] Church’s social doctrine are the Chinese.”
Just to be clear: Bishop Sánchez was not inferring that the Chinese Catholic Church or Chinese Catholic faithful were the best at erecting a societal model based on Catholic social teaching, but rather the Chinese communist government.
Even the Vatican Insider journalist, Andrés Beltramo, who interviewed Bishop Sánchez was stunned: “As such, these are very unusual words. Unthinkable years ago. Much less so from a Vatican official. [And] he said it with conviction.”
Andrés Beltramo’s ‘oh my moment’ was an understatement when compared to dumbfounded reactions of other pundits like Acton’s Samuel Gregg, who referred to Sánchez’s remarks as “outrageous” (see Unreality and Incoherence Reign at the Vatican) and Rome’s preeminent journalist on China and the Catholic Church, Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, who in his op-ed Msgr. Sánchez Sorondo in Wonderland called out the prelate’s extreme “naivety” on China. Then there was Pope John Paul II’s biographer George Weigel, who blisteringly wrote that the Argentine’s statement represented what has become a “dysfunctional” Vatican and that such thinking approached a “psychotic detachment from reality — or, worse, a willful ignorance, turning a blind eye to repression and persecution in order to indulge fantasies of a socialist paradise freed from the unpleasantness of bourgeois liberal society.”
Had Bishop Sánchez simply uttered a broad sweeping claim, while leaning toward ambiguity, his critics might have been more merciful. Alas, stormy reactions ensued precisely because he elaborated on his statement with some very specific observations about why he found Chinese society to be “extraordinary”.
To summarize, Bishop Sánchez said (and I quote the original Spanish so readers do not suspect misinterpretation) the Catholic Church’s social magisterium is best implemented in China because:
a) the Chinese value work as the central principle of their lives (“el principio central es trabajo, trabajo, trabajo”);
b) the Chinese have no slums (“no tenés villas miserias”);
c) the Chinese do not do drugs, at least the youth (“no tenés droga, los jóvenes no tienen droga”);
d) Chinese politics are not dominated by economics (“la economía no domina la política”);
e) the Chinese now accept private property (“ya aceptan la propriedad privada”);
f) China defends human human dignity (“está defendido [sic] la dignidad de la persona”) and is a moral leader in the environmental stewardship that other countries have abandoned (“en eso está asumiendo un liderazgo moral que otros han dejado”).
No doubt Bishop Sánchez’s tour of Beijing was shrouded in diplomatic pleasantries and carefully choreographed to allow him see only the apparent “bright face” of Chinese communism, while purposefully avoiding its numerous socio-economic eyesores found in dilapidated city districts and outer rural zones (the very “peripheries” his boss Pope Francis repeatedly asks Catholics to witness). For sure, the rehearsed conversations steered clearly away from all the thuggery, political cronyism, crime, and direct violation of human rights that take place every day under the Chinese sun.
That said, let’s do some fact checks on the Bishop Sánchez’s main observations:
a) Chinese value hard work as the central principle of their lives: With a country of over 760 million workers, it might be difficult to assess the average amount of time per year the Chinese dedicate to work, much less how much they subjectively ‘value’ long, hard work. However, one study published by The Telegraph, states that while Eastern countries tend to log the most hours per year (South Korea leading the way), Mexico is actually the hardest working nation. China does not even appear in the top 35-40 countries. The United States, Japan, Russia and a number of European Union countries fill the shortlist. An official OECD study backs The Telegraph claims.
Some Chinese demographers and sociologists say Chinese work on average between 2000-2200 hours per year, which would place it among the top-ten hardest working nations, but at the same time complain that China works too much. In the Wall Street Journal we read: “Lai Desheng, a Beijing Normal University professor who led the study of Chinese [labor] …, said long working hours aren’t in China’s best interest… It may have been one of the secrets that help created the ‘China miracle’ but it has created a lot of problems [like] the frequency of workplace accidents, which tend to happen when workers are tired.”
Facts aside, Catholic Social Teaching has traditionally warned against making “idols” of excess economic production when proper time must also be dedicated to developing family relationships, prayer and worship.
b) China has no slums: China has plenty of regions of abject poverty and massive residential slums. Even the wealthy cities of Beijing and Shanghai have their neighborhoods of dangerous construction with makeshift electrical supply and plumbing, like the many rundown neighborhoods not too distant from Tienenman Square. One slum in Beijing that is particularly hard to see – and surely Bishop Sánchez’s escorts did not dare show him – is the cavernous network of windowless basements and ex-bomb shelters. According to a Newsweek report, this massive underground slum amounts to about 1,000,000 cheap, dingy living spaces for the so-called “floating population” that come to Beijing looking for temporary work and need temporary housing. These dark living quarters are frequently dens of disease and illicit activity.
c) Chinese youth don’t do drugs: As recently as 2015, the Chinese government issued a massive drug crackdown in over 100 cities, especially against highly illegal cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs like “ice” frequently consumed by the Chinese youth. According to the New York Times, in that same year, Beijing had registered 2.75 million drug users, 75% of which were under the age of 35. The same report notes that “China’s growing prosperity has turned recreational drug use into an $82 billion annual domestic business.” According to the Chinese police, this “represents only a fraction” of known users: “Liu Yuejin, director general of the government’s anti-narcotics division, estimated the actual number of addicts at roughly 13 million, half of whom are suspected of using methamphetamine, up from nine percent of addicts who were suspected of using that drug in 2008.”
China is also the ‘super supplier’ of synthetic opioids widely used by youth in the American market and, therefore, contributing to the number one cause of premature death due to drug overdose. This is so because Chinese drug labs constantly alter chemical formulas before they become registered as illegal narcotics by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. In a recent New York Times report (Despite Trump’s Pleas, China’s Online Opioid Bazaar Is Booming), we read China is the main source of cheap and deadly fentanyl: “The ease of buying opioids from China illustrates how difficult it will be for the United States to win the war on the worst drug epidemic in American history. While China has pledged to work with the United States to stop the flow of opioids, experts say it will be tough because of the country’s lax regulation of chemical companies, a sprawling industry of more than 30,000 businesses that face few requirements for transparency.”
d) Chinese politics are not dominated by economics: With a country bent on becoming an economic superpower, how can one not claim that economics does not dominate politics? Furthermore, communism – more than any other political ideology – is founded on the principle of building an economic paradise where all workers have jobs, all welfare benefits are protected by a rich nanny state, and that key industries are controlled and planned by the political class. Even in the so-called “Special Economic Zones”, where the free market is encouraged and tolerated in China, the winners in globally competitive markets are often the result of politicians favoring certain industries over others or giving commercial licenses only to elite members of the communist party in an official form of collusion (see Singapore Management University study Sugar Coated Bullets: Corruption and the New Economic Order in China).
Beijing politicians have such a focused “tight grip” on the economy, it is reported, that the artificial fluctuation of the Yuan is usually at the center of technical debate at the National People’s Congress of the Communist Party held every five years. In the South China Morning Post we read: [While] setting the stage for China’s National People’s Congress of the Communist Party, President Xi Jinping said “that [monetary] stability was an absolute principle that needs to be dealt with using ‘strong hands’.”
China’s government is also known for creating all sorts of false statistics as a form of “damage control” when its political system enacts failed economic policies that reflect poorly on the efficacy of its brand of communism.
e) the Chinese now accept private property: Acceptance of private property in a free culture is the hallmark of private competition, where individual ‘owners’ of goods and services trade fairly with each other. If the Chinese ‘private property culture’ is really thriving and or generally accepted, why do we then find the biggest benefactors of ‘private property’ actually profiteering directly at the hands of ‘state-owned’ industries?
In an article by John Lee (China’s Rich Lists Riddled With Communist Party Members) we discover a fact that few Chinese economy advocates want to openly admit: “90% of the 1,000 richest people… are either officials or members of the Chinese Communist Party. [This] is a troubling sign…. Almost all of China’s richest people have made their money in state-dominated sectors, such as property and construction, resources, other heavy industries and telecommunications. This could be through preferential access to the best land (often seized illegally from citizens) for property developers, privileged access to below market rates of capital, or special access to raising capital or equity in listed SOEs.”
Regarding the respect of intellectual property rights, Chinese industries are frequently accused of intentional violation in the highly competitive sectors of information technology, pharmaceuticals and fashion. Back in 2012, China was placed on an IPR “priority watch list” along with 13 major trade partners of North American industries. In 2017 the United States Office of Trade Representative, under President Trump, increased pressure on China to end “industrial espionage” which according to economic analysts Keith Alexander and Dennis Blair “has been pillaging the intellectual property of American companies. …up to $600 billion a year, the greatest transfer of wealth in history. China accounts for most of that loss.”
f) China is moral leader in defending human dignity and environmental stewardship: In 2015 China eliminated its infamous one-child policy to make way for ‘a little less draconian’ two-child policy. But this was no major step forward in increasing fundamental respect for human dignity and the natural right to life and procreation. In an Amnesty International article, we read the expected no-so-good news: “The move to change China’s one-child policy is not enough. Couples that have two children could still be subjected to coercive and intrusive forms of contraception, and even forced abortions – which amount to torture. The state has no business regulating how many children people have. If China is serious about respecting human rights, the government should immediately end such invasive and punitive controls over people’s decisions to plan families and have children.”
The problem with the one-child policy lies not in the number of children allowed. The problem lies with the ‘coercive enforcement’ of the birth limit.
One could go on and on about violations of natural rights, such as the continued existence of Lagaoi labor camps (where millions have been incarcerated, and even died, based on vague indictments since 1949) and the recent prohibition of minors entering places of Christian worship.
Even if China adheres to all the top international environmental accords to limit pollution, greenhouse gasses and deforestation, its communist government often violates these very same agreements soon after signing them. Report after report shows China’s air pollution levels continually increasing to hazardous levels, its deserts growing faster than any others on earth, its waste growing twice as fast as the population, and its drinking water becoming as dangerous as the air Chinese breathe. The latest Environmental Protection Index rates China at 109, well in the bottom half of 180 total countries.
All in all, when the facts are checked, China receives an abysmal Catholic social teaching report card. And we should not be the least surprised.
Jeniffer Wilches contributed to this blog.