The communist chokehold on the Chinese church

Leo Brian Schafer

Catholic Values Columnist

For decades now, the communist government of the People’s Republic of China has been persecuting religion. Uighur Muslims are rounded up and put into prison camps, and practitioners of the cult-like Falun Gong faith are suppressed and even rumored to have been killed.

Most pertinently for our purposes, Christian churches are closed, their parishioners are shot in the pews (or worse, sent to “re-education camps”) and the Holy Eucharist is ripped from its place in the tabernacle and cast into the street. The Catholic Church in China is one of the most persecuted groups on the face of the planet.

For decades, there have been two Catholic churches in China. In an effort to create a façade of religious freedom and to lure the faithful away from the true church, the Chinese Communist Party has appointed its own “bishops,” ordained its own “priests” and operated its own “churches.”

These two Catholic churches, the government-sanctioned and the underground, have existed in tandem with each other since the communist takeover. In an attempt to end the confusion and, more importantly, end the persecutions, negotiations took place in 2018 between the Chinese government, the Chinese church and the Holy See.

The resulting deal was supposed to have merged the two churches, ended the persecutions and given the communist government some input in the appointment of Chinese bishops.

In practice, however, the Chinese communists have gained incredible influence over the Church in China, and true Catholics in that nation have continued to be persecuted.

Just moments after the deal was announced, Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, the leading advocate for Chinese Catholics, ripped into the deal, saying, “It is quite clear that it encourages the faithful in China to enter a schismatic church (independent of the pope and under the orders of the Communist Party). … Can we passively witness the murder of the Church in China by those who should protect and defend her from her enemies?”

Indeed, within weeks, reports started to surface that the communists were back to suppressing the true Church. Was this really that surprising? The Chinese communists are well known for their infidelity regarding international agreements. With so much at stake, what would suggest that this time would be any different?

To preserve an air of international diplomacy, the Vatican has remained silent on the dozens of human rights abuses committed by the Chinese communists.

The deal is set to expire this month. The communist-appointed bishops are still in office. The true Chinese Christians are still being persecuted. The pope is still silent.

It is expected that the deal will be renewed for another two years, but the Chinese will just violate any new deal just like they did the old one, and like they have done for countless international agreements for dozens of years.

Yes, speaking out in the name of human rights may endanger Catholics currently living in China, but the pope has a duty, an obligation, to defend the defenseless in every situation, not to ignore the infractions of one of the most brutal regimes in human history.

Any deal that may come from buttering up the Chinese communists is secondary to the goal of ending the persecutions that come from those same Chinese communists. Forget treaties. It is time to speak.

1 Comment

  1. I am very concerned that this article describes Falun Gong, a persecuted peaceful group only in terms of the propagandistic defamation leveled against it by an authoritarian regime. Particularly when the ‘cult’ label a) is used to incite hatred and violence against Falun Gong practitioners in China; and b) has been rejected by scholars familiar with the group.

    Falun Gong is a traditional spiritual practice of the Buddha school. It consists of gentle, meditative qigong exercises and a moral philosophy centered on the tenets of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance. It deserves to be reported this way.

    Ian Johnson of NYT (previously WSJ) who won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Falun Gong wrote in his book “Wild Grass”: “The group [Falun Gong] didn’t meet many common definitions of a cult: its members marry outside the group, have outside friends, hold normal jobs, do not live isolated from society, do not believe that the world’s end is imminent and do not give significant amounts of money to the organization. Most importantly, suicide is not accepted, nor is physical violence….[Falun Gong] is at heart an apolitical, inward-oriented discipline, one aimed at cleansing oneself spiritually and improving one’s health.”

    Chinese gov initially supported Falun Gong in 1990s for its moral teaching and health benefit, and only started the persecution after it outnumbered the Communist Party membership in 1999. A 2017 Freedom House report titled “The Battle for China’s Spirit” reads (p. 110),
    “Throughout the early and mid-1990s, Falun Gong, its practitioners, and founder Li Hongzhi enjoyed substantial government support and positive coverage in state media. Some state media reports from that period laud the health benefits of Falun Gong practice and show adherents receiving “healthy citizen awards.” In an event that would be unimaginable today, Mr. Li gave a lecture at the Chinese embassy in Paris in 1995, at the government’s invitation.”

    As elaborated in the same Freedom House report (p.112), the “cult” label only appeared in party discourse in October 1999, 3 months after the crackdown against Falun Gong. This suggests that the term was applied retroactively to justify a violent campaign that was provoking international and domestic criticism. David Ownby, a scholar on Chinese religions, notes:

    “The entire issue of the supposed cultic nature of Falun Gong was a red herring from the beginning, cleverly exploited by the Chinese state to blunt the appeal of Falun Gong and the effectiveness of the group’s activities outside China.”

    For more info about Falun Gong, please visit

    The large scale of killing of Falun Gong practitioners through torture or forced organ harvesting has been well documented by U.S. State Department, U.S. Congress, human rights organizations, and independent China tribunal. It is NOT a rumor.

    Please check this site for evidence and references:

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