A shift in Mainland vexillological protocol causes controversy. It appears to be part of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s consolidation of his and the Communist Party’s supremacy. Not only does the Party flag take precedence over the national one, but Xi has the PLA ranks address him as ‘Chairman’. A commentator says the CCP: “regards the country as spoils of war which, after their victory in 1949, they are now free to do with as they please.”
Meanwhile, Hong Kong has a new Catholic Bishop – Michael Leung. Many would note his startling resemblance to composer Brian Eno if they were not distracted by his pronouncements. After backtracking on a comment that homosexuality is similar to drug abuse, he suggests that Chinese authorities remove crucifixes from churches for reasons of building safety.
The Catholic Church and the CCP have certain things in common. Both hijacked earlier idealistic beliefs and turned them into movements of political power that ended up becoming self-serving oligarchies atop large administrative structures. Both apparently command large numbers of followers, but agonize over loyalty, cohesion and even purpose. Both claim to be pious and righteous, but are riddled with corruption and indiscipline. Both use extensive ritual. And both relish absurd organization; while Xi has lost count of his job titles, Michael Leung was formerly Bishop of ‘Mons in Numidia’ – a non-existent church jurisdiction in North Africa. (Also, ever noticed the similarity between a cassock and the ‘Mao’ or at least Zhongshan suit?)
There are, of course, differences. The Catholics no longer use violence, persecution and censorship (much) to enforce their ideology, while the CCP still does. And obviously, one venerates the metaphysical and supernatural, while the other has a strictly materialist outlook. Most of all, perhaps, the Catholic Church is global, while the CCP is regional and ethnic-based.
Despite natural mutual loathing, they find themselves at least pretending to want to co-exist. Perhaps as humanity’s last huge, centralized, non-pluralist powers they find each other rather fascinating.
In the near term, the CCP will eat the Catholics for breakfast. The Pope is a softy for Communism (his roots are in fascist South America, where the far left were oppressed good guys). The Vatican, already poised to re-label Hong Kong ‘Xianggang’, will ditch Taiwan and let Beijing appoint the Church’s bishops – in the same kowtowing fit of mesmerized Panda-sucking that afflicts slow-on-the-uptake Western governments and multinationals.
In the longer run, the smart money must be on the Catholics. They have an air of permanence going back to the Roman Empire, while the CCP’s attempt to co-opt Confucian antiquity looks desperate. Despite horrors from heretic-burning to child-molesting, they’ve successfully developed a warm-and-cuddly force-for-good image, while Xi still hasn’t even released his response to the Pope’s contemporary pop album. And they have that effortless quiet, almost smug, confidence that no doubt has its roots in the Lord’s infuriatingly effective turn-the-other-cheek act. Compare with the insecure, mouth-frothing histrionics of the CCP. Plus, the Catholics’ ceremonies and symbolism are way cooler.
Hong Kong Catholics, who are mostly pro-democracy by nature, will just have to put up with Bishop Michael Leung’s uncool and awkward attempts to be Beijing-friendly. We all have our cross to bear. Unless you’re a church building in the Mainland, ha-ha.
I declare the weekend open with some reading: this (for the hardcore fans only) on the development of the Catholic Church(1) and five China Quarterly articles taken out from the usual paywall for the Hong Kong 20th anniversary.
(1) It starts: “…I wondered what happened to Christianity between the Sermon on the Mount and the Spanish Inquisition. How did the teachings of Jesus become so completely reversed in Christian practice? For the first 300 years, Christianity spread without violence … preaching a better God and a Master worth following, and by demonstrating a better way to live both here and hereafter. Then, sometime between AD 300 and 400, everything changed. Suddenly, Christians were the persecutors, instead of the persecuted, and remained so until modern times.”