China - Press Conference, British Ambassadors' Residence, Beijing
Tuesday 24th October 2006A transcript of the Archbishop's remarks and responses to questions asked at a press conference to mark the end of his visit to China.
The press conference took place at the British Ambassador's residence in Beijing on 24th October 2006.
During a busy and varied trip of just over two weeks, we have been given a flavour of several different communities in China, their hopes and their challenges. I want to thank Sara and the twin Christian organisations of the TSPM [Three-Self Patriotic Movement] and CCC [China Christian Council] for making the visit possible and offering such generous help and hospitality at every point.
Our aim in this visit was twofold - to gain a better understanding of the Christian Community in China (Catholic as well as Protestant), and to explore how we might build a lasting and deeper relationship between the C of E and the TSPM/CCC, especially in regard to co-operation in the training of clergy and lay people. I believe we have fulfilled this aim and that we can now go on to develop some of the specific ways of sharing skills and resources that we have already begun to discuss with our hosts. Bishop David Urquhart of Birmingham will be steering this work as it goes forward.
But I have to say that in other ways this visit has exceeded our hopes and expectations. We have had a vivid sense of what a watershed moment this is for the whole country. The astonishing and quite unpredictable explosion in Christian numbers in recent years is clearly connected to a widespread sense that the equally extraordinary explosion in the economic life has left many huge questions about personal and social values unanswered. At a time of material growth - and vast prosperity for some - where are people to find the vision and motivation that will move them towards a just and compassionate society - indeed towards that 'harmonious society' that is at the heart of the Party and the Government's aspirations for the coming years as recently defined?
We have seen how the Church vigorously pursues this vision; and it is obvious that it is an infectious vision. It struck me with considerable force that in some regions in China the percentage of the population of China attending church on Sundays is at least as large and in some cases larger than that in the probably most western European countries. We have seen or discussed a huge range of projects on children's welfare, rural health care, aid and advocacy for migrants and many other concerns which the Church here has taken up, and we applaud the willingness of the government to support many of these. If China is to develop the kind of civil society that will guarantee both stability and harmony, the Church is a vital partner. A striking example of the state's recognition of this was a statement from one very senior government figure about the potential significance of Christian Sunday schools in backing up the growth of a mature and stable public morality here. I've also found in speaking to faculties and students in three universities a lively interest in exploring what Christianity has to offer to social and political thought in a fast-developing intellectual climate. The opportunities for the Church are enormous and its energy is enviable; but its capacity needs urgent building.
We have also had the privilege of meeting government, both at local and at national level, and have been inspired and grateful at the time given and the encouragement to raise more complex and controversial questions around broad issues of civil society and civil liberties, as well as more narrowly religious topics. We had a long discussion on the environmental challenges of modern China (evident to us every day), and noted with interest both the eco-city project in Shanghai and the evolving plans for coping with the environmental overload in Beijing when the Olympics approach.
We raised a number of specific cases of reported harassment of religious personnel, Roman Catholic and Protestant, and of lawyers defending them, and were invited to discuss these further. We also raised questions about how the government understood the outstanding differences between them and the Dalai Lama, about the character and extent of Tibetan autonomy. Several conversations at senior level explored the aspiration of strengthening the rule of law, and its bearing on the exercise of the death penalty, for example.
In these and other contexts, we were struck by the willingness of responsible people here to acknowledge challenges, difficulties and unresolved differences, and believe that we can look forward to further and useful exchanges. The climate towards religion has undergone and is still undergoing great changes - in the context of the whole changing climate regarding society here. We are confident that the C of E and the Anglican Church worldwide can continue to build a really fruitful relationship with the Chinese Church and people. We shall go home with many new questions as well as many answers, but with a strong sense of privilege at being able, however briefly, to share this moment in China's growth and self discovery.
[Questions followed - a summary of the question and a transcription of the Archbishop's responses are below:]
Question about cases of persecution raised by the Archbishop:
We raised some particular half dozen cases that had been brought to my attention before leaving; which applied both to registered and unregistered Christian personnel, to Catholics as well as Protestants. The answers we had were as one would expect in the context of conversation at that level, that we were invited to submit more details of the information we had received for further clarification.
I might perhaps just mention one case simply because it focuses a range of issues. The case of Pastor Chai who was arrested some time ago for illicitly trading in Bibles is one that has attracted some international attention; and that brings to light first the whole question of the availability of Bibles - whether the outlets currently working through the church are adequate to demand, which is a very general question. Of course we've seen the extraordinary level of production of printed Bibles in Nanjing at the Amity Press. It raises secondly a question about whether the distribution of illicit Bibles is comparable to trading in unregistered literature. The procedures followed raise certain questions about process because of reports that have been made about the treatment of Pastor Chai in prison and the subsequent claims that his defence lawyer has been harassed and has been charged with various offences also raises various questions. I mention that because it brings to light a whole range of particular issues. That's one of the cases we have been invited to discuss in more detail.
Question about organised and regimented religion
The basic situation as regards religion seems to me to be inseparable from a basic governmental philosophy in China, which is essentially that group activity is licensed from the top, and I mentioned the changing climate as regards NGOs in China. There are some very similar problems there. The assumption is that, I think, group activity needs to be coordinated with the authority, unique and exclusive authority, of the State - that's a general problem.
Within that, there is a remarkable amount of freedom of initiative for a number of religious groups. And I mentioned the governmental cooperation with religiously-inspired and initiated social welfare activities. The current state of regulation of religious bodies is a limited one. I've studied the decree of March 2005, I think it's decree 4.26 on religious bodies, and it seems to me that this lays out a very, very detailed series of ways it can be done wrong, and that the development that perhaps is needed is a fuller statement of the rights and claims of religious bodies. But that depends, I would say, on an overall evolution of the legal and political philosophy and assumptions of the whole country.
We have to work with what the government actually does at the moment. The Government permits a great variety, a great deal of religious activity, but there's a record over the last 20 or 30 years of harassment of religious minorities which has been unhappy and which is recognised as a problem and an embarrassment by people in high positions. We're content to work with a Church which we see to be lively and active and capable of taking initiatives here, and as I say, changing climate here overall is one that we will watch with very great interest. A matter which doesn't just apply to religion, but which applies to the whole NGO voluntary world. We're a long way past the cultural revolution; we're a long way past the situation where there was a systematic attempt to block out or extirpate religion.
Question about why the Archbishop had been unable to go an underground church.
When you have a rather, sorry, high-profile visitor to a country, it's rather difficult to take part in what are illegal activities without putting other people's safety at risk. We've met people informally, we've had contacts in this world; we've been briefed beforehand on this so we are aware of the range of non-registered religious activity in this country. I would also say, though, that the rather black and white picture that we often receive in the west - 'there is an underground Church, there is an official Church' really doesn't correspond to what we've encountered. There is a range of Christian activity, there is a visible Church presence, there are a number of Christian groups that are unregistered or not yet registered, some which would not want to register, which would like to but are frustrated by the regulations, some of which have particular reservations. It's a very, very broad spectrum and, what should I say, the crossover between membership or affiliation in especially rural areas, between registered and unregistered is by no means a clear-cut matter.
One of the problems, [is that] the state of current regulation means that it's very difficult for officialdom to present absolutely clear distinctions between an orthodox ordinary Protestant evangelical house group and a cult such as Eastern Lightening, which is manifestly in criminal activity by any standards. They're both just unregistered, and one question I have raised is in the future how might there be clearer distinction between groups that have perfectly mainstream Christian beliefs and practices and those that are more eccentric. That's a question I've asked of the Church here as well as the people in Government.
Question on encounters with the Catholic Church
Not being, for obvious reasons, a spokesman for the Vatican, I wasn't coming into this with an axe to grind. I was able to try and tease out a bit, a very, very complicated history of Sino-Vatican history in recent years. The picture that I think emerges is of growing pragmatic convergence on the blending of the two Catholic allegiances here. Again there's a lot of crossover and recently I think a bishop of one group moved to another, to the official Church, which occasionally comes up against a sort of diplomatic knot in the wood, like the appointment of two bishops recently, which is clearly a matter of some considerable anxiety to the Vatican and the administration here and, again, comes up against recorded incidents of harassments or difficulty and we raised some of these. So we've got a picture of how that's evolved, and the overall trend, and these are the terms in which I put the question.
The overall trend is clearly to do with convergence and a sort of working compromise. That working compromise didn't work recently for whatever reason. When I visit the Vatican in a few weeks' time there will be matter from this visit which I should hope to be able to discuss there.
Question [in Chinese] - how have your impressions of the country changed?
How long do I have to answer that? Well, the thing that has most struck me and that I had not expected is this: what I've seen is the beginning, certainly in the cities, of a very vigorous development of what I'll call a culture of volunteering. That's to say the development of that kind of civil society mentality, which assumes that, if there is a local problem, it ought be possible to draw together informal networks to address it. Now, as I understand the history of China- and this is a long shot and I'm speaking from a low base of knowledge- as I understand it, the assumption of universal state provision is something that can no longer be taken for granted in everyday life, certainly in the last 20 years. So gaps have appeared in the care of children in rural health care and issues like that. And there's recognition that the new gravity of the environmental challenge needs more than just government directives.
So we've learned a lot about the blossoming of NGO work, as I've mentioned, about volunteering, to meet all these issues, we've seem some of the effects of this at local level. And I think, if there is one thing I would take back as something I've learned about how China is moving, it might well be that.
Follow up question on other religions in China
Thank you for the question. One of the very interesting observations made only two days ago on this subject was that for religious people in China, cooperation has come before dialogue. That's to say there have been ways of communicating, sharing perceptions and sharing priorities through official channels but actual detailed dialogue between the religious communities is probably still in its infancy. There's a great deal of goodwill and clearly personal friendship. We've seen that here in Beijing, we've also seen it in Xi'an and in one or two other areas. But from the meeting we had with various religious leaders on Saturday, I would guess that there is a sense that much more can now be done and needs to be done.
Question from the China Daily [subject not known - recording inaudible]
Well indeed I haven't had a chance to mention that, but that is something that has cropped up again and again and again in our discussions, and it does seem to me to be a very notable change of tone in, say, the last ten years that this is expected. I said in my introductory statement, I think that at a time of material growth and vast prosperity for some there's a question about where people find the vision and motivation to build justice and generous provision for all society. It's clear that government recognises that there is no way forward on this without the full cooperation of religious bodies and, in my sermon yesterday, I suggested some of the ways in which that might move, saying that the Church needed to be there alongside other organs of developing civil society, raising questions, encouraging civil debate; debate, if I may say so of just the kind that the China Daily has daily given me a rather good example.
Question on international development
It's a question that we in the developed West have to put to ourselves and I think that the global economic climate is such that it is very difficult to get across the idea that the development of one ought to be the development of all. I raised this in a slightly different framework with one government minister, because I wanted to hear a little bit more about China and Africa, and the role that China is playing and could play in development, political and economic, in Africa. And we had some very interesting discussion on that because it seems to me that there is an area of considerable importance for the future. Again, in conversations with the environmental minister, the question came up of how Chinese companies abroad need to model the good practice in environmental protection that is expected of them here in China, and of course as China itself evolves politically, then the question is 'how does it engage in a way that is constructive for the development of poorer countries, especially in Africa?' Very large questions, but these have been around in our minds.
Question about training Chinese ministers
We've talked quite a bit about this and in detail, and we have a group which will be taking this forward. There are two or three contexts in which this works; let me try and say a word about each of them.
The Nanjing seminary is the sort of national graduate flagship of the education of Pastors in this country. We have explored what sort of exchanges might be possible for staff and students there and the seminary is very keen to welcome short-term faculty members from England or elsewhere in the Anglican Church to help with its teaching. We've also in the past welcomed students from there to the United Kingdom; we hope that that will develop a bit further. So that's one area.
Second, is advice and support on the development of library resources. Many seminaries in China are at the moment working on desperately small resources and for them to move up a notch, to move up a grade in their intellectual and academic capacity, it needs the development of library resources. We've seen this in one or two rural or non-central seminaries of a rather more junior level and we want to see what we can do to help there. And that might also mean advice and help on what sort of literature might be translated.
The third area that we're keen to develop is slightly different. I mentioned the exchanges I'd had with people in universities here in China, and we're very keen that Chinese scholars in the field of religious studies and Christian studies should be more involved in discussion with their British counterparts. There's clearly an eagerness for this. I was rather taken aback to find myself in a discussion the other day with a graduate student who was working on secularisation in western Europe and its impact on the student movement of the 1960s, and asked me some very searching questions about what it was like being a student in Britain in the 1960s, questions which I shall leave on one side as too autobiographical.
But the point is that we would like to nurture that kind of intellectual exchange as well as simply the training of pastors.
Question about the TSPM and the CCC not speaking out on persecution of Christians.
Again it's something we've discussed with our friends in the TSPM and the CCC and one thing I've noted in one, well, two regions that we visited in fact. A comment was made by one person we spoke to in the official Church that he and others were trying to help work with a number of non-registered churches to regularise their position and ease their situation with the local authorities, so there are clearly places where there is a certain amount of quiet brokerage going on, and that's not, I think, a limited phenomenon; I've heard anecdotally other things about that.
Second; one person we spoke to, an academic in the CCC network, talked about the attempts they were making locally to get a clear picture of patterns of worship and membership in unregistered bodies, so that they could assess claims coming in, not only about membership but about relations with local authorities and so on. I think there is an awareness probably growing there.
Question on Islam in China and veils in the UK
Let me say just a word about what we've seen and then I'll come to the other question. What we've encountered of Islam here has been mostly in the context of what you might call historic ethnic Islamic groups, particularly of course in Xi'an where we spent a very rewarding afternoon at the Grand Mosque with the Imam there, discussing Islam's role in China. My sense is that some of the issues that we regard as presenting issues about Islam are not much to the fore in an area like that, but because of the association of Islam with certain ethnic groups in China, I know that there are anxieties here and there, about how Islam might become politicised here as it has elsewhere. I really don't have enough information to gauge how accurate anxieties might be.
In relation to the broader question back in Europe about wearing the veil; my own sort of bottom line conviction about that is that there ought to be no problem about the visibility of people proclaiming their religious allegiance. There may be any number of practical questions about the degree of veiling that's socially acceptable and I don't think there are quick answers to that, but I think the bottom line would be about acceptability.
Question on the suspension of a teacher from a UK school for wearing a veil in the classroom
I need some more briefing on that because of course I've been here while that debate's been unfolding. If there's a practical question about, for example the visibility of a teacher to hearing-impaired children or children with behavioural difficulties where you need to see a face, that's a question that has to be faced in those terms, not in terms of what is religiously acceptably in public.
Question on Tibet; question on death penalty.
First of all on Tibet, I was aware before coming that the Dalai Lama's position was not one arguing for the total political independence of Tibet but for a rather heightened form of autonomy, not quite the autonomy of regions. The Chinese government takes the line that a region is a region, and an autonomous region is an autonomous region, so they have not been particularly welcoming to the idea of a special status for Tibet in China. And the Dalai Lama has been trying to argue that something rather like the Hong Kong arrangement ought to be possible. My question to the minister that I spoke with about this was about what the exact nature of that disagreement was, and I think that has helped to clarify that question. Informal talks of course continue, but I suspect that we're not really near any resolution on that. The opening up of the railway link to Tibet is going to be an important economic factor in changing the face of Tibet and it remains to be seen whether that strengthens or weakens Tibetan aspirations for a higher level of autonomy; that's the nature of the discussion.
On the death penalty, this was focussed for us by our visit to a children's village near Xi'an for children who had been effectively orphaned by their parents either being in prison or executed. And I wanted to raise the whole question of the death penalty because it is one of those questions which international opinion is very interested in. Three issues, I think came up; one was precisely about what happens to the children and families of those who are executed, where there appears to have been a kind of legal black hole. I asked the question directly. I was assured that there had been some recent legislation that was moving towards filling that gap. Meanwhile the children's village is continuing to do extraordinary heroic work.
There was a second question that I raised about the relation between local and national, and I believe that, as of some months ago, death sentences will need again to be confirmed by the Supreme Court rather than just at local level. That's an interesting local development.
Thirdly, I was aware of a point raised by a senior judge in China about whether the death penalty for economic offences was now defensible and I've asked that question on several occasions - I'm not sure what the answer is but I'm aware that the debate is there.
Question on overall situation for religion in China.
That's an interesting and large question, I think I would echo exactly what you've said, that we have heard from people at national level some of the frustration about shifting their culture. And if that culture locally has been shaped over several decades by a spirit of hostility or suspicion, towards religion and irregular practice as regards religion and other matters of rather arbitrary rule and sometimes violent harassment, that doesn't change overnight.
Whether it's getting better or worse on the ground, I can only say that I heard far more consistently than I had expected, the level of regional government, positive things about the role of religion and positive willingness to support religiously inspired projects. How that plays out in a remote village I can't say, but I think what I'm trying to say is that it's not only at national level that we've heard some of these more encouraging signs. We have certainly heard it said in very blunt terms at national level. Changing the metaphor slightly, you don't turn the ocean liner round in five minutes.
Question from South China Post on social projects; question on Sunday schools
Well the fact is of course, there are already lots. The Amity Foundation is responsible for a wide range of precisely such programmes. I mentioned, I think, questions of rural healthcare earlier on. Amity is very strongly involved in starting clinics and programmes, HIV / AIDS awareness programmes, that kind of thing. It's important, I think, to be aware of the really surprising range of activity that goes on there.
On the Sunday school question; well I was surprised to hear this. I think I can say that I was aware as you are of the legal situation, so it surprised me that in every church we visited, and that's quite a few in the last two weeks, we have seen Sunday school work going on, and we have of course been accompanied by people representing government and the national Church, so it seems to be that there's no secret of the fact that this goes on
I asked the question of the government representative specifically because I'd seen a lot of this work and I wanted to hear it said clearly that there were circumstances where such work was entirely in accord with the government's vision, not at all something regarded as automatically suspect or subversive; and I received that assurance. So I shall watch with interest to see if the law does change on this.
Question on the range of Church involvement
I mentioned already getting a full sense of the range of activities, especially special welfare activities the Church is involved in. I think before visiting the Amity foundation in Nanjing, I had only a very vague idea of just how much was being done there. That's one thing. Second thing is that the development of the education of pastors and lay people in the Chinese Church is clearly a massive priority and regarded as perhaps the most important thing that the China Christian Council ought to be pushing forward.
I've seen the plans for the new seminary in Nanjing, which are ambitious and impressive. I've seen also less ambitious but still very impressive plans in other educational establishments, so there's clearly going to be quite a leap forward in the quality and quantity of provision of training. So I think it's really getting that sense of the two priorities of the Church here in social care and in theological training. That's what has opened up for me during this visit and opened up in some detail and in some depth and in ways that I would regard as encouraging.
I think I've covered most of what I wanted to say; I haven't had the chance to say very much about the environmental issue, which as many of you know is something I'm very concerned about, but again I've heard encouraging noises from many quarters about the need ad the possibility for religious bodies to be flagging up the moral priority of environmental protection as a social matter and we've been able to talk a bit about that.
Thank you very much for coming.