Why China feels threatened by the moral authority of a 90-year-old Catholic bishop

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Scott D. McDonald, Tufts University

(THE CONVERSATION) Cardinal Joseph Zen will be tried on September 19, 2022 in Hong Kong for his role as administrator of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund. This organization paid legal fees and medical bills for Hong Kongers protesting the Extradition Law Amendment Bill. This 2019 legislation would have allowed extradition to the People’s Republic of China. Many locals saw it as a subversion of Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous political system, leading to large-scale protests, political unrest and police repression. It has also prompted Beijing to intervene directly in the governance of Hong Kong.

For the Chinese Communist Party, this organization’s support for protesters and alleged collusion with foreign forces violated the national security law imposed by the party. This law has since been applied retroactively.

A retired bishop of the Diocese of Hong Kong, Cardinal Zen has long supported Hong Kong protesters, criticized Beijing and criticized the Vatican’s rapprochement with the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese Catholics view the arrest as an attempt to intimidate and prevent activism within Hong Kong’s Catholic community.

To understand why the Chinese Communist Party would feel intimidated by a 90-year-old man and threaten him with life in prison, it is important to go beyond the narrow, concrete effects – such as an intimidated Catholic community – and identify the principles upheld by management. As a former military diplomat currently studying the connection between philosophy and foreign policy, I argue that Cardinal Zen’s threat to the Chinese Communist Party lies not in his support for democratic reform, but as a competing source of political authority.

The hierarchical morality of the party

The leadership of the Communist Party of China continues to be shaped by the principles of classical Chinese philosophy. Despite official condemnation during the Mao years, the party has more recently attempted to reinforce the foundations of classical Chinese thought to legitimize its own power.

In a 1997 speech at Harvard University, Jiang Zemin – then the party’s general secretary – praised classical Chinese thought and linked it to contemporary values ​​and state development. Today, General Secretary Xi Jinping regularly mentions classical philosophy in his speeches and noted at the 19th National Congress that the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics will be based on traditional vision, concepts, values ​​and moral standards. of Chinese culture.

Classical Chinese ethics begins with the existential centrality of the family. Fan Ruiping, a Confucian ethics researcher at City University of Hong Kong, notes that Confucianism sees the family as the basic structure of human existence, not just a social institution. Thus, the family becomes the standard against which behavior is judged. For example, to protect the family, Confucius argues that it is moral for a son to conceal his father’s misconduct.

According to Emperor Yongle, an emperor who ruled in the 15th century, the whole world is one family. Within this system, a person’s position is defined by their role, based on the five Confucian relationships: ruler to subject, father to son, husband to wife, elder brother to younger brother, and friend to friend. Each of them is both reciprocal and hierarchical. The moral individual conforms to the role he fulfills in society and treats others according to their own.

Even in contemporary Chinese society, friends treat each other as older and younger siblings, so in any situation there is a hierarchical relationship – an older friend is referred to as “older brother” or “older sister” . By calling another “older brother”, his own position in this reciprocal relationship – “younger” – becomes obvious.

Through the identification of the family as a moral norm and its extension to all of society on the basis of the five relationships, Confucianism views a moral society as a unified, hierarchically ordered family. At the top of the hierarchy sits the emperor, whose relationship to subjects mirrors that between father and son. One serves rulers as one would serve one’s father or elder brother.

From this point of view, society is well organized when each person fulfills his assigned role, giving appropriate deference to those above and acting benevolently towards those below. As Confucius said, “The ruler is the ruler; the minister is a minister; the father is a father; and the son is son. It’s the government.

According to Confucianism, order, stability, and prosperity are maintained when all subjects fulfill their respective roles. The danger of ignoring this lesson was highlighted by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, when Chairman Mao Zedong used students to attack those in the party who opposed him. This was also evident during the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, when the party allowed students to develop moral authority and had to use military force to crush peaceful student protests. The consequences of the loss of control were made dramatic two years later when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Cardinal Zen and challenge to the hierarchy

According to its moral principles, the party cannot tolerate any competition for authority and has a long history of weeding out those who present a challenge to the party’s position. For example, following the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956-1957 which encouraged the engagement of intellectuals, Mao Zedong used the anti-rightist campaign to eliminate their growing authority. This campaign aimed to refute anti-regime comments made by intellectuals, punishing around 550,000 of them, many with labor reform.

More recently, Xi Jinping has used an anti-corruption campaign to eliminate internal party challenges to his authority by purging prominent figures, such as retired public security chief and former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang. In Hong Kong, the national security law has been used to indict publisher and democracy activist Jimmy Lai, whose media regularly criticizes Hong Kong and Chinese Communist Party leaders.

The principle of hierarchy can also be used to understand and predict how events may unfold. For example, if Cardinal Zen dies in custody, he could become a martyr of the protest movement – ​​hardly ideal for the Chinese Communist Party. Yet the philosophy of the leadership suggests that it would be even worse for the party to let Zen continue its activism and become a more active threat to its moral and political monopoly.

Moreover, the arrest of a cardinal could disrupt ties with the Vatican. However, as political scientist Lawrence Reardon demonstrates, since 1949 the party’s primary concern in relations with the Vatican has been whether the pope or the party appoints bishops within the People’s Republic of China. In other words, who sits at the top of the Catholic hierarchy within the People’s Republic of China is more important than anything the party gains through its relationship with the Vatican.

To remain at the top of China’s moral hierarchy, the party will have to suppress alternative sources of authority. Through his criticism of the party and the Vatican, Cardinal Zen showed the potential to grow into a political leader in his own right.

As a possible alternative source of authority, Cardinal Zen has become the latest victim of the party’s moral hierarchy; he won’t be the last.

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