China’s legacy of intimidating faithful

The case of Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese lawyer and activist who has opposed China’s policy of forced sterilization and forced abortions, has brought the Chinese government’s appalling human rights record into the spotlight. The government retaliated by sending Chen to prison for four years, then keeping him and his family under house arrest. Chen says his “guards” are not police but thugs hired by the government to terrorize him and his family, even going so far as to beat Chen and his wife. 

Chen’s escape from his home in a rural village to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing caused an international sensation. His decision, six days later, to leave the embassy was even more sensational. In an interview with an Associated Press reporter, Chen explained his decision: If he did not leave the embassy, his family’s guards threatened to beat Chen’s wife to death.

History of intimidation

A new book reveals that intimidation and terror have been standard methods employed by China’s government since the Communist Party took over the country in 1949. “Church Militant: Bishop Kung and the Catholic Resistance in Communist Shanghai” (Harvard University Press, $39.95) by Jesuit Father Paul Mariani reveals the Communist Party used fear, isolation and physical and psychological abuse to traumatize and ultimately dismantle the Church in Shanghai, at the time one of China’s most dynamic Catholic communities. 

Beginning in 1949, Bishop Ignatius Kung of Shanghai prepared for the onslaught he knew was coming by inaugurating an intense catechetical program, especially among youth. He also urged people to be more fervent in going to Mass and receiving the sacraments, attending benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, making pilgrimages to shrines of the Blessed Mother and praying the Rosary. 

In response, the Communist Party rounded up foreign missionaries, prominent Chinese priest and Chinese leaders of lay organizations such as the Legion of Mary. In prison many were beaten, starved, deprived of sleep and subjected to repeated interrogations that could last for 12 hours. Some broke down, admitted that they had been tools of imperialists and counter-revolutionaries, renounced their allegiance to the pope and the universal Church, and denounced their one-time leaders, such as Bishop Kung. Those who did not break were shipped off to labor camps; some were executed. 

As for Bishop Kung, on Sept. 8, 1955, the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, he and 1,200 Shanghai Catholics were arrested. After a show trial, he was sentenced to life in prison. In 1987, 86-year-old Bishop Kung was released. He traveled to the United States, where he spent the rest of his life in the home of his nephew, Joseph Kung, in Stamford, Conn. Blessed Pope John II announced that in 1979 he secretly had made Bishop Kung a cardinal; in 1991 the bishop traveled to Rome, where the pope presented him with the red hat. 

Canonization cause

The cause that could lead to Cardinal Kung’s canonization is at the earliest stage, and it is beginning in Stamford. The Cardinal Kung Foundation (www.cardinalkungfoundation .org), founded and operated by Joseph Kung, posts messages on its website from readers who believe that, through the intercession of Cardinal Kung, family and friends have received many graces, ranging from cancer cures to receiving a life-saving liver transplant. Of course, such reports must be carefully examined by medical and Church authorities before they can be sent to the Congregation for Saints’ Causes to determine if any are miraculous. 

The Cardinal Kung Foundation is much more than a canonization website. For more than a decade it was been an advocate for the underground Church in China. The site reports that virtually all of the underground Catholic bishops are in prison, under house arrest, or under surveillance. In the case of several bishops, they have disappeared, with no word of them in a decade or more. As Kung’s website states, “Priest, seminarians, nuns, and laypeople face similar harassment. Many of them are in jail.” 

When asked about Cardinal Kung and other likely Chinese candidates for canonization, Father Mariani said, “The question as to when some of them will be formally canonized remains an open question. This is because the Vatican has so far held off from canonizing anyone from after the 1949 Communist victory. I believe the Vatican does so for reasons of political sensitivity regarding the current Chinese government.” 

Seen in the context of the events Father Mariani and Joseph Kung describe, the persecution of Chen Guangcheng is not an isolated incident, but part of a long-term policy of eradicating any individual or organization that does not conform to the dictates of the Communist government. 

Thomas J. Craughwell is author of Patron Saints(OSV, $14.95).