How can the Vatican negotiate while China keeps demolishing churches?

A church remains standing surrounded by demolished buildings in a neighborhood due for redevelopment in Dandong (Getty Images)

One thing that even its detractors, such as myself, must admit with regard to the Chinese Communist Party – they are nothing if not persistent. They do not give up easily. They are absolutely determined to give the Catholic Church no peace, and to impose their will on the Church, and they do this using a time honoured play book.

Consider the latest news about a Church demolition talking place in Wangcun village, in Shanxi province, as reported by this magazine. The authorities, for no particular reason, are trying to knock down a Catholic church, and the parishioners are trying to stop them, by interposing their bodies. They are being very brave: after all, a couple of hundred parishioners against the mighty power of the Chinese state does not seem a very evenly matched contest.

This represents one of many Church demolitions in China in recent times. The rate of persecution is variable, and may be dependant on what the Chinese authorities think they can get away with. Nor do they just demolish churches. As the ever valuable Wikipedia summarises:

An estimated 65 percent of the 180,000 annual “mass incidents” in China stem from grievances over forced land requisitions, whereby government authorities—often in collusion with private developers—seize land from villages with little to no compensation. Since 2005, surveys have indicated a steady increase in the number of forced land requisitions. Every year, local government expropriates the land of approximately 4 million rural Chinese citizens. 43 percent of villagers surveys across China report being the victims of land grabs. In most instances, the land is then sold to private developers at an average cost of 40x higher per acre than the government paid to the villagers.

Chinese people live in an authoritarian state where the property rights of Churches and individuals are routinely disregarded, where the motivation to do so is either economic or ideological or both. But it is very interesting to see that these flagrant breaches of property rights are not passing without protest. That is a sign that the Chinese people are waking up to the fact that their government does not govern for the common good.

Communist governments have a tradition of using planning laws as a weapon against Churches. As once in the Soviet bloc, so now in China: building new churches may prove impossible, repairing old ones equally difficult, and existing churches may fall foul of some perceived breach of the planning laws, however small, which will be used as an excuse for demolition or expropriation. That the Chinese are still doing this is a sign of their complete lack of imagination as well as their totalitarian mindset. And what threat does the village church in Wangcun pose, anyway?

Meanwhile, the Vatican is engaged in talks with the Chinese government aimed at normalising relations. Perhaps the Vatican could ask the Chinese government to stop demolishing Churches as a sign of goodwill. Or perhaps the Vatican might ask itself whether any negotiations with a government so addicted to demolishing churches are worthwhile. Or even better, the Vatican might like to “go to the margins” and ask the people and priests of Wangcun village what they think about the whole matter.