Sometimes we look at the People’s Republic of China and think, “Come on, they can’t be communist any more – half of them are overweight!” So why shouldn’t the Catholic Church make peace with their rulers? What’s wrong with inviting them to help pick a few bishops?
Well, I’m sorry to report that ideas do matter to those who believe in them and the Chinese elite are still communists at heart. You need to take communism seriously to see it.
I’ve just finished a couple of smashing biographies of Russian reds. Victor Sebestyen’s Lenin the Dictator argues that Lenin’s brand of communism, which is essentially what Beijing practises today, was and is a conspiracy.
In theory, said Karl Marx, socialism would be built by the proletariat out of the ashes of capitalism. But Russia at the turn of the last century hadn’t even finished feudalism: hence, no capitalism, no proletariat and no socialism for the foreseeable future. So, Lenin had to jump the gun by announcing that even if the Russian masses were, ahem, “unready” to take power for themselves, the revolution could still be pulled off by a band of professional agitators. Indeed, the revolution of October 1917 wasn’t a revolution at all. It was a coup d’etat.
Lenin was interested primarily in power. He recognised that socialism would be a long struggle and he was happy to tag from left to right if that’s what it took to stay on top.
First, he tried to run the new Soviet economy by command from the Kremlin. When that went belly-up, he introduced a form of state capitalism called the New Economic Policy – and it’s the NEP to which China’s approach today is often compared, with its mix of open markets, foreign investment and a powerful central government. In the sense that the Chinese communists have acknowledged they also need to have a bit of capitalism before they can build socialism, they are, like Lenin, both flexible and loyal to Marx’s original ideas about how history is supposed to work.
They also, like Lenin, hate God. Sebestyen quotes Lenin calling religion “the most inexpressible foulness”. Faith threatened communism by offering a powerful alternative worldview that put God, not man, at the centre of the universe, so it had to be beaten. When famine hit in 1922, Lenin cynically used it as an opportunity to launch a campaign against the Orthodox Church on the basis that peasants would surely support the expropriation of church property in their hour of need. “We must seize the valuables now speedily; we will be unable to do so later because no other moment except that of desperate hunger will give us support among the masses.” Within two years, about 1,200 priests had been killed. Things only got worse under his successor, Joseph Stalin. Roughly 97 per cent of churches, mosques and synagogues were closed.
A tragic vignette stands out in William Taubman’s biography of Nikita Khrushchev, one of Stalin’s ablest lieutenants, that brings together these themes of conspiracy and deicide. Khrushchev was charged with pacifying Ukraine, which necessitated destroying the Greek Catholic Church – and one of his targets was Bishop Theodore Romzha. In October 1947, Romzha was riding a horse-drawn coach when it was rammed by a truck. Secret policemen jumped out of the vehicle and beat Romzha half to death.
Remarkably, the bishop survived and was taken to hospital. Khrushchev appealed to Stalin: what to do? A police toxicologist was given the blessing to finish Romzha off in hospital. He passed on a vial of curare to a “nurse” who injected the patient with it. The only other time I’ve heard of that poison being used is in an episode of Columbo.
Such a plot could only happen in real life among the communists, famous as they always have been for poison-tipped umbrellas and pushing critics out of windows. Such cunning and theatrical brutality wasn’t enough to save the Soviet Union, but the communists who took power in China in 1949 have held on by murdering, lying and cheating in pursuit of ends that they believe justify the means, including the suppression of the faithful.
In present-day China, an estimated one million Muslims have been put into “re-education” camps. Churches are being destroyed; preaching curtailed. Western clerics who imagine that communism is merely Christianity by another name because both have nice things to say about the poor are as deluded as Western governments who think that because a few rich Chinese wear Prada and holiday at Disney World, they are emergent capitalists and our new best friends.
This is a nation run by a conspiracy with a much clearer sense of history than we have in the West. A game plan, if you will. And it involves humiliating, compromising and even killing those who have the audacity to accept Jesus, not Marx, as their saviour.
Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor
This article first appeared in the October 5 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here