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China and its critics should both take a close look at the past

Jesuit astronomers with the Kangxi Emperor, painted by Philippe Béhagle

In a recent article in this magazine, Tim Stanley upped the ante by suggesting that the government of China is “pure evil”. His observation was part of an ingenious argument about liberalism and the crackdown on protestors in Hong Kong. His conclusion: “It’s time to confront Beijing’s communist tyranny head-on.”

I am not so sure – but it’s certainly a good moment for Beijing’s critics to study China’s history. President Xi Jinping should do the same. The next time he feels like coming down hard on Christians in China, he might refer to an edict of Emperor Kangxi in 1692, concerning Jesuit missionaries: “The Europeans are very quiet; they do not excite any disturbances in the provinces, they do no harm to anyone, they commit no crimes, and their doctrine has nothing in common with that of the false sects in the empire, nor has it any tendency to excite sedition.”

For Western observers, it’s worth pondering the same emperor’s words a few years later, when he decided to ban Christianity outright. In many cases the punishment for recalcitrant Christians was to be given as slaves to Muslims in the west of China, the forebears of that same minority who are now being herded into “re-education” camps.

I was living in Hong Kong at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests. The British were still in charge, ensuring that the full picture was not seen by the people of Hong Kong in the run-up to the handover. There were street protests, along with heavy-handed policemen and calls for confronting Beijing’s communist tyranny head-on. For really extreme treatment of Hong Kong demonstrators, we shouldn’t look at what has been happening there in the past few weeks or in 1989. The years 1956 and 1967 saw casualties far exceeding anything that has been seen recently. The death toll in the 1967 Hong Kong riots was more than 50.

All of this would have exhausted Emperor Kangxi as much as the squabbling between Jesuits and Dominicans. He changed his mind about Christians after seeing the animosity between the Society of Jesus – flexible in its approach to ancestor worship and Confucius – and the Order of Preachers, who hated traditional Chinese practices and consigned the Middle Kingdom’s top philosopher to hell.

The Chinese Rites Controversy marked the end of Christian influence on China’s ruling class. There is a much longer story, although taking the long view is rare in East or West nowadays. Back in 1972, things were different. When the sage foreign minister Zhou Enlai met Richard Nixon, he supposedly responded to the president’s question about the impact of the French Revolution with a considered “It’s too soon to tell.”

Talk of confronting tyranny with diplomatic action has more than a whiff of Lord Palmerston and his gunboats as he went to war with China over its reluctance to accept opium. British actions helped bring down the Qing dynasty in the end, paving the way for the communists, who would have displeased Palmerston as much as the Manchus did.

Rather than pure evil, the People’s Republic is afflicted with pure anxiety. More than half of the past 500 years has been spent under non-Chinese rulers. It’s noticeable that when China has ruled itself, rather than having foreigners in charge, is when it has become most inward-looking. Their wall would dwarf anything that Donald Trump might get around to building.

One of the few foreign influences that opened China up a little was the Catholic Church. Perhaps Pope Francis, with his Jesuit background, has taken a look at the papal court proceedings of the Chinese Rites Controversy, and concluded that there is no alternative to engaging closely with China’s rulers.

This is not a country that has ever embraced Western-style spirituality. Real native “religions” haven’t really emerged there. China moved straight from animism to enlightenment, with plenty of superstition and ancestor reverence left intact. For millennia, the Chinese elite have been practical and philosophical. Christianity, Islam and even Buddhism have always seemed enigmatic. In the 20th century there was the cult of Mao. Now there’s the cult of Xi.

Christianity made a favourable first impression 1,400 years ago. These were the glory days of open borders and the Silk Road. Approval of the new religion went to the very top. Emperor Taizong had studied the work of Christian missionaries and declared in 638: “It is mysterious, wonderful, calm; it is the salvation of living beings… It is right that it should be spread through the domains of the Empire.” As good an endorsement as has ever come from a pagan “Son of Heaven”.

After this, Christianity had its good and bad centuries. Official resistance in China was not always the result of frustration at the frequent cultural insensitivity of the Christians. More common was the suspicion that an alien faith was undermining the Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist foundation of China.

As usual, the Jesuits had the answer. In the 17th century they brought out Chinese inscriptions written in stone from 800 years before, showing the importance of Christianity in the very capital of China. There was even a carved cross growing out of a lotus – the perfect East-meets-West metaphor. In an attempt to undermine the Jesuits’ efforts, Protestant scholars at the time insisted that the stele was a Catholic fabrication.

A true fabrication of Christianity was the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). The third-bloodiest conflict in human history, it cost an estimated 20 million lives when Hong Xiuquan, a disgruntled would-be civil servant, dreamt that he was the younger brother of Jesus. He then started a movement that was supposedly Christian and nearly took over the empire. The name of Christianity was tainted despite the Taiping rebels being more aligned with Chairman Mao than Christianity. Home-grown Christianity of this type made an even worse impression than the imported variety.

As for the French Revolution, what Zhou Enlai didn’t know in 1972 was that more priests were martyred in France over a period of two days than perhaps in China’s history up till 2019.

Religious minorities are suffering: the oppression of Muslims has been covered widely, but perhaps the most persecuted belief is Falun Gong. Yet treatment of all religions has, on average, improved over the three decades since I first visited the People’s Republic. Given that trend, gunboat diplomacy would be a mistake.

Lucien de Guise is the curator of an exhibition on East-West relations, opening at the British Museum in October