China should welcome Catholic Church, and other faith traditions, for the moral good of society

G. Bin Zhao calls on Beijing to accept the pope's offer of friendship and open China's doors to the Catholic Church, as well as revive its own faith traditions, to stem society's moral degeneration

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 January, 2015, 4:51pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 October, 2016, 9:12am

Last week, as Pope Francis passed through Chinese airspace after his visit to the Philippines, he sent a telegram to Chinese President Xi Jinping , it was reported, to again express his willingness to visit China. This is an important indication that the Vatican is trying to improve relations with China. Perhaps more significantly, the news was widely reported by mainland media and not blocked, unlike a lot of other sensitive information.

Although China has made great progress, gradually reducing poverty and increasing prosperity as the economy grew to be ranked one of the largest in the world, in terms of gross domestic product, there is general agreement that the moral quality of the population is falling as fast as living standards are rising.

Examples abound: when an elderly person fell in a public place, no one dared help for fear of being blamed or blackmailed; car thieves strangled an infant they discovered in the vehicle they stole; food producers sold poisonous goods to obtain higher profits. Such tragic events, among many others, provide anecdotal evidence of the country's falling moral standards.

In recent years, as this descent has become more obvious and alarming, the issue has been a cause for much reflection and discussion in society. The main problems can be summarised as follows.

Serious long-term corruption has distorted the concepts of equity and justice in society, and eroded the integrity of business and personal relationships. The growing wealth disparity has led to social discrimination and class contradictions.

Feelings of "hatred against the rich" and "hatred against government officials" are common among ordinary people, feelings that have grown to the point where apathy and low levels of morality are the result.

Furthermore, moral education, unable to adapt to the rapid pace of social change in China, is lagging. For more than 2,000 years, including in more contemporary times, ideology and morality in China have mainly been influenced and dominated by the thoughts and teachings of Confucius, the Buddha and Lao Tzu.

Unfortunately, since 1949, the doctrine of Marxism-Leninism has taken up much of the ideological space. The reform and opening-up process, from its start in 1978 through to the time of Deng Xiaoping's southern tour speech in 1992, focused almost solely on economic development.

Current mainstream moral education is still locked in with the teachings of socialist ideology, ideas that are thin and weak, and incapable of improving people's moral qualities in the modern era of economic prosperity.

After over 2,000 years of heritage and development, the traditions of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism are deeply rooted in the blood of Chinese people. Yet, they are neglected today.

Although civil society has started to gradually bring attention to this issue in recent years, the government has not emphasised it enough, despite the fact that the promotion of these traditional and religious beliefs would not only have no negative effect on society but would probably be an effective complement to the nation's development.

Since such traditions have not been given due attention, how could the Catholic Church, which was only introduced in recent history, hope to have any influence?

It is precisely for this reason that Beijing needs to improve relations with the Vatican. The moral decline in China requires immediate and drastic action. The Chinese government should encourage and develop the traditional thinking of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, while also welcoming Catholicism, Christianity and other religions.

It should improve its relationship with the Vatican and help liberate freedom of religious belief for Chinese people, an area where the government has repeatedly been criticised.

The new leadership, which has garnered the attention and applause of people around the world with its extraordinary fight against corruption, would find that opening the door to such initiatives would ease many social problems associated with China's ethical and moral decline.

If the top leadership can be more open-minded and find a way to embrace and respect - even propagate - Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, as well as welcome Western religions to China, the country's culture, values and social systems will develop and become more refined in just a few years.

It would therefore be a joyous and vital moment if President Xi were to shake hands with Pope Francis - in Beijing, the Vatican, or indeed anywhere in the world.

G. Bin Zhao is executive editor at China's Economy & Policy, and co-founder of Gateway International Group, a global China consulting firm