Francesco Sisci is a leading Sinologist, author, and China expert currently working as a Professor at China’s Renmin University in Beijing. The interview, by Matteo Damiani, has been published on China Today and translated by prof. Gregor Benton.
– On April 23, President Xi Jinping made an important speech on religion. What has changed in comparison with the past?
Xi Jinping has introduced a new method, at least at the theoretical level, by which to modulate relations between party and religion. The issue is a tricky one, because naturally everything has to be led by the party, so how to manage religions that can under no circumstances be led by the party, given that the party is materialist and religions have an independent origin, and how can a party that is materialist lead religions that are spiritual? This contradiction between party and religion reached a point during the Cultural Revolution when professing a religion was prohibited; after that the party rowed back a little, but the problem has remained unresolved until now, when the party, by means of a sort of linguistic invention, has started saying that it needs to guide (yindao) religions, i.e., by responding to what religion itself is. There are various ways in Chinese to say “guide,” so this way of guiding, this word that has been used, corresponds to the specific characteristics of each religion, for there is also another issue, that the way in which Protestants are guided differs from the ways in which Muslims or Catholics are guided. So thanks to this linguistic evolution, a compromise has been found – at least a theoretical compromise – by means of which religions are religions and the party retains its leading role, but there are spaces for which one can work together, neither one nor the other necessarily being in mutual contradiction.
– The difference between yindao and zhidao is quite subtle linguistically. Are these differences obvious to the average Chinese citizen?
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, this discourse is not directed at the average Chinese citizen, for he or she is not guided by religion. It is directed instead at the cadres of the party in general, who must grasp their own relationship to religious organisations.
–In your opinion, can one talk of a reopening of the Chinese government to religions?
Without doubt one can. The problem is the speed of this opening, and of course there are those who blame the Chinese government for not opening up quickly enough, but certainly the Chinese government has not remained closed. Whether this opening is sufficiently wide and fast is another question. But it’s nevertheless a fact that there has been this opening.
– In your view, can a religion be a useful instrument for building the harmonious society that Hu Jintao wants?
This was said officially at the end of the Seventeenth Party Congress. It is not a matter of interpretation, the point was specifically made that not religions as such, for the party does not concern itself with the merit of religions, but religious organisations and personalities, distinguishing carefully between religion in its metaphysical ambit and the religious organisation that constitutes its physical ambit, can make a positive contribution towards the creation of a harmonious society.
– Is the organisation of the Chinese Catholic Church still dependent on Beijing or is it shaped by the influence of the Vatican?
This is a question that should be addressed to the Vatican. Chinese Catholics recognise the Pope. There are many lines of communication between the Chinese Church and the Vatican. At the Youth Congress in Krakow, there were many Chinese banners, so this notion that the Chinese Church is divided from the universal Catholic Church makes no sense to me. I therefore believe that from a religious point of view there are no caesurae.
– How is Pope Bergoglio seen in China?
His tweets and homilies are translated into Chinese and widely available. He is the first Pope whose homilies have been systematically diffused. So that’s a positive sign.