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I was at a funeral in Poplar last week, near the London Docklands. It’s the first time I have visited the Catholic church there, or wandered round the area.

This was the old ‘Chinatown’, before the Chinese moved to Soho in the 1950s and 1960s. I had no idea that the memory of the Chinese presence endures in the street names:

sign1 by SW

sign2 by SW

sign3 by SW

One friend who grew up here remembered a nearby Chinese restaurant owned by ‘Harry’. Another friend who grew up round the corner in Limehouse told me years ago about the wok maker who lived on his street when he was a child.

There are lots of ‘local history’ and ‘ethnic history’ type books about the Chinese experience in London, I just haven’t gone into them very deeply. There is, amazingly, a famous protestant pastor who ministered to the Chinese in the post-war period. His name? Pastor Stephen Wang! I’m not joking; I have a book about him – available here on Amazon.

There are personal connections for me in all this. My Chinese great-grandfather first came to the UK at the very end of the nineteenth century, and his route was through the Liverpool docks. But when his son, my father’s father, emigrated with his Chinese wife from Canton in the early 1930s, they arrived at the docks in London, went straight to Chinatown (i.e. Limehouse/Poplar) to stock up on Chinese supplies, and then travelled to Sheffield to set up the Chinese laundry that kept them in business for many years. Maybe they stayed with friends on Pekin Street or Canton Street or Nankin Street…

Whenever I meet an elderly person from Sheffield I ask them if they knew the Chinese laundry on Ecclesall Road in Sheffield, and it’s amazing how many remember having their shirts ironed or collars starched by my grandparents all those years ago.

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When the Church, through the election of Pope Francis, seems to be moving west (from Europe to Latin America), it’s interesting to read Simon Scott Plummer on how it might actually be moving east.

map nov 28 by theogeo

In The Middle Kingdom’s Problem with Religion, Plummer writes about the staggering growth of Christianity in China over the last two generations, which some people are calling ‘the greatest revival Christianity has ever known’.

While church attendance continues to fall in the West and Christians are being driven out of the Middle East under Islamist pressure, China is moving in the opposite direction. In 2011 the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think-tank, estimated that there were 67 million Chinese Christians, about 5 per cent of the total population. Of these, 58 million were Protestant and nine million Catholic. Their number exceeds that of members of the Communist Party (CCP). 

A comparison with the situation just before the Communist Revolution — and even more so with that at the end of the Cultural Revolution — reveals the magnitude of change. In 1949 there were about three million Catholics and nearly one million Protestants. By Mao’s death in 1976 religion in China, including Christianity, appeared to have been snuffed out. 

The rise in the number of Protestants, many of them Pentecostals, has been described as the greatest revival Christianity has ever known. There is even talk that by the middle of this century, Chinese Christians could outnumber those in the United States, at present more than 170 million and declining, making China the most populous Christian country on earth. The emergence of the Middle Kingdom as the second largest global economy is not the only story of explosive growth since Deng Xiaoping wrested power from the Maoists.

On the one hand, there is a kind of tolerance of Christianity; on the other hand, continuing repression.

Provided you are not seen by the government as disruptive, being a Christian is not difficult in China today. If you do step over that line, defined by the constitution as making use of religion “to engage in activities that disrupt public order”, the consequences can be harsh. The authorities believe in exemplary punishment, what a Chinese proverb calls “killing the chicken to frighten the monkeys” and, having identified a target, pursue it ferociously.

For example, the Shouwang Church in Beijing, the largest of the unregistered Protestant groups in the city, has been hounded by the police over the past two years. Having been locked out of property it had either rented or bought, its congregation has been forced to hold services in the open air. Members have been arrested, evicted from their homes and jobs or deported to the towns from which they came. Gao Zhisheng, a Christian human rights lawyer, currently imprisoned in north-west China, has been in and out of detention since 2006. After one of his releases, he said he had been tortured and threatened with death if he spoke about what had happened.

Ma Daqin, the Auxiliary Bishop of Shanghai, has not been seen in public since last July, when he declared at his consecration that he was leaving the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association to devote more time to the pastoral needs of the diocese. The CCPA and its associated Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China promptly withdrew recognition from him. The gravity of this case is that Ma’s appointment was approved by both the Chinese government and the Holy See, part of a slow rapprochement between the two sides which has now suffered a severe setback. Reversing it will be one of the toughest diplomatic challenges facing Pope Francis I.

The situation for Chinese Catholics is extremely complex.

The life of Jin Luxian, the 96-year-old Bishop of Shanghai, provides a fascinating insight into the Vatican’s attitude towards China under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. A Jesuit, Jin spent 27 years (1955-82) under house arrest, in re-education camps or in prison for being part of a “counter-revolutionary clique”. The devastating experience of the Cultural Revolution convinced him that the interests of Chinese Catholics were best served by co-operating with the government, so he became the CCPA-appointed bishop of China’s most populous city in 1988. The bishop approved by the Vatican, Ignatius Kung Pin-mei, who had been consecrated in 1950, found himself powerless in his own diocese after being freed on parole from a life sentence in 1985. He left to receive medical treatment in the United States and never returned. In 1979 John Paul II had secretly created him a cardinal.

However, the same pope tacitly approved the presence of papal representatives at Jin’s consecration as auxiliary bishop in 1985, and his successor, Benedict XVI, invited him to attend a synod in Rome in 2005, only to have the Chinese government turn down the invitation on his behalf. 

The Vatican’s nuanced treatment of Jin recognises his outstanding success in making Shanghai once again the powerhouse of Catholicism in China. He has reopened more than 100 churches in the city, set up the most important seminary in the country, sent seminarians abroad to study, and created a diocesan publishing house and retreat centre. In considering the spiritual wellbeing of Catholic communities around the world, the Holy See thinks long-term and, in the person of Jin, appears to have concluded that his achievements outweigh his apparent disloyalty. 

Nevertheless, the bishop remains a highly controversial figure, both within the Society of Jesus and among Christians in Shanghai. The first volume of hisMemoirs (Hong Kong University Press, 2012) is remarkable for its bitter judgment of Kung as someone who put local Catholics at risk by “mindlessly executing anti-Communist orders” at the instigation of the Holy See. 

Divisions between the registered and unregistered churches are reflected in the Commission for the Catholic Church in China set up by Pope Benedict in 2007. On one hand are those advocating rapprochement with the government on the lines of the Ostpolitik pursued by Cardinal Agostino Casaroli towards the Soviet bloc after the Second Vatican Council; on the other, those who take a harder line. The present Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Hon, favours the first approach, his predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, the second. Pope Francis, a Jesuit, is likely to give China a high priority.

The most important thing I learnt about the Church in China when I visited the country a couple of years ago, apart from the vibrancy of its faith, is not to make simplistic judgments about the situation there or the incredibly complex decisions of conscience that Chinese Catholics are constantly having to make.

You can read the full article here.

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This is a couple of weeks old now, but it didn’t get as much traction in the news as I expected. Isn’t it an absolutely astonishing historical landmark, that over one billion people are now voluntarily connected on a social networking site?

Yes, there are more people in China, in India and in the Catholic Church; but these ‘groupings’ (I can’t find a good generic term that covers a nation-state and the Catholic Church) have taken a few years to get going, and a large number of their members were born into them.

Facebook doubled it’s size from a half billion users to one billion in just three years and two months!

See this report by Jemima Kiss.

And watch this very clever promotional video, entitled “The Things that Connect Us”, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose film credits include Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Notice the beautiful bridge images, very close to my blogging heart.

And remember Susan Maushart’s warning in her book The Winter of Our Disconnect (p6):

So… how connected, I found myself wondering, is connected enough? Like many other parents, I’d noticed that the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to cohere as a family… I started considering a scenario E. M. Forster never anticipated: the possibility that the more we connect, the further we may drift, the more fragmented we may become.

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Since my previous post about China, this came in from John Allen about the ‘war on religion’ that is underway in many countries. HIs first two examples are Chinese:

  • Fr. Joseph Zhao Hongchun, apostolic administrator of the Chinese diocese of Harbin, was taken into police custody July 4 to prevent him from galvanizing opposition to the illicit ordination of a new Harbin bishop orchestrated by the government. He was detained for three days and released only after the ordination took place.
  • New auxiliary Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin of Shanghai was placed under house arrest in a seminary after he publicly resigned from the government-controlled “Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics” during his ordination Mass on July 7, which took place with the pope’s blessing.
  • Rev. Kantharaj Hanumanthappa, a Pentecostal pastor in the Indian state of Karnataka, was leading a prayer service July 4 when 20 radical Hindus stormed in to accuse the Christians of proselytizing, threatening them if they didn’t leave. A police complaint was filed, but no action has been taken.
  • The private home of Pastor Ramgopal, a Pentecostal minister in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was raided by police allied with the Hindu radicals. The pastor was reportedly told, “Either you go away and never come back or we’ll arrest you.” He was released only after signing a statement promising not to lead any more prayer services in the area.
  • A Catholic priest in Vietnam, Fr. J.B. Nguyen Dinh Thuc, was attacked by plainclothes police and thugs reportedly paid $25 a head to raid a missionary chapel in a rural area July 1. Their aim was to prevent the celebration of a Mass, part of what local Catholics describe as a policy of “religious cleansing” imposed by Hanoi. When the priest tried to make his way through the mob, he was beaten up, along with several laity who came to his rescue. Maria Thi Than Ngho, one of those laity, suffered a fractured skull in the melee. As of this writing, she remains in critical condition.
  • Abdubannob Ahmedov, a Jehovah’s Witness in Uzbekistan, saw his four-year prison term for “illegal religious activities” extended for another 30 months for alleged violations of prison rules.
  • Yelena Kim, a Baptist in Uzbekistan arrested in late June for “illegally teaching religion,” is now looking at three years behind bars after police raided her home and confiscated Bibles, hymn books and other religious materials.
  • Ghulam Abbas, a mentally disabled man in a region of Punjab under Pakistani control, was thrown into jail July 3 after rumors spread that he had burned some pages from a Quran. Before any investigation or trial could take place, a Muslim extremist mob stormed the jail, dragged Abbas from his cell and burned him alive. According to local observers, it’s at least the 35th extra-judicial murder to take place following an arrest under Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws since 1986.

Deep thanks go to the Asia News service for bringing us these stories, which otherwise would be almost totally overlooked.

See the Asia News site here.

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Jonathan Watts has been reporting from China for the Guardian for nearly a decade. He has been there officially to report on the environment and development issues, but his journalism has ended up touching on most aspects of Chinese life over these last few years. He gives a summary of his experiences here, which ends up being a reflection on how China has changed over the period, and where it is going.

There are lots of positives; lots of unknowns; and one of the continuing negatives is the lack of freedom for journalists like himself, the authoritarianism, and the inability of the Chinese government to take criticism – both internal and external.

Criticism has rarely been appreciated. All too often, there have been flare-ups of anti-foreign media hostility. Some of my colleagues in other media organisations have received death threats. I never expected China to be an easy place to work as a journalist. For political and cultural reasons, there is a huge difference in expectations of the media. For historical and geo-strategic reasons, there is a lingering distrust of foreign reporters.

Run-ins with the police, local authorities or thugs are depressingly common. I have been detained five times, turned back six times at roadblocks (including during several efforts to visit Tibetan areas) and physically manhandled on a couple of occasions. Members of state security have sometimes followed interviewees and invited my assistants “out for tea”, to question them on who I was meeting and where I planned to visit. Censors have shut down a partner website that translated Guardian articles into Mandarin. Police have twice seized my journalist credentials, most recently on this year’s World Press Freedom Day after I tried to interview the blind human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng in hospital. When that happened, I debated with another British newspaper reporter who was in the same position about whether to report on the confiscation. He argued that it was against his principles for journalists to become part of the story. I used to believe the same, but after nine years in China, I have seen how coverage is influenced by a lack of access, intimidation of sources and official harassment. I now believe reporters are doing a disservice to their readers if they fail to reveal these limitations on their ability to gather information.

Yes, there is often negative coverage and yes, many of the positive developments in China are underemphasised. But I don’t think it does the country’s international image any favours to clumsily choke access to what is happening on the ground.

Treated like a spy, I have sometimes had to behave like one. At various times, I’ve concealed myself under blankets in a car, hidden in a toilet, waited until dark in a safe house and met sources in the middle of the night to avoid detection.

At other times, it is Chinese journalists and officials who pull the screen of secrecy aside. Take the foot-and-mouth outbreak on the outskirts of Beijing in 2005. I was first alerted to this by a Chinese reporter, who was frustrated that the propaganda department had ordered the domestic media not to run the story.

Foreign ministry officials often tell me China is becoming more open and, indeed, there have been steps in that direction. But restrictions create fertile ground for rumour-mongering. One of the biggest changes in this period has been the spread of ideas through mobile phones and social networks. The 513 million netizens in China (up from 68 million in 2003) have incomparably greater access to information than any previous generation and huge numbers now speak out in ways that might have got them threatened or detained in 2003. Microblogs are perhaps nowhere more influential than in China because there is so little trust of the communist-controlled official media.

It has been fun watching netizens create an ingenious new language to evade restrictions. In this anti-authoritarian world, the heroes are the “grass mud horses” (which, in Chinese, sounds the same as a core banned phrase: “Fuck your mother!”) while the villains are the river crabs (which is pronounced like “harmony” – the favourite excuse of the authorities when they crack down on dissent). But ultimately, a journalist wants to see things for him or herself. I will never forget the epic road trips – across the Tibetan plateau, along the silk road, through the Three Gorges and most memorably from Shangri-la to Xanadu. Along the way, I met remarkable people with extraordinary stories. True to the oft-heard criticism of the foreign media, many were from the “dark side”: a young man in Shaoguan who confessed – as the shadows lengthened on the building site where we had our interview – to killing Uighur co-workers at his toy factory because of a rumour they had raped Han women; a gynaecologist in Yunnan who argued with great conviction that it had once been necessary to tie pregnant women up to carry out abortions; the young boy who found the body of his dead grandmother who killed herself a year after his father – an illegal migrant – phoned her to say he was about to drown in what became known as the Morecambe Bay disaster.

Another thing that struck me in Watts’s report is the total lack of references to religion – absolutely nothing about religion, faith, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc (I did the word-search on the article). I know he is focussing on the environment, but he writes about many other aspects of Chinese life that catch his interest or come to find him as a journalist. Is this a Guardian blind-spot? Maybe I’m being unfair, and he was briefed not to write about religion because someone else in the office is on the case. It’s just striking that someone gives their impressions of a decade of change in China, and the growth in interest in religion isn’t mentioned.

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Look through any current affairs section in your local bookshop and you’ll find a pile of books that should really be classified under ‘future affairs’, dabbling in the science/art of futurology, and claiming to predict what the world will be like in ten, twenty or a hundred years’ time.

George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years is one such book that I’ve just finished reading. I don’t know anything about him, or STRATFOR, the ‘preeminent private intelligence and forecasting firm’ that he founded. But it’s a provocative read, partly because so many of his predictions go against the prevailing wisdom you find in the media. This is because, he claims, the underlying issues are always geopolitical, which ends up meaning geographic and demographic; and there is a sort of destiny to the way nations will relate that arises from their geographical strengths and vulnerabilities, and from their demographic profiles.

China, for example, is not going to be a major player in the twenty-first century, despite the present economic boom there. That’s because most of the country is inaccessible to the outside world; only the Eastern seaboard cities will be able to flourish – and they won’t want to be shackled by the centre forever; and the one child policy has created an aging population that won’t have enough younger people to sustain it.

The United States, instead, which everyone thinks is in decline, is actually only at the beginning of its world dominance – according to Friedman. That’s because, to vastly oversimplify,  it’s the one country that can continue to dominate (economically and militarily) both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. And dominating the world’s oceans matters more than any other single political or technological asset.

The US-Jihadist ‘war’ is just a small distraction that won’t figure very heavily in the history books; there will be a new cold with Russia, as it reasserts its Eurasian dominance; and the real geopolitical conflict towards the end of the century will be between the States and a resurgent Mexico.

And while everyone else is worrying about the population explosion of the coming decades, Friendman believes that the most significant geopolitical fact of the next hundred years will be a global population implosion, together with the resulting scramble to attract the ever-decreasing numbers of available migrant workers, and the development of new technologies to cope with the declining availability of labour.

You can buy the book and disagree with him to your heart’s content! But it’s interesting to note, in the news just over the last few days, reports of a possible economic bust in China, and of a reverse trend in Mexican immigration into the United States, as people move back home to benefit from the vibrant Mexican economy…

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With this name to the blog, I can’t not post about the world’s longest sea bridge which (as the Daily Mail puts it so helpfully for us British/French readers) ‘is five miles LONGER than the Dover-Calais crossing’.

The previous record-holder, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in Louisiana. See it in the distance.

As ever, the Mail has the best pictures, on it’s staggeringly successful website. This is from Oliver Pickup’s article.

China has unveiled the world’s longest sea bridge, which stretches a massive 26.4 miles – five miles further than the distance between Dover and Calais and longer than a marathon.

The Qingdao Haiwan Bridge, completed earlier this week, links the main urban area of Qingdao city, East China’s Shandong province, with Huangdao district, straddling the Jiaozhou Bay sea areas.

The road bridge, which took four years and cost a cool £5.5billion to build, will be open for use in the New Year and is almost three miles longer than the previous record-holder, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway in Louisiana.

That structure features two bridges running side by side and is 23.87 miles (38.42km) long.

The three-way Qingdao Haiwan Bridge is a staggering 174 times longer than London’s Tower Bridge, over the Thames River – and shaves 19 miles off the drive from Qingdao to Huangdao.

Two separate groups of workers have been building the different ends of the structure since 2006.

And they were relieved when all the bridges connected properly, which they managed to do on December 22.

One engineer commented: ‘The computer models and calculations are all very well but you can’t really relax until the two sides are bolted together.

‘Even a few centimetres out would have been a disaster.’

WORLD’S LONGEST

– Danyang–Kunshan Grand Bridge (rail) – China  – 102 miles
– Tianjin Grand Bridge (rail) – China – 71 miles
– Weinan Weihe Grand Bridge (rail) – China  – 50 miles
– Bang Na Expressway (road) – Thailand – 34 miles

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