Sunday, January 31, 2010

Catholics, China & Freedom

The recent struggle with Google that China finds herself involved with, points back to the early efforts of the West to influence the East, many of which were Catholic—as this article from the Wall Street Journal reports.

An excerpt.

“The earliest missionaries in China, such as the great Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), introduced science as part of their aim to spread the Christian faith.

“In fact, there is an interesting parallel between those early Christian missions and our contemporary efforts to spread universal human rights, especially in regard to China. Ricci and his colleagues, as Jesuits, believed that the best way to influence the Chinese elite was to adapt to Chinese culture, to wear Chinese clothes, to speak in Confucian terminology, to "go native," as it were. They were criticized by other Catholic orders, who saw this as a shameless betrayal of Christian principles. Only the true faith should be preached, with no compromises to heathen views.

“A very similar debate is going on today between those who believe that applying Western notions of human rights and democracy to China is counterproductive. Many a politician, businessman or media tycoon has argued that adapting to special Chinese conditions is surely more effective if one wishes to have any influence in China. The fact that this argument is usually self-serving does not make it necessarily wrong, but so far it has certainly not been proven right. Chinese human rights have not been noticeably advanced because of foreign compromises with Chinese illiberalism.

“The dilemma for the Chinese elites, ever since the early Christian missions, is the question of how to adopt useful Western ideas while keeping out the subversive ones. Intelligent Chinese knew perfectly well that much of Western knowledge (how to construct effective guns, say) was not only useful but essential as a way to make China strong enough to resist foreign aggression. But the tricky part for scholar-officials was how to use that knowledge without weakening their own position as guardians of Chinese culture.

“To mention just one example, greater knowledge of geography and other civilizations made it harder to maintain that China was the center of the world which should naturally be paid tribute to by barbarian states. In ancient times, foreign barbarians were ranked with the beasts. By the time Matteo Ricci, in 1602, showed the Chinese a world map (now on view at the Library of Congress), some foreigners were treated with more respect, but the old Sino-centric defensiveness had far from vanished. If the Middle Kingdom was no longer the perfect model of civilization, its traditional political arrangements became vulnerable to domestic challenge.

“One way of dealing with this problem was to separate "practical knowledge" from "essential" culture, or ti-yong in Chinese. Western technology was fine, as long as it didn't interfere with Chinese morals and politics. In practice, however, this was not feasible. Political ideas came to China, along with science, economics, and Western religion. And they did help to undermine the old established order. One of these ideas was Marxism, but once Mao had unified China under his totalitarian regime, he managed for several decades to insulate the Chinese from notions that might undermine his power.”