Sunday, January 24, 2021


At the end of last year, when lots of attention in the United States was elsewhere, Reuters reported that two Chinese nuns who had worked at the Catholic Church’s mission in Hong Kong had been arrested by “mainland authorities” — Chinese communists — the previous May during a visit to their homes in Hebei province.

The nuns were detained for three weeks before being released into house arrest without being charged. They are not allowed to return to their mission in Hong Kong.

Their crime? Being Catholic in China. More specifically, being Catholic in Hong Kong.

The arrest of the two nuns is a clear sign that Beijing is trying to exert control over Hong Kong and the selection of its next bishop. Hong Kong had been specifically excluded from Pope Francis’s ill-advised 2018 deal that lets Chinese communists nominate the bishops Rome selects to watch over the faithful in China.

For the communists in China, like communists everywhere, Catholics pose a serious challenge. On the mainland, decades of repression have driven much of the Catholic Church underground. After the Communist Party took power and eviscerated religious freedom on the mainland, Hong Kong became a natural conduit for missionary outposts that helped keep contact with the mainland faithful.

There are an estimated 400,000 Catholics in Hong Kong (in a population of 7.5 million), and many of the city’s elite — like here in the U.S. — are products of Catholic schools. Not surprisingly, Catholics have been influential in the city’s pro-democracy movement. Many have been arrested. One of them, publisher and entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, perhaps Hong Kong’s most prominent Catholic, was recently arrested for violating the national security law.

Pope Francis, who seems to have an opinion about everything, has sat by silently while the wolves have circled his sheep. 

The same day that the arrests were reported, Dec. 30, it was also reported that Chinese and European Union officials had agreed to an economic investment deal between the EU and China.

“This agreement will uphold our interests and promotes our core values,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “It provides us a lever to eradicate forced labor.”

I wonder which “core values” the agreement promotes. The legitimacy of slave labor? Religious repression? Seizure of others’ territory? Or perhaps those are merely the “interests” that Ms. von der Leyen mentioned that the EU and China share in common.

If this deal sounds like familiar territory, that’s because it is.

The idea that the Chinese Communist Party can be brought into the civilized world simply through trade and empty rhetoric about engagement is, by now, thoroughly discredited.

If that approach worked, we would not now be thinking about how to deal with concentration camps in Xinjiang or repression of Catholics in Hong Kong or seizure of territory in the Pacific.

To its credit, the nascent Biden administration understands that the concept of economic engagement has been a failure. That is something that neither the Europeans nor Pope Francis seem to grasp.

New Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, during his confirmation hearing, called China the major “pacing threat” (whatever that is) facing America and promised that military parity between the two powers will not happen. He also pledged to uphold U.S. commitments to help Taiwan defend itself.

At his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken said former President Trump was “right in taking a tougher approach to China” and that he agreed with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s unremarkable assessment that Beijing’s campaign against the Uighurs — which consists of imprisonment, indoctrination and forced labor — is genocide.

In this instance, as elsewhere, Mr. Pompeo was right. China’s aggressive and illicit behavior cannot be ignored, should not be tolerated, and will not be changed by European money.

• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.

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