Building Experimental Bridge to China

Article excerpt

HONG KONG -- The four had flown into Gweizhou, China, a poor mountain region far north of their affluent, comfortable Hong Kong. Their accommodation was a modest guest house and their reception committee had just arrived.

As the committee members were introduced, Peter Cheung and his three colleagues from the Catholic Institute for Religion in Society exchanged business cards. Then Cheung read to his astonishment that the secretary-general of the welcoming voluntary organization, the Provincial Committee Concerned for Poor and Marginalized Minority Tribes, was also the secretary-general of the United Front Department of the local Communist Party. The United Front is the party's propaganda arm. And the volunteer group's vice president was the front's local vice president.

"Hey," said Cheung to himself, "this is supposed to be a voluntary organization." The four Hong Kong visitors, Cheung later told NCR, considered the situation they were in and asked each other: "Are we going to continue on or pack our bags and go back next morning?"

The decision was, said Cheung, "We've come. We paid for our air tickets. We've spent our money. Let's stay and see what happens."

And what happened, on long trips in a small minibus to meet villagers, was that the Catholics and the communists talked about their organizations, themselves and their work for the poor. Gradually, as the days progressed, they began to find some common ground for the programs they had in mind -- building schools for China's minority tribes.

This was not the institute's first education-oriented excursion into China. The 10 year-old institute, created by Cheung, Maryknoll Sr. Mary Louise Martin and Fr. Luke Tsui, had visited the Yao tribe in northern Guandong Province. There, in Wau Nau County, in decrepit schools with blackboards so old the chalk lettering could not be read, with broken desks and ancient, tattered books, they met teachers and parents.

The people spoke Yao, the mainlanders Mandarin and the Hong Kong visitors Cantonese -- but still the conversation got through.

The Hong Kong visitors pledged help.

Back in Hong Kong, working with Catholic school children, their parents and teachers, the institute built a bridge between Wau Nau's children and Hong Kong's children. Money was raised to improved the schools and provide supplies. They also provided tuition fees for girl students, who generally were left out of the rural education system. There were exchange trips. Friendships were created.

Now the same was happening in Gweizhou.

"We felt the communist cadre had good principles," said Cheung, "and gave us good suggestions about helping a poor village eventually to stand on its own."

The program is working. With a little financial help from Hong Kong, the tribespeople themselves have built six schools and, said Cheung, "the best part is there are lots of exchanges going on."

What is the institute up to in China? In 1989, he explained, "we decided that it would contribute to democracy in China in the long run if the majority of people could get good education.

"And for the Christians this is also very important," Cheung said, "for by staying in Hong Kong ourselves, we are also sowing the seed of Christianity and spreading the gospel in the mainland."

The United States, said Cheung, has very set concepts of communism, of society in China. …