Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of Saint Augustine Zhao Rong and Companions, named in honor of 120 men and women martyred for the Catholic faith in China between 1648 and 1930.
Although the last of these Christians was killed in China almost 100 years ago, the current communist regime’s oppression of Christians and other religious minorities reminds us that religious persecution remains a life-and-death reality in mainland China. Remembering the stories of these martyrs is a fitting honor not only to those who have died, but also for those who still suffer for their beliefs at the hands of a totalitarian state.
The Story of Augustine Zhao Rong
The namesake of this Catholic feast day, Augustine Zhao Rong, was born in 1746 in China. He had a successful military career, rising to the rank of captain in the imperial Chinese army. He was assigned to escort to Beijing the French missionary Bishop John Gabriel Taurin Dufresse, a member of the Paris Foreign Mission Society who had been arrested in Chengdu for spreading the Christian faith.
The elderly bishop suffered much at the hands of his tormentors, bearing his trials with patience as his trial approached. Zhao Rong was impressed with Dufresse’s peculiar courage, and he asked to learn more about this foreign religion. He was soon baptized. Not long thereafter, Zaho Rong witnessed the French cleric die for Christ. The bishop’s head was severed and placed on a pole in an attempt to stem the spread of Christianity in China.
The regime’s brutality had the opposite effect. Three days after his execution, Dufresse’s body was stolen by Christians and given a reverent burial. More conversions followed. The powerful witness likely inspired Zhao Rong to leave the army.
He then entered theological study and was ordained as a priest. Unfortunately, shortly after his ordination, in 1815, Zhao Rong was arrested, tortured, and executed. The imperial authorities put several other Christians to death alongside Zhao Rong. One, an 18-year-old man named Chi Zhuzi, was flayed to death. As he died, he declared to his executioners: “Every piece of my flesh, every drop of my blood, will tell you that I am Christian.”
Many of the other Catholics honored alongside Zhao Rong and Chi Zhuzi were murdered between 1899 and 1901, during the Boxer Rebellion. During this tumultuous period, anti-colonial peasants butchered 30,000 Chinese converts to Christianity, alongside missionaries and other foreigners.
Of the 120 honored today, 87 were born in China, and included children, parents, catechists, laborers, and priests, ranging in age from nine years old to 72. Of the 33 foreign-born martyrs, most were priests or women religious. The entire group of 120 martyrs were canonized together in Rome on October 1, 2000 by Pope John Paul II.
Chinese Anti-Christian Persecution Is Current Affairs
Readers may ask why the emperors of China viewed the Christians as such a threat that they needed to be persecuted and killed. For starters, the Chinese government viewed foreigners as meddling in their country, and possibly as a preface to militarist foreign intervention from Europe or Japan, from which many of the Europeans travelled.
The Chinese regime also feared “foreign rites” as a threat to the integrity of the state, upsetting a balance and harmony that ancient Chinese cults had sought for many generations. Moreover, any foreign religion is a potential threat to a state’s religio-political identity. It may undermine elites who use that religion to control their people — especially in the case of the Christian faith, which maintains a rigorous ethical code at odds with many cultures, and vocally teaches the dignity of every person, including the poor, marginalized, and disabled.
Much of this explains continued antagonism towards Christianity by the atheistic, communist Chinese regime, which, as I’ve noted elsewhere, persecutes the faithful when it isn’t carefully monitoring and manipulating church leadership. Beijing still routinely arrests and tortures Chinese Christians.
In December 2018, police officers in Chengdu arrested a pastor and 100 congregants of an “underground” church because it is not registered with the government. Many of those arrested were assaulted by authorities. For years Beijing has targeted and destroyed churches. Periodically stories come out of China of lengthy prison sentences for Christians, or regime-sponsored killings.
As one pastor declared in 2018: “The Chinese Communist party (CCP) wants to be the God of China and the Chinese people. But according to the Bible only God is God. The government is scared of the churches.” Indeed, a recent Chinese Community Party municipal presentation claimed that Christianity presented “enormous harm to China’s Security.” That sounds a lot like the 17th century Chinese regime that similarly persecuted Christians.
This persecution is not unique to Christians. Between one to three million people have been or are currently being held in government-run re-education camps in China’s western Xinjiang Province. This is an attempt to eradicate the threat posed by ethnic and religious minorities, especially the largely Muslim, ethnically Turkic Uighur population.
Beware the Red Dragon
China is on many Americans’ minds right now, given all of the debate over tariffs and the recent announcement of a cease-fire in the U.S.-China trade war. An analysis of tariffs and trade wars is beyond the scope of this article, but one reason to be wary of China and over-reliance on its economy is its totalitarianism.
This of course extends far beyond persecuting religious minorities, to Beijing’s creation of a surveillance state, and its social credit system. This is reminiscent of the scariest dystopian novels. Moreover, the popularity of sex-selected abortions, a result of regime policies has resulted in a catastrophe for the female sex.
Should we really be rewarding a country responsible for so much brutality and so many human rights violations? Entrance into the free markets of the world has done little to hinder the totalitarian tendencies of this police state. As we consider the future of our economic and political relationship to the Red Dragon, we should consider Augustine Zhao Rong and his companions, both historical and contemporary, who daily suffer for the sake of Christ, and for the sake of the freedom to worship. The future of religious liberty around the world may depend, in part, on that consideration.