Jonah Goldberg: Reminders that in China, life is a job
“Vita est lavorum.”
That’s Latin for “Life is a job.” I didn’t learn that in school or even from a book. I learned that from Father Guido Sarducci.
For younger readers, that name may draw a blank. Father Guido wasn’t a real person. He was a fictional priest played by comedian and writer Don Novello, and was a regular guest on “Saturday Night Live” in the 1970s and ’80s.
His most famous routine involved explaining how a secret letter discovered at the Vatican revealed the truth of what happens when you die. In the past, the church believed that a worthy soul would leave the body like a bubble at the bottom of a 7-Up bottle. The purer your soul, the higher into heaven you would float.
But this letter overturned all that. It turns out life is a job, and your wage is $14.50 a day. When you die, you go through a long dark tunnel, and at the end of it there is God, waiting for you, and he pays you your money. But there’s a catch: He counts up all your sins, and you have to pay for them right there.
“Maybe you’ve heard that expression, ‘You have to pay for your sins’?” Sarducci would say. “That’s the truth. You do have to pay for your sins — in cash.”
Steal a bag of potato chips when you’re a little kid? Six bucks. Each time you lied? Ten dollars. And so on.
I always thought the bit was hilarious. But two stories in the news last week made me think of it — and neither is funny.
The first was a report out of the Vatican. Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo told a Spanish-language Catholic newspaper that “right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the church are the Chinese.” In China, he said “the economy does not dominate politics, as happens in the United States, something Americans themselves would say.”
This came on the heels of the Vatican’s decision in December to order two underground Catholic bishops in China to step aside so government-approved bishops could take their place. The church, desperate to restore official relations with Beijing, is apparently willing to render unto the Caesars of the Politburo not only what is theirs, but what is God’s as well.
Sorondo’s comments were especially galling because they amounted to nothing less than bearing false witness. He went on at great length about how the Chinese “do not have shantytowns,” and Chinese young people “do not take drugs,” thanks to China’s “positive national conscience.”
It’s true that under China’s “state capitalism” hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. It’s also true that hundreds of millions still live in crushing poverty.
The point is that Sorondo admires the state part of state capitalism. And the Chinese state’s effort to promote a “positive national conscience” is decidedly at odds with any sane definition of Christian conscience. China has a vast network of slave labor camps. The state decides how many children citizens can have. It has an internal passport system barring minorities from foreign travel that would be instantly recognizable as a modern Jim Crow law if other ethnicities were in play.
The second news item comes from a chilling article in The Atlantic by Anna Mitchell and Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution. China is using cutting-edge artificial intelligence technology to construct a massive Orwellian surveillance apparatus to monitor every aspect of life. At home or work, everything Chinese citizens do on the internet is increasingly monitored and recorded. Outside, facial recognition software is empowering Big Brother to monitor where people go, whom they meet with and what they buy.
This will all be tallied into what Mitchell and Diamond call a “citizen score.” Even being friends with a “subversive” could lower your score, thus encouraging people to stay away from dissidents for fear of losing privileges. An internet privacy expert says, “What China is doing here is selectively breeding its population to select against the trait of critical, independent thinking.”
This citizen score sounds an awful lot like Father Guido’s “Vita est lavorum”: Work for the state, get a good score. Fail and pay the price. But there are two key differences. First, Father Guido’s bit was about getting into heaven — which the atheist government of China doesn’t believe in. Second, Father Guido’s idea was funny. This isn’t.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review.