Russian Orthodox Patriarch In China Seeking Official Recognition, Global Expansion

Patriarch Kirill is trying to expand Russian Church's influence in West and East. But Beijing is tricky terrain for religious head.

Patriarch Kirill Harbin and St. Sophia Orthodox Church in Harbin, northeastern China
Patriarch Kirill Harbin and St. Sophia Orthodox Church in Harbin, northeastern China
Pavel Korbov

BEIJING - Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, is in China this week for a five-day official visit that Chinese officials are heralding as a historical first.

Kirill’s visit is not strictly religious, but also diplomatic, with Chinese authorities hailing it as a major event in bilateral relations. “You are the first higher religious leader from Russia to visit our country,” said Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party in China upon his arrival. “This is a clear signal of the highly developed level at which Chinese-Russian relations operate.”

In Moscow, the Orthodox Church echoed the warm sentiments, declaring that “the Patriarch’s visit is meant to strengthen the friendly relationship between the two countries.”

Indeed, the religious element is the more thorny aspect of the visit, with both the distant and more recent past looming over Kirill's presence.

The Orthodox religion first arrived in China in the 17th century, when Fater Maksim Leontev settled in Beijing. In 1713 a Russian religious mission was established in China. In 1957 the Chinese Orthodox Church was officially established as an autonomous church. In 1965, after the death of its last Priest, the Chinese branch of the Russian Orthodox Church was left leaderless.

In 1997, the Russian Orthodox Church decided that until the Church established an official leader in China, leadership would, by default, go to the patriarch of Moscow and all of Russia. Beijing does not officially recognize the Orthodox Church, which counts a modest 15,000 faithful in China.

“The Patriarch’s visit to communist China is an important event in the history of the church, and it could be compared in importance to Kirill’s visit last year to Catholic Poland,” says Anatolii Pchelintsev, a professor at the center for the Religious Studies at the Russian Public University for the Humanities. “The Patriarch is trying to expand the spiritual influence of the Orthodox Church both in the West and in the East, to strengthen the Church in the world.”

In his opinion, Kirill made the visit to try to convince the Chinese government to legalize Russian Orthodoxy. “China is our close neighbor, that is why the Russian Orthodox Church considers it important to have a dialogue with the Chinese government, to build a spiritual bridge between Russia and China, and for that to be possible, there has to be an official church in China,” Pchelintsev continued.

Changing history

Patriarch Kirill used a meeting with Orthodox Chinese to openly declare his desire for recognition. “I really hope that the Chinese Orthodoxy Church will be officially recognized," he said. "I hope that there is soon a Chinese bishop. Until that happens, the Russian Church is responsible before God for the fate of the Chinese Orthodox believers.” He added that it is the ordination of Chinese priests that would clear the way for official recognition by the Chinese authorities.

It should also be noted that this is not the first time that the issue of the status of the Russian Orthodox Church has come up. In spite of the declarations from the Chinese government, this is also not the first time a Patriarch has visited China – Patriarchs have visited in 1993, 2001 and 2006, and each time the Patriarch has tried, unsuccessfully, to get the Chinese government to add Russian Orthodoxy to the list of officially recognized religions.

In China, there are five religions that are officially recognized: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. There are around 300 million believers in the country, including around 100 million Buddhists, 40 million Protestants, 10 million Catholics and 20 million Muslims.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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