Pope Francis's recent statements on China and his New Year's greetings for President Xi Jinping generated little official reaction from the Chinese government.
"We have noted relevant reports," said Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang at a press conference on Feb 3. "China has always been sincere in improving the relationship with the Vatican. We have also made relentless efforts to that end. We are willing to conduct constructive dialogues and work together with the Vatican to push forward the process of improving the bilateral relations based on relevant principles. We also hope that the Vatican would adopt a flexible and practical attitude to create conditions for the improvement of the bilateral relationship."
When asked if China would invite the pope to visit, Lu said, "I have no information on that." By comparison, Lu's response to a question about Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's visit to four African nations received much more attention from Lu. The China Patriotic Catholic Association made no statement on its website regarding the January 28 interview with the pope published by AsiaTimes.
Despite excitement about the pope's focus on China outside of the country, the muted reaction is entirely understandable. Pope Francis' visit to the United States in September completely overshadowed Xi Jinping's overlapping trip there, which likely did not go unnoticed in Chinese leadership circles.
More pragmatically, China has far less to gain from establishing relations with the Vatican than vice-versa. Chinese Catholics number about 12 million, or less than one percent of its total population, and unlike some Muslims and even Tibetan Buddhists, they are not not restive and certainly not violent. And unlike even some small nations blessed with rare minerals or other commodity China needs, the Vatican has no economic or trade benefits to offer. China would likely only accept diplomatic relations with Rome if its longstanding ties with Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province, were severed, a move that would seem shocking and send a chill through Hong Kong and Macau, which currently enjoy religious freedom but are still ultimately part of the People's Republic.