China is hard to decipher. This is true not only in the field of politics and economics but also in that of religion and, in particular, Sino-Vatican relations.
Since he became pope in March 2013, Francis has extended the hand of friendship to the Chinese leadership, seeking to reopen communications. He has never once criticized China for its (mis)treatment of religion or the Catholic Church, but instead prayed for all the mainland’s believers and citizens and extended solidarity in moments of national tragedy. Furthermore, he appointed as secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the man who almost reached an accord with Beijing in 2009 on the crucial question of the nomination of bishops and now oversees the China brief. As a result of Francis’ approach, Sino-Vatican talks reopened in Rome in June 2014, and a second round is expected to be held in Beijing in the coming months.
China, for its part, gave clearance to Francis’ plane to fly through its airspace on his journey to and from Korea in August 2014. And its media have constantly reported on the pope in a neutral, even positive way, and never using negative tones. Earlier this year, the Chinese language broadcaster Phoenix TV, based in Hong Kong but close to Beijing, presented a program on the Vatican and the appointment of bishops that included an interview with Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, S.J. And in August, in an unprecedented move, the same TV outlet broadcasted Francis’ words of solidarity following the Tianjin disaster.
Then, for the first time since Francis’ election, a bishop was ordained in China on Aug. 4, 2015, with papal approval. This was greeted with relief in the Vatican and widely interpreted as a signal that Beijing is willing to work with Rome. But Cardinal Joseph Zen in his blog queried this positive interpretation, raised some incisive questions and said the Vatican accepted an ordination totally controlled by Beijing.
Besides all this, some events over the past two years have raised fundamental questions as to how Beijing really views religion, Christianity and Catholicism (“The Western religion”).
At one level, it has become increasingly clear that some high ranking members of China’s Communist Party fear religion in general, especially Christianity but also Islam. This fear is also expressed in the “Blue Book” released in Beijing on May 6, 2014, by the University of International relations and the Social Science Academic Press, which identified religion as one of the four “severe challenges” to China’s national security. It claimed “the infiltration of religion has constituted a threat to Chinese identification with socialist belief” and said “Western hostile forces are infiltrating China’s religions in a more diverse way and in a wider range; deploying more subtle means either openly or secretly; and are strongly seditious and deceptive in nature.” It affirmed that “foreign religious infiltration powers have penetrated all areas of the Chinese society.”
Next, President Xi, in a widely publicized speech, May 20, 2015, told top officials of the United Front Work Department that religions must be independent of foreign influence, and domestic religious groups must pledge loyalty to the state. “We must manage religious affairs in accordance with the law and adhere to the principle of independence to run religious groups on our own accord,” he stated. “Active efforts should be made to incorporate religions into socialist society,” Xi added.
Some observers charge that with the May 2014 national security alert and Xi’s speech Beijing contributed to, if not stoked, a backlash against Christians and the growth of Christianity in China, and against Islam too. That crackdown against Christianity has taken various forms, some reminiscent of the cultural revolution, including detention of clergy, re-education programs, church demolitions and the removal of 1,200 crosses from churches in Zhejiang Province, an event that brought public protests from Christians and the two Chinese cardinals, Zen and Tong.
Over the past three months, two excommunicated Chinese bishops ordained priests in their dioceses in defiance of church law. Some blame local, not central authorities for the cross removals and priestly ordinations but offered little evidence for this thesis.
Then, on Sept. 4, UCA News, citing an unnamed source close to the Vatican, reported that the second round of Sino-Vatican talks are expected to be held “in a few months.” It noted, however, that Cardinals Zen and Tong differ on what might result from this. Stay tuned.