China and the Papal Pivot to Asia


By Harry W.S. Lee for World Policy Journal

Pope Francis’ recent visit to South Korea has caused a bit of a stir
in neighboring China. Reports have emerged that the mainland authorities
blocked almost
half of the 100 Chinese who were planning to attend the Pope’s first
Asian mass at the Asian Youth Day event in Daejeon, with many of them
being stopped at airports in the PRC. AsiaNews, a Catholic news agency
reported that Chinese priests in South Korea were warned by
the Chinese officials about potential “problems” in returning home if
they stayed for the papal visit to Korea. It added that many of those
banned from travelling to South Korea were seminarians from Beijing who
refused to attend a mass that was conducted by Party-appointed bishops.
Heo Young-yeop, the spokesperson for the Committee for the Papal Visit
to Korea, said this was due to “a complicated situation inside China,”
explaining that any further details would compromise the safety of the
Chinese youths.

Exactly which authorities were responsible for the blockade remains a
mystery, with the central government in Beijing proffering no further
clarification. However, what remains certain is Beijing’s uncertainty
towards the Holy See.

The blockade comes amidst heightened attention toward a potential
thaw in the relationship between Beijing and the Vatican, after faint
signs of outreach that were reminiscent of the Ping-Pong diplomacy that
resulted in the Sino-American détente in the 1970s. During the papal
flight through Chinese airspace (the previous request for which was refused when
John Paul II was travelling to Seoul in 1989), Pope Francis dispatched a
customary message of goodwill to Xi Jinping. “I extend best wishes to
your Excellency and your fellow citizens and I invoke the divine
blessing of peace and well-being upon the nation,“ he said in a radio
message to President Xi Jinping. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs
replied, "We are willing to keep working hard with the Vatican to carry
out constructive dialogue and push for the improvement of bilateral

The papal pivot to Asia, where only 3 percent of the world’s Catholics reside,
comes at a time of both challenges and opportunities. Current
tensions between the Vatican and Beijing can be traced back to 1951,
when the nascent CCP government cut ties
with the Vatican and expelled its representatives. Then, in 1957, the
Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA) was established,
subjugating Catholics under the Communist authority and requiring all
churches to register with the relevant local authorities. In the meanwhile, those who placed their allegiance in Rome were driven underground
and risked violent repression. At least eight bishops and priests from
underground churches are believed to have been arrested,
prompting criticism for lack of religious freedom from the Vatican. The
CCP leadership has recently been nominating its own bishops, while
denying the papal prerogative over what it considers an internal affair.
Another source of tension has been the Vatican’s diplomatic recognition
of Taiwan. In March 2013, it was the Taiwanese president who was present at the current Pope’s inaugural mass, not Xi Jinping.

Still, there are reasons for all the attention around a possible
reconciliation. Though China isn’t included in the papal itinerary, the
Pope’s visit to South Korea speaks to an investment in the Asian
continent. In his Sunday address to bishops in South Korea, the pope sent strong
signals to regional neighbors with whom the Vatican did not have
diplomatic relations, “I earnestly hope that those countries of your
continent with whom the Holy See does not yet enjoy a full relationship
may not hesitate to further a dialogue for the benefit of all.” After
his return, Francis made further strong remarks about
his wishes to visit China ‘tomorrow’. He added that Chinese authorities
need not fear anything since Christians did not “come as conquerors,”
demonstrating sensitivity to the erstwhile association of Christianity
with Western imperialism in China.

With Europe no longer the Catholic stronghold, the Holy See may indeed see
in China a major market with large swathes of its 1.35 billion
population still coping with the spiritual vacuum as the stronghold of
Communist ideology has waned since the reform era. Religion in China has
generally enjoyed more leeway, as the state loosened its grip over
society since the end of the Maoist era. Chinese Catholics are thought
to have risen from
an estimated 8 million in 1988 to around 12 million today. Of these 12
million, around 5.3 million are represented by 70 bishops ordained by
state-controlled CPA.

According to a Reuters report, while the divide between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ churches do exist, that boundary is also breaking down as
some underground churches are gaining tacit approvals. In an anecdote
that illustrates the blurry lines, Luca Chang (pseudonym), a Catholic
student, told AsiaNews that those with allegiance to the Pope sometimes name call state-sanctioned priests, ‘Red Guards’.

The current secretary of state is Archbishop Parolin, who has played a
crucial role in securing China’s agreement to share the responsibility
of appointing bishops. His appointment, Father Jeroom Heyndrickx from
Catholic University of Leuven told Reuters,
is in itself a statement that the Vatican wants dialogue. Both sides
have expressed desire for negotiations in the past, and prior to 2010,
actually shared the authority to appoint bishops, when four bishops were appointed unilaterally.

Just two years ago, in an event that underscored Sino-Vatican
antipathy, Ma Daqin was ordained auxiliary bishop of Shanghai without
the Vatican’s approval. He renounced his
membership to the CPA in an extraordinary public display of dissent and
was later placed under house arrest. In addition, Chinese authorities
have launched periodic
raids, anxious to eliminate any subversive potential of religious
groups. Underground churches have been one of the prime targets of such
crackdowns, which involve desecration of places of worship and
imprisonment of its members. With recent announcements that the state
will ‘sinicize
Christianity in China, it appears such efforts to control is ever
widening across the vast spectrum of Chinese society under the Xi
Jinping regime. Perhaps, it is under this context that the recent
blockade of Catholics from attending the Pope’s first mass in Asia can
be understood.

photo by Flickr user “Republic of  Korea


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