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China and the Papal Pivot to Asia

By Harry W.S. Lee

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 ties".

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.



Harry W.S. Lee is a former editorial assistant at World Policy Journal and a journalist based in East Asia.


[Photo courtesy of Ky Nguyen]


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