This week, Chinese president Xi Jinping and Pope Francis missed each other on their back-to-back visits to the United States. But recently the two have shown a willingness to say good things about each other, albeit at a distance.
First, the pope told reporters on a flight back to Rome on Monday (Sept. 28) that he would like to be the first pontiff to visit mainland China. ”I love the Chinese people,” he said. China’s foreign ministry returned a salute the next day through an article in the nationalistic state-run tabloid Global Times, by promising China is “sincere about improving relations with the Vatican.” The article also appeared on the website of the People’s Daily, the leading mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
There have been no official relations between China and the Vatican since 1951, and the latter still holds diplomatic ties with Taiwan, much to Beijing’s consternation.
The Global Times article seems to be saying two things, using quotes from experts to deliver the official line.
First, Xi shares some similarities with the pope. Both are promoting reform and anti-corruption, as a religious studies professor at Purdue University in Indiana told the newspaper. This is partly true. The two have made eerily similar comments to decry the unbridled pursuit of wealth.
Second, China will need the pope to help solve its religious and social instability at home. The article quotes Wang Meixiu, a researcher at the state-affiliated Chinese Academy of Social Sciences:
Improving relations would also benefit both sides. Underground churches and the lack of authority of some bishops have become a problem which can impact the stability of Chinese society. We cannot solve those problems without the Vatican’s involvement.
That problem originates from the atheist CCP’s intervention in the country’s estimated 12 million Catholics, who are divided into two groups. The majority belong to the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which does not recognize the Vatican as its head. The rest attend churches that recognize the pope as the leader—but that’s technically illegal in China, so the state considers them ”underground” churches.
A key point of tension is the appointments of bishops. The CCP insists on having the final say on those decisions, which fall to the pope elsewhere in the world. In August the two sides were in rare alignment on the appointment of Joseph Zhang Yinlin as bishop for the city of Anyang in the Henan province. But the previous appointment in 2012 didn’t work out so well, with the pope-approved bishop for Shanghai, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, now under house arrest for renouncing his membership in the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association during his ordination.
Some observers believe that Beijing and the Vatican are likely to reach a consensus on how to appoint bishops. Among them is Hsieh Chih-chuan, an assistant researcher at the Taipei-based National Policy Foundation, who also thinks there’s a high likelihood of the pope and Xi meeting and laying the foundation for diplomatic ties.
Meanwhile one province in China, Zhejiang, is continuing with a program it started early last year of removing crosses from church buildings, or in some cases demolishing churches entirely. Since February 2014 more than 1,200 Christian crosses have been removed (link in Chinese) in the southeastern province, where Xi used to serve as the top official. The program has sparked public protests from both Catholics and Protestants.
The Global Times article includes a statement by Wang that China ”cannot solve those problems without the Vatican’s involvement.” The presence of the article in state-sanctioned media, and Wang’s position in a state-sanctioned organization, suggest that sentiment has some degree of official endorsement.