China sulks over the guest list again

One of the impressive things about the funeral of Pope John Paul II was
the attendance of foreign leaders from over 100 countries. Kings,
queens, presidents and prime ministers from European countries rubbed
shoulders with leaders from Muslim countries including President
Khatami of Iran, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, Prime Minister
Tayyip Erdogan, of Turkey, and King Abdullah of Jordan. From the
Asia-Pacific part of the world, Indonesia sent two cabinet ministers,
Japan sent a former foreign minister, South Korea sent Prime Minister
Lee Hae-chan. The Indian delegation was led by Vice-President Bhairon
Singh Shekhawat.

But the world’s largest nation, the People’s
Republic of China, sent nobody. It was furious that the President of
Taiwan, Chen Shui-bian, was attending.

That non-attendance
constituted another diplomatic gaffe on China’s part, closely following
on the difficulties it created by the anti-secession law aimed at
Taiwan. A senior representative from China, perhaps Hu Jintao himself,
could have been in Rome to exchange courtesies with European leaders.
At the present time, Beijing wants the EU to lift its embargo on arms
sales to China. Instead, China drew unwelcome attention to itself by
its angry absence.

Meanwhile, attending the papal funeral was
a political coup for Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian. The Vatican has
diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and the funeral provided Chen with
the opportunity to set foot on European soil for the first time.

the time of the funeral, Chinese Foreign Ministry official Qin Gang
said that the Chinese government was ready to improve relations with
the Vatican on the basis of two principles. “They are: First, the
Vatican must sever the so-called ‘diplomatic relations’ with Taiwan,
recognise that the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the
sole legal government representing the whole China, and Taiwan is an
inalienable part of China. Second, the Vatican must not interfere with
the internal affairs of China in the name of religion.”

first principle, diplomatic relations with Taiwan, may not be an
insuperable obstacle for the Vatican. Since 1980, the Vatican’s embassy
in Taipei has been headed by a charge d’affaires, rather than a cleric
of ambassadorial rank.

Speaking to Reuters at the time of the
funeral, Hong Kong’s Bishop Joseph Zen said: “If the Chinese government
is willing to grant real freedom to the church in mainland China, then
the Vatican would reluctantly be willing to give up its diplomatic
relations with Taiwan.” Bishop Zen, originally from Shanghai, is a
stern critic of the Beijing government on the religious freedom issue.

Who will appoint bishops?
the attitude of the Chinese government towards the church, including
the right of the Vatican to appoint bishops, may be the crux of the
matter, rather than the question of Taiwan.

China severed
relations with the Vatican in 1951 after expelling foreign clergy.
Catholics are permitted to attend state-sanctioned churches which are
under the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, and whose bishops are
appointed by Beijing, although many of these privately acknowledge the
authority of the Pope. The members of this “official” church number 5.3
million according to Beijing, but there are probably another 7 to 10
million Catholics in the “underground” church, which recognises the
Pope’s authority. Further complications arise because it is difficult
to distinguish between the two groups, and adherents move from one to
the other, to some extent depending on the attitude of local

Consistent with its desire to control all
important areas of society, Beijing insists that the appointment of
Catholic bishops in China is an “internal affair”, and the Vatican
should not interfere. Naturally, the Vatican sees this as a religious
matter which does not normally involve the secular authorities.

have been other points of difference between Beijing and the Vatican.
Between the years 1648 and 1930, 120 Catholics were martyred in China,
including Chinese and foreign missionaries. They were canonized by the
Vatican on October 1, 2000. Beijing took strong exception to this,
although none of those canonized had actually died at the hands of the

Nevertheless, Beijing defended the killings and
claimed that most of them “were executed for violation of Chinese laws
during the invasion of China by imperialists and colonialists.”

Catholics loyal to the Vatican continue to be persecuted in China.
According to a recent Vatican report, the bishop of Wenzhou, Monsignor
James Lin Xili, who is 86 years old, was detained by Chinese security
forces in March.

While it is unlikely that the Vatican would
surrender its authority over the question of appointing bishops, Hong
Kong journalist Frank Ching points to a possible precedent. Writing in
China Brief, he notes that the one country that might offer a model for
agreement between the Vatican and Beijing is Vietnam.

the Vatican has no diplomatic relations with Vietnam, it has been
attempting to work out an arrangement for bishops to in effect be
endorsed by both the Church and the Vietnamese Government...

this has not worked to the full satisfaction of either party: both want
to have the final say on the choice, and so neither is willing to
establish formal diplomatic relations. The most contentious issue
remains the Vietnamese government’s demand to have the right to approve
appointments. With the Church unwilling to yield to such a proviso,
quite a few dioceses in Vietnam are still awaiting the appointment of
new bishops.”

Mostly outside the glare of publicity, meetings
between Vatican officials and Chinese representatives have been taking
place for the last 20 years. Just before the Pope’s death, Cardinal
Godfried Danneels of Belgium met with Chinese Vice Premier Hui Liangyu
in Beijing. These sorts of meetings can be expected to continue. But
there is something else which can’t be overlooked.

Defending human rights
much travelled John Paul II wanted to visit China during his
pontificate, but was prevented by Beijing from even visiting Hong Kong,
during an Asian tour in 1999.

The question of diplomatic
recognition, and Beijing’s desire to control the appointment of bishops
are the two main problems on the surface. But the refusal to let the
Pope even visit Hong Kong leads us to the third problem, not much
discussed, but perhaps of even greater importance.

The ideas
which the Church promotes, particularly the dignity of each human
person, the human rights which flow from that, and Christian ideas
about the way society should reflect those rights, are serious problems
for totalitarian regimes. The leadership in Beijing are well aware of
what took place in Central and Eastern Europe when a charismatic Pope
proclaimed those ideas. In conjunction with other developments, that
led to the overthrow of communist regimes in Europe.

legitimacy of China’s regime relies on maintaining rapid economic
growth, appealing to ideas of hyper-nationalism, and stifling dissent
through censorship and crackdowns by security forces. It is a fragile
legitimacy, and the leadership group knows it. Catholics are a small
minority in China, but ideas can be infectious. Best to keep them under

Joseph Lim is a freelance journalist in Melbourne who has followed human rights in China for many years.


Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

Showing 1 reaction

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • Joseph Lim