This is how the Vatican should deal with China

People pray during Mass in 2016 at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing (Photo: CNS)

China has a remarkable capacity for seducing otherwise intelligent people. Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, a late-1950s experiment designed to make China an industrial power, was a colossal failure that caused millions to starve. Sensitive to mounting criticism, China organised carefully curated study tours for international opinion leaders in the hope that they would proclaim, as François Mitterrand and Field Marshal Montgomery foolishly did, that there was no famine in the land. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to fully distance himself from the charge of naïvety levelled in the wake of his 2013 comment praising China’s “basic dictatorship”. And China-watchers are still scratching their heads following the recent suggestion from Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo that we should look to China as an example of Catholic social doctrine in action.

Catholics themselves should be puzzled by such a statement. Sorondo is a senior official at the Vatican, which is currently negotiating with the Chinese government a new accord that would, among other things, remove impediments to the appointment of bishops, granting the Church a long-awaited measure of accommodation from China’s Communist Party. Until now, the party has alternated between outright hostility to the Church, something that prevailed until the 1980s, and, in recent times, a capricious tolerance that has allowed some Catholic communities to flourish while elsewhere, priests and bishops are imprisoned, crosses pulled down and churches demolished.

In some respects, Vatican diplomats are engaged in the kind of negotiation with Chinese officials that is familiar to their counterparts from other sovereign states. They need to keep a few basic rules in mind.

First, see China as it is, not as you would like it to be. For all of its undeniable progress, China remains under the full control of the Communist Party, whose principal objective is to stay in power, whatever the cost. The party is wary of any other institution or belief system capable of motivating or inspiring China’s citizens. Religion is therefore viewed as a threat, particularly Islam, Tibetan Buddhism and Catholicism, faiths whose reach transcends borders. This is why the party so regularly insists that religion in China be “sinicised”, which means made more Chinese – and controllable.

The ride from the airport into Beijing’s dazzling business district speaks to the great progress China has made, an insight that is no doubt relentlessly reinforced for Vatican negotiators by Chinese officials, who are also adept at flattering susceptible foreigners. But the reality is much more messy and complicated. Basic freedoms, including freedom of belief, remain under threat, something that is unlikely to change as President Xi Jinping consolidates his hold on power.

Second, stick to your principles and know when to walk away from the table. Chinese negotiators are experts at keeping an agreement tantalisingly out of reach, leading to ever more concessions from the other side. Once a card has been played, it can’t be snatched back. But it will be carefully analysed. The willingness of the Vatican to abandon its previous position and accept seven government-appointed bishops, even at the cost of asking two faithful and long-suffering legitimate bishops to step aside, must have been especially encouraging to the Chinese leadership.

Third, and finally, the negotiations are never over. Any deal reached is only honoured up until the point where, in words that have spelled disappointment for generations of eager foreigners, “conditions have changed”. What that really means is that the deal will hold as long as the Chinese feel that it serves their interests. Should it appear that the foreign side is gaining too much, the agreement will be reopened or repudiated.

If there are similarities between the Vatican’s negotiations with China and how Beijing manages its relations with other states, there is also one important difference. Any public exchange between the Church and China is also an opportunity for evangelisation. The most important audience for the Vatican is not the politburo or the party, but the Chinese people. In 1956, Ignatius Kung, then bishop of Shanghai, was paraded before spectators in the city’s dog-racing stadium. He had been imprisoned as part of the party’s crackdown on the Church, and a public capitulation to his Communist captors might have secured him more lenient treatment. But when the microphone was put in front of him, Kung simply said: “Long live Christ the King. Long live the Pope.” He would remain in prison until 1985, six years after having been made a cardinal by John Paul II. It is hard not to believe that his courageous and faithful witness inspired China’s Catholics through decades of persecution.

It might be objected that China has changed since Cardinal Kung made his statement. Perhaps more disquieting for Catholics is the dawning possibility that the same seems to be true of the Church.

David Mulroney was Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012. He is currently president and vice-chancellor of the University of St Michael’s College in Toronto

This article first appeared in the April 13th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here