News Analysis

Overlooked: Chinese president visits Rome, but not the Pope

What happened?

Xi Jinping has completed his trip to Rome – without visiting its best-known resident. The Chinese president came to the Italian capital from March 21-23 to discuss the strengthening of economic ties between the two countries. But there was no meeting with Pope Francis, despite last year’s Vatican-Beijing deal.

Why was it under-reported?

A non-event is easily missed, by definition. But this particular non-meeting was of interest to close observers of Beijing-Vatican relations. As the historian Willy Lam told the Asia Times, a meeting could have been “good PR for the Chinese president, given the near-universal condemnation of China’s oppressive religious policy”.

The Vatican wanted the meeting, according to the Italian press. But many of Xi’s government colleagues are pressing for fierce anti-Catholic policies – which may have made him reluctant to appear with Francis.

What will happen next?

The two leaders may well continue to tiptoe towards each other. Even before last year’s agreement, under which the Church and the government will collaborate in the naming of bishops, the Vatican showed great warmth towards Beijing.

But persecution of Chinese Catholics shows no sign of abating; and the lack of a meeting shows that relations are still far from settled. For critics such as Cardinal Joseph Zen, the Vatican has simply betrayed the flock in return for empty assurances – an accusation Rome rejects.