Vatican City (AsiaNews) - The leading orchestra of China will perform tomorrow in front of Benedict XVI. The China Philharmonic Orchestra of Beijing, on a tour of Europe, has decided to include a stop at the Vatican. In the Paul VI audience hall, the orchestra conducted by Long Yu, one the most renowned Chinese conductors with international experience, will perform Mozart's Requiem in honour of the pontiff, followed by some Chinese folk songs, including the famous "Molihua" ("Jasmine Flower"). The orchestra will be accompanied by the chorus of the Shanghai Opera.
Benedict XVI will give an address at the end of the concert.
The Vatican has not issued any official invitations to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See for this occasion. Given the low profile of the event, the Vatican can permit the presence of both the ambassador of the Republic of China (Taiwan), accredited to the Holy See, and that of the ambassador to Italy of the People's Republic. The Chinese embassy has confirmed the presence of the diplomat of Beijing, but it did not want to release any statement on the significance of the event. The ambassador of Taiwan will not be present, because of prior commitments.
China and the Vatican do not have diplomatic relations, although for some time there have been signs of openness to from both sides, which have been blocked by inflexibility, arrests of the faithful, and isolation.
There are various interpretations of the meaning of this event. Some, especially Long Yu himself, speak of a "ping pong diplomacy", recalling the ping pong matches between Chinese and Americans in 1971 that facilitated diplomatic relations between China and the U.S.
On the part of the Vatican, emphasis is being given to the concert and to the hospitality of the pope. L'Osservatore Romano and Vatican Radio emphasise that with this concert, "music is confirming its role as a language and the most precious medium for dialogue among peoples and cultures".
The Chinese foreign ministry also affirms that "music is a universal language that can bring together people from different countries, and from different religious and cultural backgrounds". Expressing his hope that the concert will be "a big success", a spokesman of the ministry nevertheless specifies that this is "a people-to-people exchange event through culture and art".
Downplaying the significance of the event even more is Ye Xiaowen, director of the state administration for religious affairs, who has stated in a Chinese newspaper: "The concert at the Vatican is only one stop in the orchestra's European tour; they are not going deliberately to the Vatican for the performance".
He added, however, that "the cultural exchange certainly serves to promote reciprocal contacts".
Chinese Catholics of the official and underground Church, contacted by AsiaNews, are happy to hear of this gesture of "détente", but note that all of this seems to be "a publicity campaign by China, at a time when it is looked upon unfavourably by the international community because of the repression against the Tibetans and human rights activists".
Something similar has taken place in the recent past. A few months ago, several days after director Steven Spielberg refused to participate in preparation for the Olympics, Ye Xiaowen had to polish China's public image by making very favourable statements on China-Vatican relations (see AsiaNews 22/02/2008). A few weeks later, in an interview with a Chinese newspaper, he spoke instead of the "double face of the Vatican", and of the pope's attempts to "colonise" the Chinese national Church (see AsiaNews 21/3/2008).
After many signals, it now appears evident that within the Chinese leadership - and above all in the foreign ministry - there is interest in diplomatic relations with the Holy See and in increasing the contribution of religion to the development of the country. But there is also part of the leadership that is tied to old ideological views and to the totalitarian and Confucian conception of power, which admits only religious experience that is strictly controlled by the state. For them, the requests for religious freedom on the part of the Catholic Church and the pope are unacceptable.