Government representatives say that the transition from underground to official bishop is the result of negotiations with the Vatican. The ceremony took place with the reading of the "Letter of Approval" by the Council of Bishops and the candidate’s “patriotic” pledge. Mgr Han Zhihai is a "smart steward". On 16 November 16, the ordination of another official bishop is scheduled to take place in Handan.
Lanzhou (AsiaNews) – Mgr Joseph Han Zhihai, recognised hitherto as bishop by the Holy See but not by the government, was officially installed as bishop of Lanzhou (Gansu). The ceremony took place in the city’s Sacred Heart Cathedral.
The installation was presided by Mgr John Baptist Yang Xiaoting, bishop of Yanan, vice chair of the Council of Chinese Bishops who then turn the Mass over to Mgr Han Zhihai. Mgr Han Jide, bishop of Pingliang, and Fr Zhao Jianzhang, of Tianshui, Apostolic Administrator, co-celebrate the event.
All bishops present at the ceremony have Holy See approval. Fr Zhao, although he was appointed coadjutor bishop of Tianshui by the Vatican in 2011, has not been approved by the Chinese government.
The dioceses of Lanzhou, Pingliang and Tianshui are in Gansu, whilst the diocese of Yanan is in the neighbouring province of Shaanxi.
Some fifty priests from the local and neighbouring dioceses attended the ceremony (picture 1) as did 350 nuns and laypeople. Officials from the government’s Religious Affairs Office and the Communist Party’s United Front Department from each district of the diocese of Lanzhou were also present. Some security officials patrolled the church compound.
A Church source said that 12 of 38 priests in the diocese did not take part in the ceremony. Most priests came from neighbouring dioceses. Only two of the three female religious congregations sent some members.
A Catholic, who asked that his identity be protected, and who knows the situation in Lanzhou, told AsiaNews that the ceremony took place with the reading of the "letter of approval" of the Council of Bishops by a delegate of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) and the Council of Bishops, followed by the new bishop’s vow to be “patriotic”.
Earlier, Religious Affairs officials had demanded that priests and nuns attend the ceremony, noting that it was the outcome negotiated with the Vatican and for this reason they should not have to worry too much.
Bishop Han Zhihai was born in 1966. He became a priest in 1994 and was appointed vicar general of Bishop Yang Libai (aka Yang Libo). He had been secretly ordained as bishop in 2003 to succeed Bishop Yang who had died in 1998.
In 2003, he became famous for an open letter asking all bishops in China to put an end to the unnecessary split between official and underground communities . The letter was read during a seminar on the Church in China held in Belgium.
Until now, Mgr Han had not been recognised by the government. In an interview with Vatican Insider in 2015, he had said it "was best not to ask for the government’s recognition,” but that the government was ready to give it in 2010.
According to Catholics who spoke to AsiaNews, things went differently. At least 10 years ago, Mgr Han had met with Anthony Liu Bainian, who headed the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association for years (dubbed China’s black pope), revealing his desire to be recognised by the government. But Liu told him instead that he needed time to monitor Mgr Han. Since then the bishop kept himself away from other underground communities.
In fact, Mgr Han and the diocese of Lanzhou had long accepted the dual supervision (lianghui) of the CPCA and the Church Affairs Committee in the province, as shown in an official notice about reshuffling parish priests (picture 2). The notice was soon removed from the diocese’s website and from another popular Catholic website in China.
In June 2016, Mgr Han was among 30 bishops who attended an educational class organised by the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) in Beijing (picture 3) in which the main speakers came from the government to stress the principles of an independent Church and independent episcopal appointments and ordinations.
Until now, the bishop has not yet joined the CPCA, but had allowed his two vicar generals to become members of both the CPCA and the provincial section of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
In 2010 and 2016, his priests participated in the eighth and ninth Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives, the organisation that stands above the CPCA and the Council of Bishops. In June 2017, Sister Han, secretary to and relative of Mgr Han, attended the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the CPCA, and met Yu Zhengsheng, a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo.
The Holy See does not recognise the Assembly of Chinese Catholic Representatives, nor the CPCA or the Council of Bishops, which back the principles of an independent Church.
However, in the past three years, perhaps to ensure the continuation of negotiations with China, the Vatican has softened its position, receiving criticism from various groups in the official and underground Church.
"I do not mean to scorn Bishop Han,” one Catholic told AsiaNews, “but to point out that his case is like a microcosm of what is happening in the Chinese Church today.”
“Looking at how his episcopal ministry developed, in a remote northeastern diocese, and his ability to look at the signs of the times, I can only say that he is an smart steward,” he said.
"This also shows," he added, "that it is not easy to be a bishop in China today and explains why there are huge differences between underground bishops, with some who can travel wherever they want and others who are detained or held under house arrest."
The installation of Mgr Han is the first of two to be held this month, following the last round of China-Vatican talks last month. On 16 November, Mgr Joseph Sun Jigen will be installed in Handan (Hebei). He is recognised as a priest by the government, but was secretly ordained bishop in 2011.
 The letter was published in AsiaNews, n. 8, October 2003.