Afraid of the pope, China closes its doors
by Bernardo Cervellera

Rome (AsiaNews) – The People's Republic of China will not be sending any delegate to attend the funeral services of John Paul II. Anxious about the potential impact of recognizing freedom of worship, China is in fact one of the few nations which still does not have any diplomatic relations with the Holy See. And yet perhaps no country in the world had a place in the deceased pope's heart as did China. Whenever I had the opportunity to accompany Chinese priests and nuns visiting Rome for morning mass in the private chapel of John Paul II, he would always tell us that he prayed daily for the Chinese people.

As soon as he was elected to the pontificate, the pope looked towards China: the cardinal in pectore designated by him when the conclave closed was the then-Archbishop of Shanghai, Ignatius Gong Pinmei, imprisoned for more than 25 years for his loyalty to the pope. Some say even the cardinal in pectore at the last consistory was a Chinese bishop of the official church.

John Paul II never lost any opportunity to turn to China and its church. From 1979 onwards, he delivered at least 30 official speeches about the Christian presence in the People's Republic of China, and the desire for relations of collaboration between the Holy See and Peking. In all these addresses, John Paul II would always praise the great culture and history of China and the loyalty of Chinese Catholics even under persecution; he never failed to explain how every "good Catholic" is also a "good citizen" of his State and so China had nothing to fear from Christians, who were encouraged by their faith to be ever more creative and resourceful as regards their nation's progress. In return, the pontiff's single, constant request was for freedom of worship for Christians and a free hand for the Holy See to appoint its own bishops. For more than 26 years, the government's only reply has been to put pre-conditions to the Holy See; that it breaks off diplomatic ties with Taiwan and accepts not to interfere in China's internal affairs, including those of a religious nature.

Since the eighties, the Vatican has appointed a charge d'affaires – not a nuncio – in Taipei: it appears that Peking never welcomed this move. In the nineties, the pope even asked Mother Teresa to act as an "ambassador" to the Peking government. Mother Teresa went to China three times, asking for permission to open a house for her sisters and to look after the poor. The response of the Chinese government was that "there are no poor" in their country.

Peking remained cold and silent even in the face of the pope's last, heartfelt appeal, made to mark the 400th anniversary of Matteo Ricci's arrival in Peking (24 October 2001). The pope went so far as to express regret for possible past mistakes, asking only to be allowed to "work together for the good of the Chinese people and for world peace".

The pope of "open the doors to Christ" fame found the door of China closed to him. But it is hard to attribute blame for this failure to the pope himself. The point is that China always responded to the pope's wave of gestures of affection and concern with ideological narrow mindedness. In1981, Mgr Dominic Tang, who was abroad for health reasons after 22 years in prison, reached Rome where he was vested with the title of archbishop of Canton (he was the city's apostolic administrator). Peking railed against the plotting of the Vatican, accusing it of conspiring against China, and refused to allow the prelate to return to Canton.

In 1985, the Chinese government expelled – again for health reasons – Mgr Ignazio Gong Pinmei. In 1991, the pope welcomed him in Rome and concelebrated mass with him, covering him in a cardinal's red vestments. A furious Peking accused John Paul II of "interference in China's internal affairs".

In the time when the Chinese communist party could lay claim to a minimum of ideological consistency, its hostility towards the pope was justifiable. After all, John Paul II was considered as the man responsible for the fall of communism in Europe, therefore to be viewed as public enemy number one. But since the nineties, nobody in China believes in communism anymore, and ideological rants against the Holy See reveal only a sense of fear. As its ideological package falls apart and a "wild capitalism" rises to take its place, the party must face a reality it had never foreseen: a religious, especially Catholic, revival. Young people and adults, peasants and professionals – disgusted by party corruption and disillusioned by the betrayal of ideals of justice once preached – are flocking to temples and churches, and many are discovering in Christianity a path towards the affirmation of their dignity and of democracy.

At the same time, thanks to the work and magnanimity of John Paul II, many bishops of the official church appointed by Peking, are turning to the pope to ask for forgiveness and reconciliation.

The failure of diplomatic relations is the fruit of China's twofold failure: not managing to uproot religions, and not succeeding in creating a national church which refutes links with Rome.

While Peking continues to lose ground in the credibility it enjoys among its citizens, respect for the pope is growing. At the universities of Peking and Shanghai, more than 60% of students profess to be very interested in Christianity.

In 1999, the fear of witnessing the emergence of an ever stronger church pushed Peking to make an offer to start dialogue for diplomatic relations, but only on condition that the underground church would be eliminated and government control over the church and appointment of bishops be guaranteed. And while secretaries in Rome were paving the way for the first steps of dialogue, Peking got busy arresting underground bishops and priests, destroying churches and prohibiting the children of underground Christians from attending schools and universities. Even the official Church was subject to a period of spasmodic control checks, and laws and regulations were put in place for the supervision of events, convents, seminaries, bishops and priests.

On 1 October 2000, the pope canonized 120 Chinese martyrs. The government discovered that underground and official Catholics were preparing to celebrate masses, to go on pilgrimages, and to distribute the stories of the future saints together. To tear the revived unity of the Church apart, Peking staged a ridiculous pantomime, accusing the Vatican of defying China: 1 October is the day when the founding of the People's Republic of China is marked.

The pope went so far as to write a personal letter to President Jiang Zemin, explaining that the canonization took place with the desired intention of honoring the Chinese people. Peking never responded.

Even the words of condolence for the pope's death recently expressed by the Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman suggest fear rather than true sorrow. The respect enjoyed by John Paul II among Chinese people is so great that Peking could not fail to speak of him. With a certain measure of uncouthness, the government rounded off its message of sympathy with its famous preconditions for the start of dialogue for diplomatic relations.

Meanwhile, in these days, China has continued to arrest bishops and priests of the underground church. But now even the official church is advising the Vatican not to give up: better no diplomatic relations if full freedom of worship is not allowed.