By courting Beijing, Pope Francis is losing China (as well as Hong Kong)
by John Mok Chit Wai, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Talking about "China" is risky because the word can refer to China’s culture, civilization, and people but also to its one-party Communist state, i.e. the People's Republic of China. With his interview to Asia Times, the pontiff might be renewing with the policy of Ostpolitik pursued by the late Vatican Secretary of State Agostino Cardinal Casaroli, which had disastrous effects on religious freedom in Communist countries. Here is an analysis by a Hong Kong-based scholar.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – Pope Francis’ interview with Asia Times is provoking many reactions inside and outside the Catholic Church throughout the Chinese cultural world. Some reactions are positive (see the editorial in the Global Times); others are negative, like the one published below.

According to many sources (some unverifiable), the “dialogue”, or negotiation, between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is currently under rapid progress, and some believe that a pact will soon be realized. In a recent exclusive interview granted to Asia Times, a media outlet in Hong Kong, Pope Francis praised China as a “great country… a great culture, with an inexhaustible wisdom”. Many saw this as a further gesture to court Beijing. Pope Francis is a man of great wisdom, but on China, he seems not to have a comprehensive understanding of its political situation. A Sino-Vatican pact at this moment will surely taint his legacy.

Since the very beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed his desire to enter into a dialogue with Beijing. And whenever he has talked about China, he has invoked Matteo Ricci, the 16th century Italian Jesuit missionary who went to China, and was famous for immersing himself in the Chinese way of living in order to spread the Gospel. Many in the West tend to see the conflict between the Church and China as a cultural conflict, or a “clash of civilizations”. So in order to ease the tension, one has to enter into genuine inter-cultural dialogue. This is obviously also the line taken up by the Pope. Unfortunately, by seeing the issue in this way, the Pope risks missing the point: the core of the conflict today is not cultural misunderstandings, nor China’s fear of cultural imperialism, but politics, namely the incompatibility between totalitarian rule and religious freedom.

“China” is a troublesome term, it can refer to the Chinese culture, civilization, people, as well as the party-state ruled by the Communist Party of China (CPC), which is the PRC. The Pope seems to believe that today’s PRC is identical with the Chinese civilization. But this is not the reality. The CPC is the polity that is most antagonistic towards Chinese culture in history and worldwide. During the “Cultural Revolution”, the CPC, under Mao Zedong, tried to eradicate everything that was deemed “reactionary”, including temples, Confucianism, traditional religions, intellectuals, etc. The Red Guards saw Confucius as their archenemy who represented the “old world”. Prominent Neo-Confucian intellectuals who fled to Hong Kong during the 1950s had frequently accused the CPC of trampling on Chinese culture, even calling it the “tribulation of China”. The respected historian, Yu Ying-shih, recipient of the John W. Kluge Prize, once exclaimed: “On that land (the PRC), there is no ‘China’ (Chinese culture).” Some may claim that there is recently a “Chinese Renaissance”, for even the CPC is now upholding Confucian teachings, establishing Confucius Institutes (CI) around the world. However, the reality is that the CPC is simply upholding a version of political Confucianism to spread a state ideology of patriotism, loyalty and unquestioning obedience towards the state, and using CI as the party’s propaganda tool. For many neo-Confucianists, Confucianism should be humanistic and perfectly compatible with, if not complementary to, democracy. And Confucius himself is surely against inhumane rule and hard-hearted rulers.  

Today’s PRC is no Ming or Ch’ing Dynasties, and Xi Jinping is no emperor. A Matteo Ricci today does not help at all. During the ten-year-rule of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, the CPC relatively relaxed a bit its control over the civil society. Yet, religious freedom was out of the question, and the “Vietnam Model” of bishop appointment was rejected. Today, Xi is arguably the most powerful leader of the PRC since Mao Zedong, with all powers centralized and freedoms tightened. Expecting a pact that will allow the Church to act freely and even outmaneuver the Party is sheer ignorance (or over-confidence). In December last year, a young priest, Fr. Pedro Yu Heping, of the Ningxia Diocese, was found dead mysteriously. Many believed that his death was related to the government. Before his death, Fr. Yu urged the Holy See not to rush for results [with China-ed]. For if there is no religious freedom in general, how can it be possible for the Church to have an exclusive right to act autonomously?

One has to learn from history. During the 1960s, Pope Paul VI, together with his diplomatic chief Archbishop Agostino Casaroli, actively implemented the policy of Ostpolitik, seeking “dialogue” with the Communist states of the Eastern Bloc. The result was disastrous. In Hungary, the national hero Cardinal József Mindszenty, who refused to bow to the Communist Party, was derogated by the Holy See. The Church collaborated with the Party, and according to George Weigel, the Episcopal Conference was virtually under the Party’s control. It was a moral blow to many of the believers. Their loyalty towards the Holy See was betrayed by the Holy See itself. By trying to keep the Church alive, the Holy See emptied its soul with its own hands. By giving up moral principles and compromising with the political authorities, the Church can no longer be a Church. It was not until Pope John Paul II changed the approach to advocate human rights that the Church regained some of its moral authority.

The same story (or even worse) could be repeated in China. The Pope is now surrounded by a diplomatic corps led by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, an admirer of Casaroli. Some, including the Vatican Insider and a number of prelates, are waging a campaign to advocate and beautify the possible upcoming pact, emphasizing that even many “underground” bishops and laypersons in China are eager to see it realized. However, on, a popular Chinese Catholic media online outlet, many are strongly criticizing any demeaning compromise possibly made by the Holy See to please Beijing. Unfortunately, these voices never enter the ears of those in charge. It is rumored that the Pope will soon send his newly appointed “missionaries of mercy” to the PRC to pardon those illicit bishops who were “appointed” by the Patriotic Association, while the issue of imprisoned bishops and priests is left out of the agenda. If it is so, the deal is not only humiliating, but also unjust. Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, frequently and openly opposes such a deal, but he is sidelined and disregarded.

The same goes for Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, the Church has long been a force supporting democratization and advocating human rights. However, under the leadership of the current bishop Cardinal John Tong Hon, the diocese seems to become less willing to denounce civic and human rights violations, as well as growing suppression from the CPC and its proxy, the SAR government. Many believe that a major factor behind is that many in the Church, including Cardinal Tong himself, do not want to upset Beijing in order not to hinder the Sino-Vatican negotiation. Again, the Church chooses to sacrifice her moral principles in order to woo the political authority. Some believers are outraged by such unbearable silence and passive collaboration. A deal between the Church and the CPC will be detrimental to Hong Kong’s Catholic activism, and will alienate many young believers.

The Church’s authority is always moral, not political or economic. And “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”. Pope Francis often speaks of the sufferings and martyrdoms of the Christians in the Middle East, but he has never spoken a single word about the burning of crosses and demolition of churches in China.  Jesus did not start a political movement or revolution, but he did not bow to political pressure either. He never pleased the political authority in order to get his words spread. Jesus is always uncompromising.

I appeal to the bishops, clergy, and believers worldwide: Please pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in China. May they be filled with God’s grace, and continue to be the brave witnesses of our faith.