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What’s in the Vatican negotiations for China?

HONG KONG (SE): The ongoing negotiations between the Vatican and Beijing over finding mutually acceptable ways in the contentious area of appointing bishops in China and harmonising relations between the official and unofficial Church communities have attracted great interest in the Church both in and outside China, with at least one forum held in Hong Kong on September 25 calling for more transparency from the two tight-lipped bodies.

However, in any negotiation process it is important to understand what’s in it for who and recent events in the mainland have prompted speculation as to what Beijing is trying to achieve, as it continues to tighten the clamps on freedom of religious activities.

The recent disappearance of Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin, the Vatican approved bishop of Wenzhou, which has prevented him from taking over his rightful position in the diocese, has been interpreted as a warning bell by Bangkok-based China-watcher, Michael Sainsbury.

In an article published by UCAN on September 16, Sainsbury describes the negotiations as being reduced to the status of a guessing game for those who are not included in the inner circle, which is all but a handful of people, but maintains that there is a much bigger game at stake.

“It is increasingly obvious… that a deal with the Vatican, a breakthrough by the world’s most populated country with one of the world’s largest religions, is part of an overarching, multi-faceted programme of soft power projection by the Communist Party,” Sainsbury surmises.

He points out that soft power operates at a number of levels and the Chinese government mostly uses the media, both English and Chinese, throughout the world to promote its point of view.

“It is its way of getting its view promoted when it is really propaganda,” Sainsbury notes.

Other levels include education, through universities and gifts to academic institutions, as well as the network of Confucius Institutes.

Political donations help too, although these seem to have backfired a bit in Australia where a senator was forced to step down from the front bench when it was revealed he had received a donation from a Chinese government-connected source.

But the ultimate goal is a kinder and softer image of what is often regarded as a harsh, frowning China.

Sainsbury points out that what the Vatican is doing is standard practice—forming a relationship with a country in the same way as it has done with most nations of the world, including Communist Vietnam and Cuba.

But since Pope Francis has been sitting in the Chair of Peter, Vatican overtures towards China have taken on a new impetus and been pushed further than anyone has been able to do in the past.

But not all is smooth sailing. Sainsbury notes, “At the very heart of the Vatican dilemma is that China is a country with an appalling human rights record and more specifically a country with a shocking record on religious freedom.”

Although technically the constitution guarantees religious freedom, in practice it is circumscribed by a series of undefined and undescribed limitations confining it to normal religious activities and, by doing a deal, the Vatican would expose itself to being identified with such abuses, especially in the area of extrajudicial detention, arrest and conviction on spurious charges.

However, Sainsbury maintains that what’s in it for China is the soft power the Communist Party would pick up to help ameliorate its more visible hard power image.

Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong on February 2, the author of Pope Francis’ lunar new year greeting to the president and the people of China, Francesco Sisci, said that China was stunned at witnessing the tremendous soft power embodied in the person of the pope, when he and the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, were in the United States of America at the same time in September last year.

He added that this soft power is now being offered to China by the pope, “But China’s problem is how to handle it,” Sisci commented.

The head of the Vatican delegation in the negotiations, secretary of state, Pietro Cardinal Parolin, told a gathering of nuncios in Rome in mid-September that he finds it amazing that for the first time in the history of Communism in China, the government is willing to allow the Holy See to have a say in the appointment of bishops.

However, he implied that it will not be the Vatican that nominates the candidates, but Beijing, adding that other stumbling blocks, such as the status of the 30 or so bishops of the unofficial communities and the future of the illicitly ordained ones, as well as the nature and makeup of the bishops’ conference, still exist.

On a previous occasion he used the words “fear and trembling” in describing the Vatican approach to the negotiations, as he is determined that no agreement can be made that would be prejudicial to the Catholic people of China in both the official and unofficial communities.

In short, he suggested that any agreement will be a lot further off than some may anticipate or fear.

Sainsbury believes that the bottom line dilemma being faced by the Vatican is that a favourable outcome for the Church would also equate to a huge win for Beijing’s soft power programme, which could quickly morph into something that the Holy See had in no way intended.

But if as some in the know claim, the initiative for a resumption in negotiations came from Beijing and not the Vatican, what’s in it for China becomes the big question, but for the Church, it remains a venture into uncharted and maybe perilous waters.

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