Print Version    Email to Friend
China can learn from the Vatican about managing Hong Kong

Pope Francis and President Xi Jinping came into their present roles within a day of each other in 2013—the pope was elected on March 13 and Xi became president on March 14. However, they have followed completely different paths in governing immense and cumbersome entities—the People’s Republic of China and the universal Church.
How they govern shows a complete contrast of approaches where Pope Francis has something extremely relevant to say about how China might manage Hong Kong on the 20th anniversary of the handover.
Despite Josef Stalin saying that the measure of the pope’s power was how many military divisions he commanded, the pope’s record thus far has much to say about the exercise of both hard and soft power. China is a heavy practitioner of both internally and in its relations with other states.
China and the Vatican can appear to be polar opposites. They generally take contrasting views on many world issues. China, an avowedly atheistic state, has a long record of persecuting religious minorities, including Catholics. Currently there is a fundamental disagreement between the Holy See and Beijing about how the Catholic Church is to be run in China and how bishops are to be appointed.
There are similarities: China is a one party, totalitarian state; the Vatican is the last surviving absolute monarchy in Europe; both have labyrinthine decision-making processes; both have tried to do their work in secrecy; both have patterns of patronage that influence who is promoted to various significant positions in their administrations; and both seek to influence public opinion throughout the world on a shared list of significant issues.
But that’s about where the parallels cease.
The way Pope Francis governs the Church is in complete contrast to the way Xi has operated from the commencement of his term which is most likely to be renewed at the Party meeting later this year.
The Chinese government and Xi in particular are terrified of any movement or group that might lead to the breakup of their control internally—witness the oppression of religious groups in Tibet and Xinjiang, the abusive treatment of human rights lawyers, the close control of minority religious groups throughout the country.
And internationally, China is engaged in an expensive and ham-fisted effort to spread its influence in countries throughout the world through the establishment of hundreds of Confucius Centres in universities mostly in western nations to propagate Chinese views, through the control and ownership of Chinese media in many countries, through peddling influence and with the close monitoring of the millions of Chinese students attending universities in the west.
Back home, the Chinese Communist Party cloaks its inner processes and the promotion of its leaders in a dark secrecy that ensures the participation of only the chosen few in appointments and the exclusion of those impacted by the appointments from any other activity than applauding or at least mildly accepting the wisdom of the Party leaders in their choices.
China has been a totalitarian state for its entire history. Either a dynasty or one party has been in charge and the key to control has always been an obedient military. Despite what has been achieved in the creation of participatory democracy elsewhere in east Asia (Japan, South Korea and Taiwan), there is no sign that a similar development is even on the distant horizon in China.
The fact of the matter is that participatory democracies take hundreds of years to evolve. Just look at European political history. China has no history to draw on and modify. One party rule and all its clandestine processes are around for the foreseeable future.
The Vatican meanwhile, is in the throes of dynamic change. A Catholic form of participatory democracy is evolving in the use of government by synods at all levels of governance—from the Vatican to the local parish.
The Church is not and never will be a democracy; the democracy movement that began in Europe in the 18th century and unfolded in the west, left it to one side. What the current pope is proposing is the return to a more ancient form of governance: synods where clerics and lay people participate and share in setting the Church’s direction at international, national and diocesan levels.
Parts of this model have endured in the Eastern Churches, but for its part, the Roman Rite has assumed the colours and shapes of Europe’s absolute monarchies and reached its most extreme form in the 19th and 20th centuries and, despite Vatican II and the establishment of the international Synod of Bishops by Pope Paul VI, consultation remained Roman-driven with the outcomes of synods agreed even before the bishops had reached Rome.
That was until Pope Francis, who in the two gatherings of the Synod of Bishops focussed on family matters, asked the bishops to share their views openly and not to be constrained by a Roman agenda, something that hadn’t happened since the early 1970s. He called for openness in discussions, even in the expression of disagreement on topics. The bishops were no longer asked to be branch managers of a multinational, but leaders in their own right.
Underlying all this is the reclaiming by Pope Francis of the millennium old principle of Catholic governance: subsidiarity, by which decisions should be made at the level closest to the impact and effect of the decision. Some decisions will be of universal significance and should have a universally inclusive process to reach them. But most decisions in the operation of human and Church entities are of local significance and should have local people being the decision makers.
It makes the best sense to include those directly affected by decisions actually making and owning them. That is what Catholicity actually means. The crude substitute for it in the Church too often is the demand for uniformity.
Which brings us back to Xi Jinping and China. One-party states always like to have uniformity, cloak their processes in secrecy, never delegate power or decision-making beyond what they can immediately control, operate their power advantage through patronage which is repaid with compliance and obedience.
And what does it produce? Passive aggression, lethargy and the constipation of societies. There’s an old saying in China that “the mountain is distant and cannot be reached by the emperor.” In other words, the Chinese people and many middle managers notionally kowtow but really do their own thing.
Without transparency, genuine participation in decisions affecting their lives (and not the meek acceptance of representatives nominated for them by Beijing) and the real delegation of power to manage their own affairs, Hong Kong people will be left with only two alternatives—emigration or passive aggression for those who have to remain. ucan
Father Michael Kelly SJ