Deal unlikely to improve religious freedom in China

Vatican lacks expertise in negotiating with Beijing as Xi Jinping tightens his grip
Deal unlikely to improve religious freedom in China

A woman prays inside the Christian Glory church in Wuhan on Sept. 23. The landmark deal between China and the Vatican gives official recognition to bishops appointed by the government despite a crackdown on religion, potentially softening the ground for full diplomatic relations after 67 years of estrangement. (Photo by Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)

The Holy See and China have signed a provisional agreement dealing with the crucial question of bishop appointments. This agreement suggests that the Chinese side selects the bishop candidate, while the Holy Father has only veto power.

In 2014, a joint working group was set up to thrash out difficult issues for the Sino-Vatican negotiation table. In 2016, the suggested format for the selection of bishops was released to the public. However, China's state-run Global Times remarked that the Vatican faced enormous pressure over the deal because it was not favorable to the Catholic Church.

With the provisional agreement, Sino-Vatican negotiations on the normalization of diplomatic relations will start soon.

A report was released in August by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission titled "China's Overseas United Front Work." For China, the United Front's work is to co-opt and neutralize sources of potential opposition to the policies and authority of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The United Front's work serves Beijing's preferred global narrative. It pressures individuals living in free and open societies to self-censor and avoid discussing issues unfavorable to the CCP, harasses or undermines groups critical to Beijing's policies, advocates for the interests of the CCP and marginalizes its opponents.

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Chinese students and scholars' associations have been mobilized and Leuven, Belgium, was identified as a front in Europe for a "Belgian-based economic espionage network." Apart from economic issues, is there any religious espionage coming from Leuven? Those religious research institutes in Leuven might be in the network of China's United Front policy.

Sovereign rights and national security have been the two main concerns embedded in interactions between the Vatican and China since the time of Mao Zedong.

The Vatican has a special problem dealing with China in complicated church-state relations. It had successful dealings with European communist states when St. Pope John Paul II was one of the unseen hands working with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to cause the collapse of European communism.

However, the Vatican lacks China experts, such as Henry Kissinger of the United States or Lord Carrington of Britain, who understood how to negotiate with Beijing. There were people in the Vatican who had experience in negotiating with the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries, but no one could comprehend the non-transparent nature of Chinese politics which a Chinese communist political commentator in Hong Kong called "a heavenly book without words."

European understanding of China has mainly relied on translation of Chinese documents. That is why the Vatican cannot comprehend the characteristic Chinese way of implementing the Sino-British agreement on "one country, two systems" into full control of Hong Kong as claimed by President Xi Jinping.

Vatican officials had traditionally dealt with European communists — the Mensheviks — not the Bolshevik communists in China.

In 2017, rumors about the Sino-Vatican agreement were heavily criticized by the free world, which felt that the Vatican lacked understanding of China, and by distinguished Hong Kong scholars who had observed how Beijing had turned the promised "one country, two systems" system into full communist control of the territory.

Those who know Chinese politics have reason to believe that, on the issue of bishop appointments, the veto power of the pope could easily turn into no power for the pope.

As the text of the provisional agreement is not known to the public, anxiety is bound to be high among Chinese Catholics on the mainland and around the world, especially in Hong Kong and Macau, whose governments are working towards full control from Beijing.

U.S. President Donald Trump shows little concern about human rights and freedom in his usual dealings with China, but his administration remarked that the agreement would weaken the struggle for religious freedom in China and pointed to the crackdown on religion in recent months under Xi Jinping.

If the provisional agreement is an item for formal Sino-Vatican negotiations, its text should be known at least to the ecclesial administrators of local churches. They need to lead their flocks to learn how to prepare themselves to love their motherland and the Catholic Church.

It is also suggested that there will be a time limit for the provisional agreement of 5-10 years. The chance to renew the agreement provides opportunities for China and the Vatican to improve the method of appointing church leaders.

We might feel that the agreement leans very much lean to the pro-China side within the church. The Vatican could at least reactivate the China Affairs Commission to get differing views on China and Catholic relations. Adding more officials to the Roman Curia who can read and write Chinese is also recommended. They could be trained to become experts in Chinese affairs. To rely on the translation of documents to understand China is not the best way.

This author questions whether the political environment in China is conducive to the implementation of religious freedom under Sino-Vatican negotiations. Under the authoritarian leadership of Xi Jinping, religious security has been uplifted to the level of national security, suppression of religious activities has continued, and religions have been placed under the thumb of the CCP.

Sister Beatrice Leung Kit-fun of the Sisters of Precious Blood is a research professor at Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages in Taiwan and a Sino-Vatican and Taiwan-Vatican affairs expert.

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