Pope Francis waves to the crowds at the end of a Year of Mercy Mass for the sick and those with disabilities, at St Peter's Square in the Vatican June 12. (Photo by AFP)
Pope Francis loves Asia, especially China.
It is well known that Francis was planning to go to Japan as a missionary in his youth, China, then was not an option but lung disease dashed his hopes but set him on the path to the church’s highest office.
One of his dreams is clearly being the Pontiff who can make a deal between the Holy See and China. For the Jesuits, the order to which Francis belongs, this is a de-facto article of faith as their missionaries were the first movers in China.
This would end almost 67 years of conflict, first over the church’s very existence under Mao Zedong who banned all religion under the Marxist–Leninist atheist structure.
In the decades since when religion has been allowed to flourish, there has been a growing schism between Vatican aligned clergy and those appointed by the Communist Party’s Catholic Patriotic Associations. (There is of course a vast area of gray in between, feet in both camps and all that, it’s a complex situation).
This is what the Vatican seeks to mend, it was under Francis' predecessor Benedict XIV that the Vatican made public its plans to try and make peace with the Communist regime.
But Chinese President Xi Jinping’s priority of Sinicization, a program that he has been developing with public speeches over the past year or so, has made the Vatican’s core aim of regaining control over the appointment of priests and bishops in the Middle Kingdom all that more difficult without a major concession.
The Chinese Communist Party has always seen organized religion as a threat to its domestic hegemony because of the networks that it creates and its potential to divide loyalty to the state with allegience to the church. The party’s propagandists have done an expert job over the years of conflating the organization with the concept of China itself; so today, to criticize China is to criticize the party, and vice versa.
As noted, in recent decades, religion — from traditional Buddhism and Daoism to Christianity and Islam — has in many ways filled the void left by the cult of personality around former leader Mao Zedong. So it has been tolerated, up to a point.
But with the ascension of Xi to the Chinese leadership in late 2012, that point seems to have been reached.
Xi has been on a program of asserting a tighter grip over Chinese society, targeting both dissents inside the party via his so-called anti-corruption campaign and outside the party with a harsh crackdown on activists, rights lawyers and NGOs.
Religion is Xi’s latest target. This is particularly true of Christianity and Islam, which together fit into the "anti-foreign forces" theme of Xi’s nationalist narrative.
Christianity is booming in China with estimates ranging between 60 million and 100 million faithful, with a split of about 4:1 between a multiplicity of Protestants — largely evangelical groups and Catholics. There are also upwards of 20 million adherents of Islam.
In late April, the party convened its first top-level summit on religion in 15 years, delayed by almost six months due to reported internal disputes on how to deal with the surging appeal of religion.
The closed-door conference in Beijing was attended by Xi and his chief lieutenant, Premier Li Keqiang and only one of the seven-man ruling Politburo Standing Committee did not attend the two-day event — a roll call unprecedented outside the schedule of regular official party meetings.
Xi laid out his vision for Sinicization in his keynote speech saying that the party wanted to “merge religious doctrines with Chinese culture, abide by Chinese laws and regulations, and devote themselves to China’s reform and opening up socialist modernization in order to contribute to the realization of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation."
"We should guide and educate the religious circle and their followers with socialist core values, and guide the religious people with ideas of unity, progress, peace and tolerance," Xi said.
Put simply, the party wants to "Sinicize" religions in China, particularly foreign religions like Christianity and Islam.
The summit came on the back of a two-year campaign to tear down crosses — and even churches — in the province of Zhejiang. By some estimates more than 1,700 buildings have been affected and prominent pastors and Christian lawyers representing the interests of churches were detained as a clear warning not to meddle in the government’s program.
A number of commentators have suggested that the party has used Zhejiang as something of an experiment to see what it might execute on a wider scale.
Already other moves have been made: ahead of the conference Xi reasserted the ban on party members practicing religion and extended this to retired cadres — anecdotal evidence suggests that there are considerable numbers of party officials who are also practicing Christians.
Authorities are rumored to be looking at a range of other tactics, especially related to the finances of religious groups and links they might have to overseas religious groups. This is particularly true of the United States, where evangelical groups have close links to churches in China.
On June 8, the first inklings of what actions the summit had decided to take emerged when the party’s feared internal affair bureau — the Central Discipline and Inspection Committee — issued a searing take down of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, branding its leadership as weak and accusing it of not paying enough attention to managing religions.
Still, as the party is moving to exercise more control over the various churches, Xi’s campaign is likely to be further complicated by possible implications for an economy already showing signs of entering a prolonged period of slowing down when a government stimulus is not applied.
And any high-profile national campaign against Christianity will further antagonize the United States and potentially even Russia, as there are still Orthodox communities remaining in China’s northeast.
But the party should tread carefully so as not to force a choice between those with divided loyalties, now a significant slice of the Chinese population.
Xi’s boots and all approach to dissent and his aggressive military build up suggest that this level of nuance could be beyond him, so potentially things could get quite ugly for China’s Christians and Muslims in the coming year. Making any sort of deal by the Vatican both harder to reach and harder to sell.
Michael Sainsbury is deputy editor for East Asia for ucanews.com and a regular contributor to Global Pulse Magazine, where this article first appeared on June 10.