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Sword of Damocles hangs over Taiwan

If the Vatican and China establish diplomatic relations, Taiwan's independence movement will take a big hit

Father Paul Xie

Father Paul Xie

Updated: November 07, 2018 04:30 AM GMT
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Sword of Damocles hangs over Taiwan

Worshipers leave a service at Holy Family Church in Taipei on Sept. 23. Although the Taiwan issue is not at the core of Sino-Vatican relations, it is a chess piece that can be played by the Chinese government. (Photo by Daniel Shih/AFP)

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Various commentaries appeared online after the signing of the Sino-Vatican provisional agreement on bishop appointments on Sept. 22, but, frankly speaking, it is very hard to find a comprehensive one in the mainland media except those we call "sunflower" (pro-government) articles.

Most are written by church members or academics, and it is obvious that they feel reluctant to express all their ideas.

If they had expressed all their thoughts, their articles and even their online platforms could have been blocked. To say whatever you want can result in you not being allowed to say anything at all. The result is that commentators self-censor, making it impossible for readers to understand their entire viewpoints.

The Sino-Vatican agreement, for the Vatican, is for pastoral purposes, but for China it is purely and simply a political agreement. As such, we need to analyze it under a political microscope to have a deeper understanding.

Secret contacts between China and the Vatican have been conducted for several decades. As everyone knows, the Vatican is far more anxious and urgent than China in this matter. China has always regarded the power to appoint bishops as a non-negotiable part of its national sovereignty.

But now, with the power of final appointment apparently given to the pope under the agreement, is it a betrayal of China's sovereignty? Why did China choose this moment to sign such an agreement? Under this agreement, what have China and the Vatican got from their sides? What have they lost? 

Two main focuses of Sino-Vatican negotiations should be highlighted: the Taiwan issue and the appointment of bishops.

The Vatican is the only European state that has diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Its significance to Taiwanese diplomacy is self-evident. But, in fact, the Taiwan issue has not been at the core of Sino-Vatican relations since 1999.

The core issue is actually the appointment of bishops. The Holy See regards bishop appointments as the traditional practice of the Catholic Church and the concrete manifestation of the right and power of the pope as the leader of the universal church.

However, China insists on not allowing any foreign interference. If bishop appointments are really part of national sovereignty, how many countries in the world have surrendered their sovereignty to the Vatican?

The Taiwan issue is a chess piece that can be played around. Since Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party came to power and Tsai Ing-wen became president, Taiwan's independence movement has strengthened. Taiwan's intention to seek independence is absolutely impossible for the Chinese government to accept.

Maintaining diplomatic relations with the Vatican is crucial for Taiwan. Beijing's decision to sign the provisional agreement on bishop appointments may be a deliberate show of strength as a warning to Taiwan's independence movement. As this agreement is provisional and does not involve diplomacy, the next step is to see how Taiwan acts.

The thought that Sino-Vatican diplomatic relations could be realized at any time has become the Sword of Damocles hanging over Taiwan. If it continues to seek independence, it is possible for China and the Vatican to establish diplomatic relations, further compressing and confining Taiwan's space on the international stage.

The Chinese side has made a good move on the chessboard by formally transferring part of its sovereignty to the Vatican in exchange for the chips of real sovereignty on Taiwan.

The role of the Vatican is more passive. If tensions on cross-strait relations are going to ease, the possibility of continued breakthroughs in Sino-Vatican relations is extremely small. According to the current signs, suppression of the Catholic Church in mainland China will continue to intensify. When the two-year interim period ends, what choices will the Vatican make?

The Vatican has made too many concessions with grievances. The actual power to appoint bishops is still in the hands of the Chinese government.

If cross-strait relations continue to deteriorate, Taiwan will be completely isolated from the international stage and China may choose to establish diplomatic relations with the Vatican. However, could diplomatic relations be exchanged for more freedom for the Catholic Church in China? I believe that everyone may know the answer.

The recent removal of crosses in Wenzhou of Zhejiang province was an indication. Some may say that this is what local governments do. I don't think so. If there is no unified policy of the central government, would local governments act so daringly? Aren't they afraid of losing their official posts by making political mistakes?

Regardless of the possible establishment of diplomatic Sino-Vatican relations, the agreement is only a political measure for the purpose of religious management by an atheistic government whose ultimate aim is to eliminate religion.

On Oct. 3, at the 15th World Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis in a homily at the opening Mass said: "For the first time, we have also with us the bishops from mainland China. We offer them our warm welcome." Then the pope choked up. His sobs touched countless people and his affection was a reminder of the countless believers detained in China for their loyalty to the faith since 1949.

The synod was attended by the secretary-general of the Bishops' Conference of the Catholic Church in China, which insists on independence, autonomy and self-administration of the church. Will the agreement bring the first light of dawn from the rising of the glorious sun?

Although both sides can get some of what they want, they must consider the price they have to pay. Perhaps in a case of extreme desperation, spending $10,000 to buy a kilogram of rice could save your life, but drinking poison to quench your thirst could end your life.

From a human point of view, Pope Francis really has taken a dangerous move and a gamble, but fortunately the church is the Church of God. In the days to come, how the Holy Spirit will lead the Catholic Church is still unknown. The church in China has to learn from the faith of Abraham — "In hope he believed against hope" (Romans 4:18) — as he waited for the arrival of spring during the difficult time of refining and cleansing.

Paul Xie is a priest from China.

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