Chinese Catholics leave after Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing in this February 2013 photo. (Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP)
It is very easy, and indeed often fun, to create conspiracy theories on secret diplomatic missions. It is the stuff of spy novels.
In the real world, many such constructions are overcooked. But when it comes to two of the world's biggest and most politicized organizations — the Chinese Communist Party and the Catholic Church, or more precisely the Vatican, such conspiracy theories are usually justified.
What we have now learned, thanks to ucanews.com reporters, is that a team from the Vatican's complex apparatus landed in Beijing on Oct. 11, only weeks after Pope Francis revealed it as he flew back from a trip to the United States.
On that visit, he garnered mountains more media coverage than Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who was on a trip to America at the same time. The pope said that talks with Beijing were "moving forward." It was the second round of talks after an icebreaker in June 2014 — the first such discussions since contact was suspended in 2010.
Luckily for the visitors, October in Beijing is a rare month blessed with mild weather. While the weather was lovely when the delegates landed, the reception they received from their Chinese counterparts would have seen the temperature go down quite a few notches once the pleasantries were over.
There has been an unusual amount of commentary on religious affairs from Chinese leaders, including party and military supremo Xi Jinping, in recent months. In September, the Communist Party entrenched its control over all religions, issuing for the first time public rules for the party's department that manages relations with different faiths and other sectors of society — the United Front Work Department.
In a move that fits with the growing anti-Western rhetoric of the Xi Jinping administration, the department has been charged with the "prevention" of overseas involvement in religious activity. Party members are now officially banned from following a faith as part of rules stipulating that religion must be separated from the Chinese state.
A matter of control
For his part, the Argentinian pope has at least a mild obsession with China. He is a Jesuit, part of an order that has had China in its top five priorities for 30 years. But as a young Jesuit in training and even before he was ordained a priest in 1969, Jorge Mario Bergoglio had volunteered to go to Japan, the next best available place to China after the communists seized power in 1949.
One of his first high-profile acts after being elected pope was to send Xi a congratulatory missive. A note from the leader of the world's smallest sovereign state to his opposite number in the world's most populous state was a statement of intent. Talks with China were set in train by his newly appointed secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
Then, en route to Seoul for an Asian youth gathering in 2014, Francis sought and received clearance from Chinese authorities to fly over their air space. During the flight, the pope told the attendant media that this was the first time such permission had been given and that he was "ready to fly to Beijing at any time."
He made more or less similar comments in September when heading home from his visit to the United States.
But will these talks get the Vatican any further than it has before in asserting its rights to regularize church life and have control of the appointment of bishops in the country?
The central question is simple: Who runs the Catholic Church in China? The Vatican wants to have the same control over the appointment of bishops and determination of diocesan boundaries that it has elsewhere in the world. Currently, these rest with Chinese authorities, though many bishops have been appointed by the Chinese and recognized by the Vatican.
However, the on-again, off-again talks over decades between Vatican diplomats and Chinese authorities have made very little progress.
There are two views on whether the Vatican should bother with the talks. And the two Chinese cardinals in Hong Kong have espoused each view: the retired Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun and Cardinal John Tong Hon — Cardinal Zen's successor in the diocese.
Cardinal Tong is the only senior church leader inside China able to talk publicly and with authority. The traditional diplomatic view, backed by Cardinal Tong, is that keeping dialogue open means that a better deal with China could develop.
Cardinal Zen's view, informed he says by his experiences with and inside the mainland, is that the talks are a waste of time, that the party will never give nearly enough to make a deal palatable to the Vatican.
So we will wait and see if the Vatican even confirms that the secret talks were actually held, occurring under the cover of the ongoing Synod of Bishops on the family.
The way forward
The situation in China is not repeated in Asia's other great communist nation — Vietnam — where the ruling party never created its own version of the church. It is possible for the church and a communist regime to coexist, although that is not to deny that the relationship has never been easy and remains problematic. That's the problem with authoritarian regimes that like to curb independent thought.
The powers that be at the Vatican, including Francis himself, would be looking approvingly at Vietnam where church numbers are surging, as recently documented by ucanews.com.
What is interesting is that the talks have come before a planned summit on religious issues to be held by the powers that be in Beijing, almost definitely after the party's top body — the Central Committee — holds its annual get-together from Oct 26.
That is when the real rubber will hit the road and we will find out if Francis is wasting his time with Xi.
Michael Sainsbury is deputy editor for East Asia for ucanews.com and a regular contributor to Global Pulse Magazine