Monday, July 02, 2007

China, Vatican: Diplomatic Ties and the Benefits of Religion

The Pope should call for a boycott -- why not?

Stratfor: Summary
- July 02, 2007 17 33 GMT

Pope Benedict XVI wrote the bishops, priests and members of China's Roman Catholic Church, as well as the Chinese government, in a letter published June 29. The Vatican wants to unite the Vatican-approved and Beijing-approved churches in China, normalize ties with Beijing and kick-start a new expansion of Catholicism throughout Asia. This could provide Beijing a useful tool for filling an ideological void to maintain social stability and for countering international criticism of its human and religious rights practices. The move also illustrates how the drive for talks from both sides is stepping up.


Pope Benedict XVI sent a letter May 27 to the bishops, priests and members of the Roman Catholic Church in China, as well as to the Chinese government. The text of the letter was made public June 29 by the Vatican, with the delay needed to avoid "diplomatic issues," sources said.

The letter talks primarily to the Vatican-approved Roman Catholic Church in China, the members of which continue to recognize the pope as the central authority of the church, and the authority of the structure of the church -- from bishops to priests to laypersons -- as laid out by the Vatican. The letter's key messages to these groups are to persevere in the face of hardships, forgive and welcome faithful Catholics who are not part of the Vatican-recognized Catholic community in China. It also calls for expanded social services and following family values in order both to preserve the Catholic faithful and set a framework for cooperation with the Chinese civil authorities.

A Call for Unity

The message also reaches out to Chinese Catholics of the Beijing-approved Catholic Church, wherein bishops are not appointed by the pope. In his appeal, Pope Benedict XVI calls for faithful Chinese Catholics to seek out the Vatican-sanctioned church, to enter into its fold and proclaim their faith. The core of his message to Chinese Catholics of both sorts is unity, for bridging the gap between the Vatican-approved and the Beijing-approved churches and uniting into a single body. The unwritten message is that if there were unity, the Vatican's normalization negotiations with Beijing would carry more authority.

In the letter, the pope cites his predecessor, John Paul II, several times, noting early on that though the Roman Catholic Church focused on Europe in its first millennium and in the Americas and Africa in the second millennium, Asia will be the focus of the third millennium. This is part of the pope's goal of spurring a new expansion of Catholicism throughout Asia, tapping new resources and expanding Vatican reach to all corners of the globe. But as he notes several times either directly or indirectly, relations between the Vatican and Beijing have not been exactly smooth.

Beijing's biggest concern about establishing diplomatic ties with the Holy See regards papal authority. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has long struggled to ensure that it is the sole authority in China. In fact, one of the core drivers of the CPC in its current decision-making is the preservation of the centrality of CPC rule. The appointment of bishops by the pope in the Vatican thousands of miles from Beijing and the bishops' allegiance to the pope undermines the centrality of CPC rule. For Beijing, the Vatican is just another in a long string of entities potentially usurping CPC power -- from independent labor unions to alternative political parties, from Falun Gong to Amway.

The Benefits of Vatican Ties

Beijing also recognizes the potential international benefits of reconciliation with the Vatican. China faces an annual barrage of international condemnation for its human and religious rights practices, and normalizing ties with the Holy See could go a long way toward quelling such criticism and its occasional attendant economic consequences. Requiring that the Vatican accept the one-China policy -- meaning of course the Vatican's dropping recognition of Taiwan after establishing ties with China -- constitutes another potential perk for Beijing of Vatican ties. This would bolster Beijing's claims to Taiwan, at least theoretically, and would likely cause Taipei to lose most of its remaining allies in Latin America (which largely are historically Roman Catholic states). Though the Vatican might not yet have made up its mind about accepting the one-China policy, it is seriously considering adopting it -- and has hinted in the past that it could take care of Taiwan's faithful via a fully established church in mainland China.

But there is a growing domestic component to Beijing's considerations and flirtations with establishing Vatican ties. China is facing a looming, if not already present, social crisis. The social security system is in shambles, pensions and the old "iron rice bowl" are shattered, universal medical care is more a myth than a reality, and the one-child policy has left the younger generation either straining to support their elders, or simply leaving their elders to fend for themselves. The pope's letter skillfully addresses these very concerns, reminding China's Catholics -- and the Chinese government -- that the church can play a significant role in preserving family values (including caring for the parents and other Confucian values) and in providing social services, such as caring for the poor or infirm.

Seeking Fulfillment

Meanwhile, Chinese society is seeking fulfillment. In the 20th century, Confucian values were replaced by Communist principles. When Deng Xiaoping decided it was glorious to get rich, the Communist principles that provided social cohesion were trashed, and the search for material wealth drove society. By the mid-1990s, this drive clearly had reached its zenith as a source of nationwide social cohesion. The wealth gap was already showing, and there was no sign it was going to narrow -- in fact, it widened. The rich were getting richer, and the poor getting poorer. At this point, traditional Chinese Qi Gong exercises ballooned all over China (albeit with modern variations). Ostensibly these were physical fitness organizations, but they also offered a sort of spiritual fulfillment. They spread rapidly, giving rise to Falun Gong, among others.

Then-President Jiang Zemin, fearing a repeat of history written by the White Lotus and the Boxers, among others, quickly launched a campaign to nip the Falun Gong in the bud -- in the process clamping down on religions and pseudoreligions in China. Over the past few years, these restrictions have been loosened, with even a tacit sense of support for religion emerging -- particularly with regard to more traditional Chinese religions such as Daoism, and in some respects Buddhism. These fit with both Chinese attempts to create a stronger sense of Chinese nationalism (as Daoism in particular is considered native) and to provide a moral code that includes peacefulness and a satisfaction with life as it is -- in other words, cultivating a state of not being too upset and missing the economic growth train.

Harnessing Faith

The acceptance and even advocacy of religious belief is a potential new tool Beijing is now exploring for purposes of social control. For if religion is the opium of the people, at least people on opium do not riot. While Daoism and even Buddhism fit fairly well with this plan, China already has numerous Christians, and the various branches of Christianity have a reputation for rapid proselytizing. Rather than restrict them, if Beijing could simply keep them within certain bounds, it could encourage a more peaceful and satisfied society. It also could harness faith-based initiatives that address social ills and the impact of the unequal and unconstrained economic growth China has faced for several decades.

The pope's letter seems to recognize this internal Chinese musing over the benefits of organized religion, and makes a point of addressing these positive social aspects while reiterating that the Roman Catholic Church has no interest or role in politics so long as politics do not interfere with church sovereignty. The pope has laid out his bottom line: allow the full and open recognition of the Vatican's sole right to appoint bishops and other clergy among Chinese Catholics, and the Vatican will play a primarily social role in China, allowing local clergy to meet the needs of their local communities. Beijing's initial response via the Foreign Ministry was that any normalization of relations would require the Vatican to cut ties with Taiwan and not interfere in internal Chinese political issues in the name of religion.

These points are not new in themselves, but the letter's issuance suggests the drive for talks is picking up steam, particularly given Beijing's loosening of restrictions on religion. Neither side trusts the other to keep its word, of course, so any decision is still a ways off. But regardless of whether Beijing accedes to the Vatican's offer, it appears the pope has set his sights firmly on China as the next frontier. That can mean confrontation, like his predecessor's focus on Eastern Europe and Russia, or the potential for reconciliation and a possible diplomatic coup for Beijing. The question is whether the CPC has the confidence in its own authority and control to take the next step.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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