Inside a Catholic church in Beijing. Photo: AFP / Wang Zhao

When it comes to diplomacy with other countries, it appears that size matters to China’s leaders. Norway, a country of just 5.2 million people, and much tinier Vatican City are but two examples.

After the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Liu Xiaobo, the late prominent pro-democracy advocate, the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, China decided to freeze ties with Norway. To (be allowed to) re-establish ties with the Asian behemoth six years later, the Nordic country had to make huge and humiliating concessions.

In a joint statement on the normalization of bilateral relations in December 2016, the Norwegian government declared that it “fully respects” the Communist power’s “development path and social system” and “highly commends its historic and unparalleled development.”

It also pledged to “do its best to avoid any future damage to the bilateral relations.”

Yet, in the four-point agreement, which was widely published by Chinese state media, such as Global Times and Xinhua, but hardly mentioned by the Norwegian side, there was no similar respect or praise for Norway’s values and achievements from the Chinese government.

Although Oslo didn’t apologize as Beijing had demanded, such one-sided extraordinary praise was a huge concession and humiliation for Norway – especially as it has fared far better than the one-party state in almost all key political, economic and social aspects.

For example, it topped the United Nations’ World Happiness Report 2017, ranking highly on the main factors found to contribute to happiness, including “caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance,” whereas China came in 79th (out of 155 countries/territories).

According to the same report, though their incomes had grown sharply, “people in China are no happier than 25 years ago.” This is hardly surprising, because while the Scandinavian nation is often placed first in many international rankings, such as on democracy and freedom of press, the Asian country often trails at the bottom.

Sadly, when it comes to international politics and China’s dealings with other nations in particular, it’s often the case that only one thing really matters – or matters most, namely size. The Global Times, a prominent paper of the Communist Party of China (CPC), bluntly singled out that fact in a scathing editorial, saying it was “ridiculous” that a nation with “a population of merely 4 million … tried to teach China, a country with 1.4 billion people, a lesson in 2010.”

Actually, because of China’s sheer size and power, not only Norway but other individuals, organizations and states have been forced to bow to Beijing’s pressure and demands in order to revive or maintain ties with it. One of these is the Vatican.

State smaller than Forbidden City

Although it has an estimated 1.3 billion followers (almost the size of China’s population) worldwide and considerable global “soft power”’ influence, as a state, the Vatican is virtually non-existent if compared with the world’s biggest country by population, second-greatest by economy and military and fourth-largest by land area.

With a territory of only 44 hectares, the city-state is smaller than China’s Forbidden City (72 hectares). It has only about 1,000 “citizens” by residence, not by birth. Except the 100-strong Swiss Guard, a mercenary force, the smallest independent state on Earth doesn’t have an army, while its unique, non-commercial economy is supported financially by donations, known as Peter’s Pence.

More important, it is theist whereas the People’s Republic of China is led by the formally atheist CPC.

These material asymmetries and ideological opposition are the main reasons that just two years after its founding in 1949, the PRC severed ties with the Holy See and why it still hasn’t normalized them. They are also why the Vatican has to make huge concessions in order to restore relations with Beijing.

Indeed, as widely reported by international media, the Vatican could soon reach a breakthrough deal with Beijing, in which, as revealed by the party-run Global Times, it had to make “substantive concessions to China on bishop appointments.”

More precisely, a central point of the reported deal is the Holy See’s recognition of seven “official” bishops appointed by Beijing whom it had previously excommunicated or refused to recognize. What’s more, it also reportedly asked two “underground” bishops to step aside to make way for “official” prelates.

Since the establishment of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) by the CPC in 1957, there have existed two Catholic Churches in the country. The “official” Church is run by the CPCA but unrecognized by the Vatican, while for the “underground” one, which has been mistreated and persecuted, it is vice-versa.

Painful division

Finding a way to overcome such a painful and harmful division is a priority for Pope Francis, who was elected to lead the Catholic Church on March 13, 2013 – just a day before Xi Jinping officially became the president of the PRC.

Partly because of this separation, the number of Catholics (about 3 million in 1949 and currently about 10 million) in China hasn’t increased considerably while the number of Protestants has soared, from only around a million to at least 50 million in the same period.

It’s estimated that China has 700 million religiously unaffiliated people, or around 72% of the world total.

Against this background, for the sake of its own faithful and its missionary work in the huge Communist/atheist country, it’s somehow unsurprising that under the reign of the Argentine pope, who has made Asia a new priority, the Holy See is eager to restore ties with Beijing – and, consequently, willing to make some concessions.

Controversial praise

The Vatican’s eagerness and willingness are also evidenced by the exceptional praise a pontifical official has lavished on China. In a recent interview with the Spanish-language edition of Vatican Insider, which was cited by many other international news outlets, Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, said he found China, which he had visited, “extraordinary.” For the Argentine prelate, the authoritarian state was even exercising global moral leadership in the principles of Catholic social teaching and the defense of human dignity.

Judging by the reactions of the Global Times, a semi-official publication of the ruling CPC, it’s obvious that the Chinese government is very – and indeed, rightly – approving of the Vatican’s concessions on the bishop-appointment matters and Sorondo’s comments.

An op-ed in the tabloid praised Sánchez Sorondo for stating the “truth about China’s religious freedom.” For a regime that reportedly spends US$10 billion a year on external propaganda, but apparently fails to convince the Western public, such open, exceptional praise from a top official of a top pontifical institution is probably worth millions of dollars.

However, outside China and the Vatican, the Holy See’s latest moves have been widely criticized.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, former Bishop of Hong Kong, has vehemently criticized the Vatican’s proposed deal with China. Recently, a group of mostly Hong Kong-based academics, lawyers and human-rights activists also urged the Vatican to reconsider it. The remarks by Bishop Sorondo equally puzzled and angered many.

In many respects, such strong opposition is understandable. For instance, the letter by 15 prominent Catholics is probably right to state that “the seven illicitly ordained ‘bishops’ were not appointed by the Pope, and their moral integrity is questionable.”

The criticism that Sánchez Sorondo’s comments were naive or ludicrous is also justified. If the authoritarian state had religious freedom or were that “extraordinary,” its Catholic citizens would definitely not be split between an “official” Church and an “underground” Church. Such a division doesn’t exist in any former or present communist country – and indeed, in any nation in the world – but China.

For instance, there is no such thing as a party-run Church in Vietnam, China’s communist neighbor. That’s why adopting the “Vietnamese model,” according to which both Hanoi and the Vatican have a say in bishop appointments, for China’s episcopal appointment as suggested by the Global Times is problematic.

It’s even more so if the Holy See totally “give[s] up its right to selection and appointment” of bishops. According to another op-ed by this state-run publication, Beijing “still insists” on this.

Whether the Vatican will make such a total surrender is unclear. What is clear is that to restore ties with the world’s most powerful authoritarian country, like Norway and some others, it has, unfortunately, to make some considerable, controversial – and indeed uncomfortable – concessions, which will evidently dismay, disappoint and displease many others, including some of its own followers.

If it refuses to cave to the atheist power’s demands as Cardinal Joseph Zen and other critics advocate, the decades-long deadlock with Beijing cannot be resolved.

That’s the dilemma facing the Holy See.

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Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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