Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a signing ceremony at Villa Madama in Rome during Xi's two-day visit to Italy in March 2019. Photo: Christian Minelli/NurPhoto

Heads of state coming to Italy usually visit the Pope before or after their meetings with the Italian authorities. But during his three-day stay in Rome from March 21-23, centered on Italy’s formal embrace of China’s New Silk Road strategy, Chinese President Xi Jinping carefully “ignored” such a diplomatic custom and kept away from the Vatican halls.

A meeting between Xi and Pope Francis would have been of historical significance, especially after Beijing and the Holy See signed a controversial interim agreement on the selection of Chinese bishops last September.

Even though experts are divided on the issue, it is likely that domestic dynamics related to church-state relations in China, as well as diplomatic considerations linked to the status of Taiwan, have dissuaded Xi from shaking hands with the Pope.

For Veteran sinologist Willy Lam, Xi missed an opportunity. He told Asia Times that a picture with Pope Francis “could be good PR for the Chinese president, given the near-universal condemnation of China’s oppressive religious policy – even against the ‘official’ Catholic church.”

Moreover, the Holy See appeared ready to welcome the Chinese leader. Indeed Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, said on March 19 that Pope Francis was willing to exchange views with Xi.

The Holy See has had no formal ties with Communist China since 1951. Episcopal appointments have always been a thorny issue in the Sino-Vatican relationship, and supporters of the Pope’s opening up to Beijing believe the provisional deal could improve the condition of the “unofficial” Chinese church, though it has no diplomatic value according to the two signatories.

However, many Catholics in China and elsewhere counter that the Chinese government’s repression of underground Catholic communities has continued unabated. The unofficial Catholic church is loyal to the Pope and not recognized by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the Chinese Catholic Bishop’s Conference, which are now under the supervision of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central United Front Work Department.

Divisions within the CCP?

One day before Xi’s arrival in Rome, Father Bernardo Cervellera, editor of Catholic news agency AsiaNews, wrote in an editorial that if the Chinese president “does not visit the Vatican it is only because he does not want to be ‘overtaken on the left’ by ideological fringes in the United Front and the State Administration for Religious Affairs,” which oppose dialogue with the Pope and, at the same time, use religion in their internal battle against Xi.

Father Sergio Ticozzi, a Hong Kong-based observer of Catholic affairs in China, was in sync with Cervellera’s position. In an interview with the South China Morning Post on March 18, he expressed doubts about a possible visit of Xi to Pope Francis because such a gesture would have been seen in China as an acceptance of foreign interference in the country’s religious policy, which is aimed at the sinicization of religions.

But for Lam the idea that a domestic opposition is mounting against Xi is a fiction. “The Chinese president has been much weakened since US President Donald Trump started the new Cold War with China, but Xi is still in charge of party affairs, including religion,” he said.

Ying Fuk-tsang, the director of the divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is also skeptical that there are frictions within the Chinese leadership over the government’s approach to the Vatican.

“I do not think there is any internal difference between Xi and the United Front on the issue of ties with the Vatican,” he said. “Xi is overseeing the ideological work within the party and the current hard-line stance against religions in China is the implementation of his new religious policy.”

Ying pointed out that the provisional agreement and the negotiations between Beijing and the Holy See were still in compliance with the Chinese president’s line.

The Taiwan issue

The Taiwan issue also affects the Sino-Vatican dialogue, particularly now that “Xi is putting more and more pressure on the island,” Lam noted. The Holy See is likely the most prized diplomatic ally (and the only one in Europe) of Taipei, which China considers a rebel province that must be reunified with the mainland at some point.

After the signing of the pastoral deal, there have been rumors that the Holy See may establish full diplomatic ties with Beijing.

The rupture of formal links with Taiwan is the prerequisite for China to have diplomatic relations with a country. In Xi’s calculus, a meeting with the Pope could be viewed as premature and weakening a cornerstone of  the mainland’s foreign policy, which for that matter is now focused on further isolating the island internationally.

According to Italian media reports, it is more likely that Pope Francis meets with Xi Jinping in China, rather than the other way around. The relations between the two sides are asymmetrical and clearly in favor of Beijing.

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