09/18/2014, 00.00
CHINA - VATICAN
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Chinese Church: confidence and caution in Pope Francis' invitation to Xi Jinping to meet at the Vatican

by Bernardo Cervellera
The story first reported by an Argentinian online paper stands out in Catholic websites in China. The pontiff's hand written letter was delivered to close Xi aides. For a priest in northern China, this is a first step that shows great respect for the Chinese president. The second step will be to speak about the problems of the Catholic Church in China. Hong Kong waits for Xi's response before evaluating matters. China and the Vatican see eye to eye on a multi-polar world and the problems of the Middle East. Ping-pong diplomacy is played out for world peace and religious freedom and democracy in China.

Rome (AsiaNews) - Many Chinese Catholic websites are reporting that Pope Francis has invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to a meeting at the Vatican to discuss "world peace" in a "multipolar" international community. This has raised confidence levels among members of both official and underground Church.

"It is something good for the whole world," a priest in northern China told AsiaNews. "The pope, who is an important figure on the world stage, invites our president, recognising that he is an important leader and together they try to build peace in the world. Pope Francis trusts the Chinese president and the influence that China can have on peace in the world."

Still, caution is limiting the sense of confidence. First, it is necessary to wait for Xi Jinping's response. "We do not know if this will happen right away or if it will take a long time." Secondly, a meeting between the Pope and Xi Jinping on peace would not deal with the difficult situations the Church faces in China: the lack of religious freedom, bishops arrested or placed in isolation, or the campaign of destruction of churches in Zhejiang and elsewhere.

This is understandable. "For now, it is important to show confidence in the relationship with Xi Jinping," the priest said. "The problems of the Church will come at second stage, at a later time."

What happened?

With the exception of Chinese state media, reports that Pope Francis sent a personal letter to President Jinping surfaced on Tuesday in the Argentinian online newspaper infobae, quickly picked up by other news outlets around the world. According to the original story, a Peronist leader, Ricardo Romano, and the representative of the Chinese Academy of Sciences to the Mercosur, José Luján, delivered the papal letter to close Xi aides.

The pope's initiative is apparently the result of a meeting held at Santa Marta House on 3 September between the pope, the two Argentinian emissaries, Secretary of State Card Piero Parolin, and Secretary for Relations with States Mgr Dominique Mamberti (pictured).

According to what Ricardo Romano told infobae, one of the conclusions reached at the meeting in Santa Marta was the need for closer ties with China "to contribute to multipolar decision and ensure a higher degree of governance in the service of a more fraternal world society and a greater degree of social equity".

China has sought to undermine US trading and economic dominance by proposing more and more contracts paid in yuan in lieu of the US dollar. It has sought to boost relations among BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) to influence countries in the developing world. It has always taken positions different from the United States (and Israel) on matters involving Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Israel-Palestine. On such issues, China and the Vatican have very similar positions. An invitation from the Vatican to build a "multipolar" world should be welcome in Beijing.

China's domestic problems

Still, Pope Francis's personal invitation is not likely to meet any favourable response in Beijing. Many in the party still see the Vatican through Maoist lenses, as a "running dog" of capitalism, even though Pope Francis, as someone from Latin America who is critical of consumer society and global finance, has begun to breach the wall of ideology.

After the pope's return from South Korea and his opening to China, the Global Times, a newspaper linked to the People's Daily, unusually praised the "third world" pope who reiterated his "respect" for China. And yet, both the 'Stalinist' and 'liberal' wings of the party fear (or even dread) greater religious freedom for Catholics because it would let fuel even more dangerous demands for religious freedom by other groups (Protestants, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, etc.) and pro-democracy groups.

Party officials fear (and perhaps dread) greater freedom because it might lead to the end of the party itself. In fact, Xi Jinping himself has said that no room should be given to critics of the Party and its monopoly of power or Communist China might go the way of the Soviet Union.

In fact, not only is the Church's social doctrine- which is taught almost clandestinely in Chinese seminaries - evidence of the relationship between religious freedom, China-Vatican relations and democracy, but so do events in Hong Kong. Here the Catholic Church has sided with those who demand universal suffrage, direct election of the chief executive, and an end to a colonial modus operandi established under British imperial rule.

Chinese officials recently met with a Church official in Hong Kong, making it clear to him that too much support for democracy threatens to widen the gap between Beijing and the Holy See and dash any hope for official relations.

Realistically, "Let's see if Xi Jinping responds," said a Hong Kong-based China observer. "If he does, that would be a good start. For now though, there is no reason to cheer or boo. It is good to talk about peace in the world, even if the problems of domestic peace are not addressed in China."

Ping-pong

Francis' invitation to Xi Jinping is a throwback to US-China ping-pong diplomacy in 1971, which paved the way for a meeting between Richard Nixon to Mao Zedong the following year and full diplomatic relations between United States and China some years later.

The pope's proposal is exciting, a great human and diplomatic move that shows passion towards China and a desire to see that country take on all the responsibility of the great power that it is. Indeed, many people already envisage a multipolar world rising from the wreck of US world power in the Middle East and in Europe (Ukraine). Equally, many are now firmly convinced that China (with India perhaps) has a great destiny in global society.

Yet, it is impossible to forget what China is doing: praising multi-polarity whilst creating a new colonial system in Africa and Latin America by imposing its demands at the expense of local industries; promoting peace and dialogue in Syria and Iraq, whilst stifling at home those - like scholar Ilham Tohti - who want dialogue between Muslim Uighurs and Chinese; seeking better relations with the Holy See, whilst stifling democracy in Hong Kong, tearing down churches in Zhejiang, seizing official bishops, holding incommunicado underground bishops, and locking up priests in forced labour camps.

This shows that China is playing in many fields. In view of this, Pope Francis should perhaps not just focus on the relationship with Xi Jinping, but also in other areas by helping the Chinese Church. He can speak out against persecution, demand freedom for jailed bishops, and, rather than wait for the Party's green light, name new bishops in those dioceses that have been vacant for years.

All of this will affect world peace. If China is more harmonious and more respectful of the rights of its people, it will be more at peace with itself, and bear more fruits of peace abroad. This might even be a better way. After all, Karl Marx said, "philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it". By the same token, we might say that philosophers (and presidents) have interpreted peace; the point is to build it."

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