Beijing on renewal of the Sino-Vatican agreement: Yes…probably

During his regular press conference, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman expresses appreciation for the “successful” implementation of the Sino-Vatican agreement and promises “improvements in bilateral relations”. But he does not explicity commit to anything. Chinese Catholics see the renewal as a forgone conclusion: China dominates the Catholic Church and needs diplomatic victories. The United Front is pulling against the agreement.

by Bernardo Cervellera

09/11/2020, 14.44

Rome (AsiaNews) – For the first time in months, the Chinese government has cited the “successful implementation” of the Sino-Vatican Agreement which, signed two years ago, is about to expire and generically declared its will to continue “will continue to maintain close communication and consultation and improve bilateral relations.” In recent months, various personalities not directly linked to the Vatican Secretariat of State have expressed the will of the Holy See to continue the Agreement, but so far there has been silence from Beijing.

Yesterday, at a regular press conference held by the Chinese Foreign Ministry in the capital, spokesman Zhao Lijian answered a question from Phoenix TV (semi-state television). Here is the text of the question and answer reported on the official website of the ministry:

Phoenix TV: According to reports, China and the Vatican are in negotiations on renewing the 2018 interim agreement on the appointment of bishops. It is hopeful that the deal will be renewed for two more years in the next few weeks. Do you have any comment?

Zhao Lijian: With the concerted efforts from both sides, the interim agreement on the appointment of bishops between China and the Vatican have been implemented successfully since it was signed around two years ago. Since the beginning of this year, the two sides have lent mutual support to each other amid COVID-19 pandemic, jointly committed to uphold global public health security and accumulated more mutual trust and consensuses through a series of positive interactions. The two sides will continue to maintain close communication and consultation and improve bilateral relations.

It is clearly visible that, despite the positive overtones of the response, it is not an explicit and full “yes” to the agreement, even if there are now less than two weeks to the agreements expiration.

Some Chinese Catholic bloggers point out that the message must be considered not only in the answer, but also in the question: Phoenix TV is a quasi-state medium and it is likely that the question was agreed with the foreign ministry to communicate the notion that the agreement will be renewed “for another two years”.

These same Catholics underline that Zhao Lijian’s response is very positive in its consideration of how the agreement was “successfully implemented”: in fact, China has obtained church closures, demolished crosses, the expulsion of priests, the suffocation of unofficial communities, a ban on religious education for minors under the age of 18 all without any reaction from the Vatican, except for the reactions of Card. Joseph Zen of Hong Kongand Card. Charles Bo of Yangon, which have been largely ignored. As for the five recognized bishops, cited as “positive fruit of the agreement”, some experts have already expressed the ambiguous nature of this “fruit”.

The same bloggers also point out that because China is a target of criticism at present from the US, the European Union, Australia, Southeast Asian countries it is looking to snatch at least one diplomatic victory, such as maintaining relations with the Vatican. For all this they foresee that the renewal of the agreement by China as a foregone conclusion; indeed, there could even be an expansion of relations.

The fact remains that the words of the spokesman coached in a sober diplomatic style, do not dare to refer a clear “yes”. The reason, in my opinion, is that there is a fringe – linked to the United Front – in the Party Central Committee which is absolutely opposed to any agreement. This fringe fears that warmer relations with the Vatican could lead to it seeking over time greater guarantees of religious freedom. For years the ministry of religious affairs and now the United Front have been fighting to erase all bonds between the Chinese Church and the universal Church.

Another point of note is reference to celebrations for the 75th anniversary of the UN at Zhao Lijian’s press conference. Responding to a question he affirms that China, together with other states “must champion multilateralism, safeguard the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, defend the UN-centered international system and the international order underpinned by international law. “. The UN Charter also defends religious freedom and the autonomy of religious communities from the state: Which is exactly what China does not do.

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