Pope Francis’ bold outreach to China is (maybe) starting to yield

2017-07-20 10:29Asia Times

The Church is risking everything by stretching out to Beijing. Perhaps the time has come for significant concessions on the Chinese side.

In the People’s Republic of China, the normalization of ties with the United States in 1971 is still considered a landmark of political dexterity, something that removed for Beijing the danger of its threatening Soviet neighbor, a short-term advantage. Yet it also brought more long-term benefits. Those ties landed China on the right side of the Cold War and embedded it in the global market system. All of this was the first and necessary condition to allow the ensuing economic, social, and political development, until now.

But now what? China’s different political structure was not an issue in the international system until recently because of its minimal military, political, and economic strength. Now, however, China is increasingly perceived as a challenger of the status quo and pressures around China multiply exponentially by the day, almost in parallel with Beijing’s economic and political outreach. In this contest, normalization of ties with the Holy See is something in many ways more significant for China and the world than ties with the US in 1971.

Back then both the US and China had everything to gain and nothing to lose with that move—China was a political dwarf and the US was a giant. The US wanted to protect and prop up the dwarf against the USSR, but China posed no menace to Washington. At the same time, China needed US shelter for its own survival, in the event of a murderous war with its northern neighbor. In any case, China was only a piece and not the most significant one in America’s chess strategy against the USSR.

Now the stakes for China are much higher. It has problems with many countries, but it also has a strong economic system and is in the middle of a delicate political passage, when any wrong move could worsen international ties and endanger its economic structure, thus shaking its politics. Yet to remain still, not making any move, will certainly make things worse.
In this world, the Holy See is the largest super soft power and has the potential to improve or worsen China’s predicament. In fact, since Pope Paul VI, who stopped in Hong Kong and wrote to Mao Zedong, the Holy See has not made any move against China.

From the Chinese side, the process of modernization has also flowed out of its old imperial political system. Deng’s choice to promote the market and later acknowledge the growing importance of the role of the private economy broke the old mold of China’s political setup. In imperial times, the economy could grow only as long as it didn’t challenge the political order, and when it did, it would be cut down. In recent decades, conversely, the political system has adapted and made room for market forces that encroached ever more closely on the established power interests.

More recently, China has also recognized in principle the role of the Pope in the appointment of Catholic bishops in China, something that could be construed as a withdrawal of the party from the ideological sphere. In the 17th century, when the Jesuits were mighty ministers at the imperial court, the Qing emperors didn’t concede that much.

These two elements—the role of the market and the function of the Pope with the bishops—break the monism that has been a hallmark of Chinese power since ancient times.

These changes further recognize a totally different dimension of the world, which is not and cannot be any longer the old tianxia (all under heaven), where China is at the center and the others are vassals at the borders. It is a different tianxia, a world ruled by a balance of power and mutual respect.

Now if the old concept of tianxia were to be applied, America would be “zhongguo,” the central state, as in the 6th century AD India was the zhongguo of Buddhist literature because it was the cradle of faith.

This is the backdrop for the discussion between China and Holy See, and in this way, one wonders whether details should bog down the discussion. Is it right? Is it appropriate?

Perhaps a different approach is necessary. In recent weeks, a long article on the semiofficial Global Times took a very objective and positive attitude toward the Vatican. It came out shortly after the semiofficial Civiltà Cattolica for the first time officially expressed openness to collaboration between the Church and the Communist Party.

This is creating a new situation where perhaps significant concessions can be made.

Still there are very high stakes for the Vatican too in this game. Pope Francis is projecting the Church out of its centuries-old boundaries. He reached out to Protestants, who broke off with Rome 500 years ago; and he mended fences with the Orthodox, who split about 1,000 years ago. He reaches out to the Muslims, who waged jihads and crusades for 15 centuries. And he made leaps to Asia, home of 60% of the world population and yet only marginally touched by the Catholic grasp.

Still he can’t embrace all this diversity at the cost of losing his 1.3 billion baptized followers. The Church is risking everything by stretching out to China, and in many ways, because it has no state and no enforcing bodies, its hazards might be higher than those of Beijing.

For this perhaps we should all pause and think hard about these ties, when so much is at stake in the world around them.



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