Extraordinary Breakthroughs: China and the Vatican (and the Dalai Lama)

There is no denying it. China is making enormous and rapid strides in improving its image as a persecutor of those who practice religions not wholly approved by the state. This is just one of several recent stories that indicate a real breakthrough that has the potential to shift world opinion and help cast Hu Jintao as a true reformer and purveyor of increased freedom in China.

Hong Kong’s new cardinal said the Vatican and China are holding “real talks” in Rome about normalizing formal relations that were cut off more than five decades ago when the communists took over the mainland.

Cardinal Joseph Zen’s comments on the Sunday TV talkshow “Newsline” on Hong Kong’s ATV World were among the most detailed he has made about the nature of the meetings between the Beijing and Catholic leaders in Rome.

The show’s host, veteran journalist Frank Ching, noted that a senior Chinese religious official, Ye Xiaowen, recently said Beijing and the Vatican have only been in “contact” about the issue of forging new relations.

But the outspoken Zen insisted the meetings were much more substantial than mere contacts.

“My impression is that they’ve entered into real talks,” Zen said, adding that negotiators were meeting in Rome.

Stay tuned. The Peking Duck is reconsidering his long-time stance on Hu, who just might end up living up to the original hopes of his being a reformer – at least in some respects. The jury is still out, but there’s definitely tantalizing evidence to consider. Whether these breakthroughs derive from Hu’s sense of altruisim and universal brotherhood or his desire to maintain the Paryty’s grip on power is another issue. But there’s no denying that, no matter his motivation, he’s willing to take major steps to transform China’s image of mindless intolerance. And that’s good for China, and the Chinese people.

Update: I mentioned the Dalai Lama in the headline; there are interesting stories about Hu reaching out to him, as well, but I’ll have to cover them when I have a little more time. It may be pure Machiavellianism, but I see it as shrewd and smart.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 38 Comments

The major stumbling block I’ve heard Cardinal Zen mention is who gets to name Bishops on the mainland. As I understand it, Zen has offered to allow the CCP throw some names in to the hat with others selected by the Vatican with the Vatican naming the Bishops.

The question is whether the CCP is ready to live with a Catholic Bishop named by the Vatican that didn’t come from the CCP’s short list of approved nominees. If Hu can convince the CCP to accept that, that would be HUGE! It would also be HUGE if the Vatican decides that it would only select a Bishop that the CCP has nominated as the other possible way past this issue.

I expect similar issues with the Dalai Lama about naming new Lamas.

April 10, 2006 @ 12:07 am | Comment

Good, then can they let out Hao Wu now?

April 10, 2006 @ 12:37 am | Comment

I’m glad you asked that question, Lisa. Let me be clear in saying I don’t believe for an instant that China is becoming more fair or less authoritarian or less corrupt. Hu’s outreach to the Vatican and Hao Wu’s detention are events that occur in separate universes, foreign vs. domestic. When i say Hu may yet be remembered as a reformer, I am referring to the brilliance of his foreign relations expertise – outside of China. Inside of China, the CCP still sucks bigtime and the catalogue of misery, injustice, brutality, murder, torture and other crimes isn’t shrinking. In the domestic universe, Hu has proven he is not a true reformer – at least not yet. He has taken repression of speech to new heights and has done nothing to reform the rotten system that makes the arrest of Hao Wu possible. The question I am toying with and that I hope to delve into later is whether there’s really anything Hu Jintao can do about Hao Wu and other domestic atrocities. I am now leaning toward believing he is helpless in this regard. That doesn’t absolve him, however. Rather, it further underscores just how rotten and incompetent China’s domestic political situation is.

April 10, 2006 @ 1:13 am | Comment

I know there are still some doubts that Hu is behind this recent media crackdown, but as I’ve said before, I think it’s the most counter-productive thing the government has done since Hu took office.

April 10, 2006 @ 1:18 am | Comment

Unfortunately, I believe Hu is behind the media crackdown. I think he’ll soon be recognized as a great wheeler-dealer in international relations, and an impotent nobody when it comes to domestic policy.

April 10, 2006 @ 2:32 am | Comment

Richard, “great wheeler-dealer in international relations and an important nobody when it comes to domestic policy” could describe Gorbachev to a large extent.

Gorbachev accomplished relatively little in domestic reform (if anything, Yeltsin accomplished more, which ain’t saying much), but he did a hell of a lot to defuse Russia’s potentials for major international conflicts.

I don’t see Hu as even remotely as intelligent, or as fundamentally decent and Humanist, as Gorbachev is. Just saying, being a great wheeler dealer in international relations is a good step in the right direction for China’s gradual rehabilitation.

April 10, 2006 @ 3:28 am | Comment

The vatican city relationship issue seems no different than China’s strategy with Honduras or other small states. They’re just trying to get more countries to ignore Taiwan.

Evidence to this is that there is zero motion on the ban of non-state sanctioned churches (to my knowledge).

They still want to control religion, than this whole CCP shortlist with Vantican picks is no more Catholic than Iran is a democracy.

The likes of Hao Wu will still be incarcerated at the whim of the CCP.

April 10, 2006 @ 7:30 am | Comment

How much enthusiasm, Richard. A little too much.

April 10, 2006 @ 8:30 am | Comment

Real talks between the Vatican and the CCP? Great, they can compare notes on oppression. I’m sure the CCP can pick up a few tips from an old master.

April 10, 2006 @ 8:35 am | Comment

From all I can see in the report, Joseph Zen is the one who is doing all the talking and running around. There is as yet sufficient evidence to say that the CCP or Chairman Hu is actively seeking to normalise relationship with the Vatican.

If my recollection serves me right, when Joseph Zen’s appointment to the college of cardinals came through in Feb 06, the only response that he got from Beijing was that the Chinese government hoped that Zen would stick to his religious role and stop meddling in politics.

My understanding is that Joseph Zen is a strong supporter of democratic legislative reforms in HK. He took part in most of the demonstrations in HK since 2003.

April 10, 2006 @ 8:50 am | Comment

I heart Gorby! I love how he’s made environmentalism and “green justice” his new cause.

April 10, 2006 @ 10:34 am | Comment

Like SkyStreaker said:
The Vatican is one of the few remaining states that recognise Taiwan.
Hu just hopes that he can get the Pope to cut the ties in exchange for the Catholics on the Mainland .

April 10, 2006 @ 1:38 pm | Comment

Lisa, thank God someone else gets it about Gorby.
He deserved the Nobel Peace Prize twice over and Kissinger should hand his over (and be put in prison.)

Gorbachev was one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, preceded only by Churchill and perhaps FDR. 100 or 200 years from now his true greatness will be appreciated and praised more widely, when Reagan’s mediocrity will be a footnote and GW Bush’s abysmal stupidity will be infamous.

April 10, 2006 @ 2:38 pm | Comment

In fact Gorby “the genius” lost Cold War (and USSR dissolved), Reagan “the mediocre” won it (and US was the one superpower). But, of course, you’ve no time for details.

April 10, 2006 @ 3:07 pm | Comment

Fat Cat said: “From all I can see in the report, Joseph Zen is the one who is doing all the talking and running around. There is as yet sufficient evidence to say that the CCP or Chairman Hu is actively seeking to normalise relationship with the Vatican.

If my recollection serves me right, when Joseph Zen’s appointment to the college of cardinals came through in Feb 06, the only response that he got from Beijing was that the Chinese government hoped that Zen would stick to his religious role and stop meddling in politics.

My understanding is that Joseph Zen is a strong supporter of democratic legislative reforms in HK. He took part in most of the demonstrations in HK since 2003.”

If that’s true, then this isn’t an international politics issue at all, but just Joseph Zen trying to grab some limelight?

April 10, 2006 @ 3:24 pm | Comment

I give Reagan some credit for recognizing that he had a genuine partner for peace in Gorbachev. I give Gorbachev even more credit for recognizing that the USSR would have to change, and acting upon that recognition at some (if not great) personal risk.

I think the US “won” the Cold War in that our economy was strong enough to sustain an arms race that pushed the USSR into bankruptcy.

April 10, 2006 @ 4:51 pm | Comment

Communication between the Dalai Lama and Beijing is arguably the best they’ve ever been. Recent visits by the DL’s envoy Lodi Gyari in September ’04 and again in February is really something significant for all sides. The breakthrough will probably come when DL holds talks with Beijing.

The recent statement regarding Taiwan – 台湾和
* 大陆 * 都的是中国一部分 – is the biggest and most important concession Beijing has made with the issue.

April 10, 2006 @ 4:59 pm | Comment

I agree with Ivan about Gorby; it was so surreal watching the tables turn as America was run by a fundamentalist old cold warrior while the USSR appeared to be run by a liberal reformer (appeared, mind you; nothing is ever that simple).

e, don’t get me wrong. I am as gloomy as ever about the domestic situation inside the Chinese police state. I do see glimmers of hope, however, that Hu is a shrewd and capable leader who might be rememberd as the man who made China a global power in the real sense of increased international influence and power. His reaching out to old enemies is shrewd and smart and, I believe, part of a much larger picture, namely a long-term strategy to increase the brightness of China’s image as that of the US lessens and stagnates. The recent news about the Dalai Lama and the Church are just a small but telling part of the whoe picture. Now, whether he succeeds or not remains to be seen, and as always, all you need is an economic slowdown to bring down the house of cards that props up the CCP. But that dopesn’t seem imminent, and looiking at the situation realistoically I’d have to conclude Hu has a good chance of puilling off one of the greatest coups in history. Whether that trickles down to the huddled masses remains to be seen. Internally, China is suich a chaoptic mess and the CCP so incompetent I must remain pessimistic.

April 10, 2006 @ 5:27 pm | Comment

e, you’re talking out your ass. The USSR was collapsing long, long before the 1980s. And don’t you dare tell me I have “no time for details” about Russia when I’ve spent a good part of my life.

Think before you lash out, child.

April 10, 2006 @ 6:26 pm | Comment

Damn. Last sentence should have read, “when I’ve spent a good part of my life there” (in Russia)

e, how long have YOU lived in Russia? How many former Gulag inmates have YOU ever met?

Armchair analyst.

April 10, 2006 @ 6:28 pm | Comment

Oh and I agree with Lisa on giving some limited credit to Reagan for cooperating with Gorbachev.
But it’s a “Big Lie” of the American NeoCons to say Reagan “bankrupted” the USSR. The USSR had been bankrupt since, oh, around 1917. It was ALWAYS an economic disaster, propped up only by Russia’s military hegemony over Eastern Europe after WWII, and by Russia’s vast natural resources which were mostly squandered and misused.

And, as early as 1946, Churchill predicted that the Soviet Empire would collapse within 50 years, because it was overstretched and unsustainable. America didn’t have to “outspend” Russia on idiotic nuclear weapons.
If anything, the Cold War would have ended sooner if our leaders had studied more Russian history and less abstract theories of Marxism versus capitalism. After Lenin died hardly any Russians gave a damn about Communism, INCLUDING STALIN and his successors.

Communism started dying as early as 1917. All we had to do was contain any further Soviet expansion in Europe and just wait it out until they collapsed. cf George Kennan’s long telegram of 1946, and his doctrine of containment which hardly anyone after Truman followed correctly.

And now back to “e” – so you say I have no time for details? You know where you can stick that.

April 10, 2006 @ 6:38 pm | Comment

If that’s true, then this isn’t an international politics issue at all, but just Joseph Zen trying to grab some limelight?

Posted by: davesgonechina

I think there is more to this than just grandstanding on the part of Zen. Some of the previous articles have noted specific offers and counter-offers between Beijing and the Vatican.

Yes, Beijing wants to isolate Taiwan and the Vatican is one of the few that recognises Taiwan. The trade-off to get the Vatican to switch, at least at last reading, was allowing the Vatican to name the mainland Bishops.

This would a domestic matter for the mainland as it allows a parallel power structure inside the mainland not manned by specific choices of the CCP.

This could also allow the disappearance of the underground churches as the officially recognised Church would then look to the Vatican instead of Beijing and be led by Bishops chosen by the Pope instead of the CCP. ie the official Church would then adopt the positions of the underground Church making the underground unnecessary.

April 10, 2006 @ 7:37 pm | Comment

One of the often repeated sayings about Reagan is that his Star Wars initiative forced the USSR into an escalating arms race that finally bankrupted the USSR. But the fact is that the USSR decreased its military spending every single year while Reagan was in office. The USSR failed because communism as an economic/political system did not work. The only country that Reagan was going to bankrupt was the USA.

April 10, 2006 @ 7:50 pm | Comment

Hui Mao,

You got it 100 percent right.

April 10, 2006 @ 7:59 pm | Comment

Davesgonechina asked: If that’s true, then this isn’t an international politics issue at all, but just Joseph Zen trying to grab some limelight?

I think you misunderstood what I said. When I made the comment, I was questioning the optimistic view expressed in the title of this thread. I was trying to point out that after reading the article quoted by Richard, I could only see evidence of Vatican (and its representative Zen) making all the necessary moves toward normalising relationship with China. I was questioning whether it was Joseph Zen’s stance on democracy that’s in the way of Beijing granting its approval.

I’m grateful to Tom for pointing out that there are indeed other reports that seems to indicate that Beijing is a willing party in this talk. It would be even better if Tom can give me the links so that I can read through them myself and make my own judgement. So far I can’t recall seeing any reports of this kind.

I’m not a catholic. But I’ve read enough about Joseph Zen to respect the man for what he’s done. So please do not put words in my mouth.

April 10, 2006 @ 10:03 pm | Comment

I do think Zen is playing a dangerous game trying to placate both sides. I don’t think he can serve two masters–his church and a one party state that wants control.

By their spiritual nature, churches have to be involved in human rights and justice and therefore will have to “meddle in” poltical affairs. I know they are sometimes the greatest abusers of those same rights but reformers always arise to bring them back on course.

In Taiwan, the Presbyterian Church was very supportive and helpful in bringing about democracy for the people.

By the way Ivan, I also believe Kissinger should be put in prison.

April 10, 2006 @ 11:26 pm | Comment

I must disagree with the basic premise behind your original post. This isn`t about the Vatican being tricked into thinking China has religious freedom – it`s about bypassing its lack of freedom by setting up a special system where Catholicism can actually exist in China and have links with the Vatican.

There are people that don`t want the CCP to make any deals with Rome, so it goes to show how important this is for China`s Catholics. I doubt that the Holy Father will trade its ace-in-the-hole (relations with Taiwan) for some magic beans – he would prefer nothing happening than getting a deal for the sake of it.

It might sound unfair, but getting rights for China`s Catholics is the Vatican`s number 1 priority.

April 11, 2006 @ 2:45 am | Comment

I reiterate, I heart Gorby. If someone were to ask me, what world leaders would I like to meet, and, you know, maybe have dinner with, shoot the shit – Gorbachev would be at the top of my list.

Zhou Enlai is the only other person I would rather meet. And unfortunately, he’s dead.

April 11, 2006 @ 2:50 am | Comment

Among the living, Gorbachev is at the top of my dinner list, and I’d want to show him my impersonation of Boris Yeltsin.

Among the dead I’d like just a minute or two with Stalin, just to hear him laugh and express his utter contempt for all Marxists.

April 11, 2006 @ 3:46 am | Comment

Well, I just want to have a dance with Nelson Mandela.

April 11, 2006 @ 5:24 am | Comment

I go for Willie Nelson. Such very, very uptight people on this board…

April 11, 2006 @ 6:21 am | Comment

I’d go for Willie Nelson. Such very, very uptight people on this board…

April 11, 2006 @ 6:22 am | Comment

Just one thing for Ivan to put things in perspective: Gorbachev was not a liberal reformer, he was the last of soviets. His aim was to keep USSR and communism alive, not to dismiss them. He was the gravedigger and died (politically) with communist system.

To say that in other words: “Gorbachev, in reality, worked hard during his time in power to preserve the Soviet Union, and he never intended for the captive republics to gain independence. He surely was not a proponent of democracy in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev came to power when the Soviet Union had already begun to disintegrate. He was faced with an empire that had a life expectancy rate that was falling, a pathetic agricultural sector and an overall weak economy. But, a more significant problem was a growing nationalism and independence movements in the republics. Facing these problems, Gorbachev�s glasnost and perestroika were designed to save the Soviet Union and preserve Communism, not to democratize the USSR. As Gorbachev moved to transform the Soviet Union he underestimated the power of the nationalistic urges of the people that led to their heroic efforts to gain independence. Once the genie of democracy was out of the bottle, Gorbachev became the captain of a rudderless ship and he lost control”.

Of course he wasn’t a Breznev (Hu Jintao is Breznev) or an Andropov. But his only merit was to stay there when soviet era finally ended against his wishes.
It’ always amazing to see how some people still hardly accept history verdicts.

April 11, 2006 @ 6:34 am | Comment

While one link remains, so do the chains of oppression.

Chinese believers will never be free until the day that a Chinese leader accepts that that Papal authority exceeds his own. Forgive me for sound in crass, but I can’t EVER see Hu accepting this.

It would be like saying that Blacks can vote, but only for White candidates.

April 11, 2006 @ 11:32 am | Comment

Uhm, ACB… then you must be saying that the United States, Great Britain, Israel, the Nordic countries, and Canada are all not free, because I don’t see any of their leaders acknowledging papal supremacy…

April 11, 2006 @ 1:08 pm | Comment

Oh for Christ’s SAKE, e, I f—ing LIVED IN RUSSIA in the wake of Gorbachev’s reforms.

Who the f— are you to tell me how to get “perspective” on Gorbachev’s Russia?

I’m going to throw up. And your weirdly Leninist remark about “history’s verdict” show you to be a sophomoric little neo-con who knows nothing about history and even less about the world outside your own little suburb.

The kind of creep who pretend to “support the war” in Iraq but won’t volunteer to fight. That kind. Armchair theorist, armchair warrior, armchair neocon of the sophomore rank.

April 11, 2006 @ 3:58 pm | Comment

Ivan, I, too, wonder who “e” is – he doesn’t have a clue. It’s okay to be an armchair theorist – if you know what the fuck you’re talking about. E does not meet that criterion.

April 11, 2006 @ 10:43 pm | Comment

[...] churches hiding in remote rural caves to Beijing, where Hu Jintao has been working hard to improve ties with the Vatican.  The special just aired a couple of hours ago, and I won’t be surprised if the link is soon [...]

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