SINOGRAPH Pope casts shadow over China
By Francesco Sisci
ROME - Right at the time when the Roman Catholic Church celebrates Holy Mary's ascension to heaven, August 15, Pope Francis will be in South Korea for his first trip to Asia, the continent with the largest population but the smallest percentage of Catholics. Of the 1.2 billion Catholics, only about 10% are in Asia, home of some 60% of the world's population.
Yet even these numbers are skewed because most of the Asian faithful to Rome are from the Philippines, a country formerly
colonized by Spain, while other countries host often only tiny minorities.
Against this backdrop, South Korea seems a miracle. Here Catholics are 10% of the citizens and growing so fast that many enthusiasts believe their number could reach 20% by 2020. It is not a marketing success (something that the present pope would loathe): the bishop who organized the event, Lazar You Heung-sik, explained that local Catholics are living a true faith, and this life is touching the lives of many fellow Koreans.  The Pope's visit seems to endorse this approach and perhaps the faith of South Korean Catholics could be a model for the development of the Church in Asia - especially in neighboring China.
Naturally the visit by the pope, whose plane will fly over China on its way to Seoul, will cast a shadow over Beijing, and many Chinese Catholics will go to South Korea to attend the papal mass, something that won't escape Beijing's attention.
Most importantly this trip will take place at the time of a strangely tacit yet public dialogue. The international press reported that some Catholics want the pope to go to China, news that neither the Vatican nor Beijing has denied.  This silence seems to be an eloquent admission of an interest in this on both sides.
Yet the issue is not how much Pope Francis and President Xi Jinping might be keen on meeting each other, but how much many others may be hostile to this summit.
There are constituencies opposing this conference both in China and the Vatican for many complex reasons and vested interests. But in any case the official claims on both sides are roughly the following:
As a precondition of the meeting, the Catholic opposition wants significant concessions for religious freedom from Beijing. This may be acceptable and valid, but China is not Italy or the United States, and it would take decades (if ever) to become like those countries. Should the pope ignore China until it becomes like any other Western country? Or what enough is enough? And how and when to get it? There is an official dialogue going on both sides, what is the relation of the meeting with the dialogue?
The Vatican has solid ties with Islamic countries that treat Christians far worse than China does. Why this latitude with Muslims and prudence with China? Because Muslim countries simply marginalize Christians, but do not interfere with the internal life of the Church, is the official answer. And because in times when many in the East and West want religious wars, the pope decided to take a firm stand against all wars in the name of God and thus keep an open window with Islam.
In China, conversely, Christians are not marginalized, they are fully integrated, their number is growing quite freely, but the state interferes with the internal life of the Church. This may be a bigger concern for the Church, but there are no anti-Christian persecutions; no Christian loses his life for his belief, as it happens in many Muslim countries and also in some Indian states, where radical Hindus resent the spread of Christianity. But China has none of this and this maybe reason to see Beijing in a more generous light.
One can find parallel difficulties in China. The conservative communists - brought up hating Western religions and especially Catholicism, whose leader is abroad and far away from any possible pressure from Beijing - want significant assurances that the meeting will not be a springboard to undermine the party rule. The idea is that foreign religions are instruments of power for foreign forces constantly plotting to subvert hard-gained stability. This seems to be especially true since Catholics had a history of opposition to communist rule in the former Soviet empire.
Yet this ignores that the Vatican was also the one force that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, propped up communist Cuba against all the pressure from the neighboring US. Moreover, in China for decades Catholics have been quiet, have never taken sides in any protest, and did not even resist with violence a one-child policy that is against their firmest religious tenets. Besides, the devout Catholic Donald Tsang, chosen by Beijing to be Hong Kong's High Commissioner, proved to be an official loyal to Beijing.
All these reasons, and many more, are surely clear to rational Communist Party members and also to Catholics, who believe in the continuity between reason and faith.
However there might be complicated internal details granting less room to maneuver to both the pope and the Chinese president.
The pope meets much opposition in the Curia for his style and his innovative approach in the life of the Church and also to old ethical problems, like admitting divorced people to mass, et cetera. The Curia opposition generally has difficulty confronting the pope internally, but the China issue, because of its complexity, may be the one slippery ground where the head of the Church could be ambushed and thus blamed for being too soft, too open, too whatever. Then the Curia (still very strong in Rome) could unfurl a general offensive against the main drive of this papacy, which is shaking the Church and melting the old powers of the Curia.
Xi has similar difficulties. Still locked in a tough battle with the conservatives, having arrested the head security czar and some of the former top generals, Xi can't then appear to be weak with foreign forces, especially with people historically considered by the party to be as treacherous and deceptive as the Church.
In a way in order to meet, both Pope Francis and President Xi need to take a leap. But as both carry on their shoulders huge organizations responsible for over a billion people, this leap has to be very cautious otherwise something near three billion people will be upset.
Moreover there are many cultural issues. The pope, although a spiritual leader, is the head of an organization that has embodied the continuity of Western civilization for 2,000 years. The robes of the cardinals and bishops were taken from those of the senior officials of the Roman Empire. President Xi, although leader of a communist party (something that came from the West), embodies the persona of the Chinese emperor, the political head and cultural leader of a civilization stretching for at least 3,000 years. A conference between the two would be at long last the meeting between the Western and the Eastern civilizations.
All of this burden is on Pope Francis' back as he flies to South Korea, but it will also be on Xi's back as he watches the pope from his rear window in Beijing.
Francesco Sisci is a Senior Researcher associated with the Center for European Studies at the People's University in Beijing. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent in any way those of the Center.