KUALA LUMPUR — On April 7, Taiwan’s foreign ministry posted a short video clip on Twitter that it said showed the razing of a Catholic Church building in Shaanxi in central China.

The tweet tagged Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, who had said in a March 8 speech in Hong Kong that “the Chinese government’s abuse of members of Catholic communities has continued” — despite a September 2018 deal between the Catholic Church and Beijing ostensibly covering the appointing of bishops in China.

Questions sent to the Taiwanese foreign ministry about the source and date of the video had gone unanswered at the time of this writing, but leveling of the building was reported on websites such as AsiaNews.it, which publishes articles from Catholic sources inside China and which dated the razing to March 31. Asia News reported April 9 that local Catholics in the diocese also had rallied to protect a Marian shrine from police and government officials who were seeking to destroy it.

An estimated 12 million Chinese Catholics are split between the so-called “underground” Church, the faithful who follow the Pope, and the government’s Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. The Vatican has expressed hope that the September deal could lead to better relations between its faithful and those Chinese subject to the state-run version.

But the clip, if authentic, is but the latest indication that China’s Catholics continue to be oppressed.

In November, mere weeks after the agreement was announced, Peter Shao Zhumin, a Vatican-appointed bishop, was arrested in Zhejiang in the east of the country. The fate of some other bishops, who disappeared during the decades since the communist takeover of China, remains unknown, despite appeals for information from the Catholic Church and despite the Vatican recognizing seven Chinese state-approved bishops as part of the 2018 deal.

The terms of that deal have not been published, though Pope Francis has insisted that he and his successors will nominate candidate bishops. But critics such as retired Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun accuse the Vatican of a sellout of faithful Chinese Catholics by ceding overall authority over appointments to China’s ruling Communist Party, which has also said it wants to curb perceived “Western” influences, such as Christianity, a key theme of a recent set of party congresses. With his office citing a busy schedule and hearing difficulties, the 87-year-old Cardinal Zen was unavailable for a phone interview at the time of publication.

 

Call for Patience

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, has called on critics of the deal to be patient, telling reporters April 3 that it was signed “to help advance religious freedom, to find normalization for the Catholic community there,” as well as broaden religious freedom in general in China, where unknown numbers of Muslims have been detained in camps in Xinjiang in the west of the country and where Protestant churches have suffered the same fate as the razed Catholic building in Shaanxi.

The apparent failure of the deal to lead to better relations has spilled over into other areas.

Chinese travel agencies were told this month to remove any information about the Vatican from their websites, in effect serving notice to holiday-makers who make it as far as Italy to ignore the imposing blue dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, visible as it is from hotels and streets outside the Vatican boundaries in Rome. A similar directive was issued in late 2017, but this time the move comes in the wake of the September 2018 deal. 

Overall, the number of Chinese tourists tripled from 40 million to 130 million in the decade from 2007 to 2017. Increasingly well-to-do, outbound Chinese are seen as an important source of revenue not only in Asia, the first holiday destination for many, but further afield in Europe, including at the Vatican, where a notably opaque financial system depends, in part at least, on tourism.

Chinese language signs are increasingly common at Italian airports and at some sites popular with tourists, and, according to official Italian statistics provided to the Register, Chinese visitors jumped from 2.6 million in 2016 to more than 3 million the following year.

But one notable recent Chinese arrival, Chinese President Xi Jinping, did not meet Pope Francis at the Vatican during his late March state visit to Italy, France and Monaco. Xi’s trip yielded around $60 billion worth of business deals and saw Italy ignore U.S. warnings to become the first Group of 7 or Western European country to sign up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a mammoth transport infrastructure blueprint that aims to link much of Eurasia to China. 

 

The Taiwan Factor

Usually such state visits to Italy mean a meeting with the Holy Father, and in the wake of last year’s deal, there was speculation that Xi and Pope Francis could meet.

But the Holy See is one of only 17 states to retain diplomatic relations with Taiwan, an island slightly bigger than Maryland that lies about 100 miles off the coast of China and which Beijing’s ruling Communist Party regards as renegade Chinese territory. 

Taiwanese diplomats make frequent and appreciative references to their country's ties to the Vatican, and, not only has Taiwan used Twitter to criticize the treatment of Christians in China, it remains at the center of an increasingly competitive Sino-American rivalry. 

“Beijing's goal with the Vatican is to break the link with Taiwan. The deal and whatever subsequent relations occur are primarily a means to that end in my view, and Beijing’s modus operandi is to patiently apply carrots and sticks. In most ‘negotiations’ of this sort, China invariably has more carrots and more sticks than their negotiating partner, but the Vatican is unique,” said Jonathan Sullivan, the director of China programs at the University of Nottingham's Asia Research Institute.

The Trump administration has described China as a serious strategic rival and has warned allies such as Italy against closer ties with China, which is in line to overtake the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy sometime in the coming decade or so.

Though almost isolated diplomatically and under increasing pressure from Beijing, Taiwan is protected by U.S. security guarantees, in part outlined in the Taiwan Relations Act, which is 40 years old this week. 

Marking that anniversary, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen said in an April 9 speech to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a Beltway think tank, that “I hope that the United States can make clear at a very senior level that it considers the security of Taiwan vital to the defense of democracy.”

Register correspondent Simon Roughneen reports from Asia for various publications.