Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
China's reform and opening-up achievements are regularly associated with the economy. But other social fields also deserve attention. Religion is one of them. Relations of the Chinese government and the Communist Party of China with several religions have improved in the last few years. A few days ago, for example, Undersecretary for Vatican's relations with States Antoine Camilleri paid a visit to China and held talks with Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Chao. The visit was fruitful. Beijing and the Holy See announced the signing of a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops foreseeing the possibility of periodic reviews of its application. The Vatican is expected to officially recognize some bishops who are currently out of communion with Rome. With this happening, a significant factor impairing relations between Beijing and the Holy See - which have been cut at the diplomatic level since 1958 - will be removed. The New York Times believes ties could be restored in the long term.
The provisional Sino-Vatican agreement should be placed in a historical context. In particular, the Chinese Catholic Church has wished for decades to remain independent from the Pope in Rome. The issue is manifested in the self-consecration of bishops in China without seeking the Pope's approval. The West is seeing the situation as a clash between the so-called official church and the underground church. With reference to these organizations and the role of the Vatican, the Beijing administration is opposing outside interference in its internal affairs - including on religious issues - as a matter of principle.
Talks between China and the Vatican to reboot their relationship started in 2014. Although details are not publicized and general information remains limited, the process leading to the recent accord has been gradual and careful as the communiqué of the Holy See mentions. In August 2016, for instance, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, expressed hope for "a new season in relations" between China and the Holy See during an address to the diocesan seminary of Pordenone in northern Italy. According to Vatican Radio, similar expectations were raised in the book The Gospel beyond the Great Wall by Kin Sheung Chiaretto Yan, a Hong Kong born teacher in Beijing and Shanghai seminaries and colleges.
Moreover, in August 2017, Archbishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences and a close friend of Pope Francis attended a conference against human organ trafficking held in Kunming. On the occasion, he spoke about the will of the Pope for Beijing and the Holy See to have a great future. A few months later, Sorondo said China had followed the doctrine of the common good and was positive about a consensus between the two sides amid negotiations.
In 2018, international media, including Reuters, regularly discussed Sino-Vatican efforts to achieve a breakthrough.
The deal between Beijing and the Holy See that - according to the latter's communiqué - favors "a fruitful and forward-looking process of institutional dialogue" is alarming Taiwan. Taiwan has found in the Vatican an important ally in Europe while the Vatican is the only European state to maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan. This dispute has been as damaging to Sino-Vatican relations as religious differences.
Although the two themes are not simultaneously interlinked, the Vatican will possibly reconsider its "two-China" approach and accept the one-China policy in the future, following the example of other European countries. Of course, that kind of changes do not instantly happen.
On the whole, conditions for greater collaboration between China and the Vatican are promising. From 2015, Pope Francis has been saying he wants to go to China and loves the Chinese people. From a pragmatic perspective, the improvement of bilateral relations will give him the opportunity to try to overcome the schism dividing the Catholic Community in China. In the future, Chinese Catholics will live in communion with each other and with himself while he will also have symbolical authority over more Catholics in the country.
President Xi Jinping and Pope Francis share a joint privilege while in their positions. They lead billions of people. Pope Francis is the spiritual leader of approximately 1.2 billion Catholics. And Xi presides over 1.4 billion Chinese. This common challenge is an additional springboard for better communication between themselves and the states they represent. It outlines what influential leaders like them can achieve by coming together. The author is a lecturer at the European Institute in Nice, France. email@example.com