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The Complicated China-Vatican Relationship Moves Forward

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China Power

The Complicated China-Vatican Relationship Moves Forward

Both sides express willingness to improve bilateral relations despite sporadic unfriendly gestures.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Holy See have shown increasing signs that bilateral relations are moving forward, even though it’s still hard for the country controlled by the atheist Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the small state ruled by the world’s most powerful religious leader, Pope Francis, to get along with each other.

Currently, China and the Vatican do not have formal diplomatic relations, as the Holy See recognizes Taiwan. Recently, however, Beijing and the Vatican discovered that art can be a new approach to engaging with each other.

On November 21 in the Holy See’s Press Room, the Vatican held a press conference under the theme of “Beauty unites us” — written in both Italian and Chinese.

At the press conference,  the Vatican announced the first-ever exchange of artworks for exhibits in both countries: an exchange of 40 works of art from the Vatican’s collection of Chinese bronzes, ceramics, cloisonne, and paintings, and 40 works from China, are due to be exhibited simultaneously in March in the Forbidden City and the Vatican’s Anima Mundi ethnological museum. The exhibit in China will then travel to four other cities including Xi’an and Shanghai, after its Beijing inauguration.

According to the Associated Press, Secretary General of China Culture Industrial Investment Fund Zhu Jiancheng and Chinese artist Yan Zhang attended the press conference, too. Zhu said that the dual exhibitions would “open a new era in people-to-people exchanges between China and the Vatican.”

Barbara Jatta, director of the the Vatican museums, said: “Beauty … is the key to what the Vatican museums calls ‘the diplomacy of art’, which is certainly not our discovery … but which today is up to us to carry forward and creatively reinterpret in a constant confrontation with the global scene that is in front of us.”

Besides the “the diplomacy of art,” Pope Francis has openly expressed his desire to visit China in multiple occasions.

After his latest visit to Asia, Pope Francis told a group of journalists during his return flight to Rome that he would like to visit China, which “is not a secret.”

“We must proceed step by step gently, slowly, with patience. The doors to the heart are open, and I believe that a trip to China will be good thing for everyone. I would like to do it,” Pope Francis said. He also revealed that both states are having political talks over the Chinese Catholic Church.

In response to Pope Francis’ latest friendly remarks, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said on December 4: “China would like to continue with constructive dialogues with the Vatican side in accordance with the relevant principles and move forward the improvement of relations between them.”

This was also not the first time that Beijing expressed such a stance. Earlier in November, the Chinese foreign ministry just reaffirmed Beijing’s willingness to talk with the Vatican.

In February 2017, there was already information circulating that China and the Vatican had “reached consensus” on episcopal appointments — a significant breakthrough for advancing mutual relations.

In addition, after being allowed to open a Chinese social platform account in China’s Weibo, the Vatican has been publicly publishing news reports, photos, and other religious information in Chinese for quite a while.

Despite these positive developments, bilateral relations still move back and forth from time to time, as Beijing has been setting barriers on mutual people-to-people exchanges.

Recently, multiple Chinese tour agencies confirmed that the Chinese government has banned Chinese tourist groups from traveling to the Vatican, but the Chinese foreign ministry claimed that it didn’t “hear about it.”  

In 1951 — two years after the People’s Republic of China was founded by the CCP — Beijing cut relations with the Holy See and set up its own church outside the pope’s authority. Since then,  many pious Chinese Catholics have tried to establish underground relations with the Vatican.