In recent times, Vatican diplomacy in China has begun from the premise that a smoother relationship on ecclesiastical issues will clear the path to what a generation of Vatican diplomats have sought: full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic. These diplomats imagine this will give the Vatican a place at the table where the great issues of world affairs are sorted out. The eagerness with which this putative grail has been pursued baffles many. The failed Vatican Ostpolitik in Central and Eastern Europe during the 1960s and 1970s succeeded only in disabling and demoralizing local Catholic communities, while the Vatican itself was deeply penetrated by communist intelligence services.
Yet that same accommodating approach is playing out today. Two years ago, the Vatican and China signed a protocol aimed at resolving the long-agitated question of how Catholic bishops are appointed in China and recognized as such by the Chinese state. While the text of that agreement remains secret, it was widely assumed to give a prominent role in nominating bishops to the Chinese government. Shortly after the deal was made, a Party congress transferred responsibility for religious affairs in China from the state to the Chinese Communist Party. It now seems as if the CCP nominates a candidate for a vacant bishopric, which the Vatican can accept or decline.
The situation of religious believers in China has not improved in any measurable way in the two years since the protocol was signed, with the Chinese government and Communist Party continually encroaching on religious freedom — and even attempting to use the church for its ends. The Chinese regime’s efforts to “Sinicize” the religious communities it permits to exist have intensified, with Catholic and other churches now compelled to teach the thought of Xi Jinping. Church buildings continue to be stripped of external religious symbols. Catholic schools in Hong Kong have been “advised” to extol the virtues of the new national security law Beijing recently imposed on the city, in violation of its treaty commitments to civil liberties in Hong Kong. Even more gravely, a horrific persecution of more than 1 million Muslim Uighurs is being conducted in Xinjiang, using concentration camps, forced sterilizations and other terrors that reek of Nazi practice.
The Vatican, however, is not without its own leverage. In September, the Vatican and China will begin negotiations on a renewal of the agreement. There is little doubt that Beijing wants the agreement to continue, if only to maintain the facade of a measure of religious freedom in China and thereby ease international pressures on the regime. This gives Vatican diplomats an opening to press Beijing. Part of that conversation should focus on dropping the spurious charges against Hong Kong media magnate Jimmy Lai and others who have been caught up in China’s repressive tactics in Hong Kong.
The national security law has been used as the pretext to arrest activists including Lai, whose Apple Daily newspaper has been a leader in defending Hong Kong’s liberties. Lai himself has been in the front ranks of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong over the past year and is held in great esteem in the city; his supporters even bid up the value of his company’s stock after Apple Media’s offices were raided by the Hong Kong police, the precise opposite of what usually happens when a state cracks down on a media company. Yet if convicted on the multiple charges he faces, Lai, who will turn 72 in December, could die in a Chinese prison.
Lai is a Catholic and a generous supporter of the church, but that is beside the point. He has come to represent freedom of the press, freedom of association, religious freedom and popular participation in government — all of which the Catholic Church supports in its social doctrine and which are being curbed in Hong Kong and across China. Thus, Holy See negotiators should press their Chinese interlocutors on Lai and freedom of the press in Hong Kong, as well as an end to the genocide of the Uighurs, the persecution of Protestant house-church Christians and Falun Gong devotees, and the continuing assault on Tibetan Buddhists.
The only power the Vatican has in 21st-century global politics is the moral authority that comes with the forthright defense of human rights for all. Such a defense played an important role in the nonviolent collapse of European communism in 1989. Vatican diplomacy should take a lesson from that in its dealings with China, not least in the case of Lai. Given the lack of hard power options to bring pressure on China to correct its abysmal human rights record, soft power may be the only available tool — and, paradoxically, the most effective one.