China hints at appreciation of church, long role in China, and Laudato Si’
“China’s gift” to Pope Francis
“China’s president has sent me a gift. Relations are good,” Pope Francis revealed in passing, during the in-flight press conference held on the way back from Baku on Sunday. The revelation made by a “papal source”, which would once have sparked excitement among international media was all but ignored by western news agencies that have been keeping a keen eye on the situation with China’s Catholics. In actual fact, though, the story behind China’s gift to the Pope is peppered with interesting details, all of which are to be read in the context of this very unique phase in Sino-Vatican relations. These are to do with the object itself, the bearers of the gift and the way the news was received in China.
The gift Beijing sent the Bishop of Rome is a silk drape depicting the long narrative in Chinese ideograms found on the famous Stele of Xi’an, also known as the Nestorian Stele. The epigraphic stele is three metres tall and one metre wide and was erected in China in 781, during the Tang dynasty, in order to document the first 150 years of Nestorian Christian presence in the country. The inscriptions (which were translated into Italian by Bose monk Matteo Nicolini Zani in 2001), mention the cross and baptism, the Trinity and the mystery of the Incarnation. It constitutes historical evidence of the spread of the ancient Nestorian Eastern Church across China, which was considered one of the most astounding missionary developments Christianity had ever witnessed.
According to Sinologists eager to decode the “sign language” favoured by Chinese leaders, whoever sent the gift wanted to send a message laden with suggestive implications: the sender wanted to reiterate that Chinese Christianity is not a recently “imported product” linked to the colonialist aggression of modern western powers. Instead, the Celestial Empire embraced it since the earliest centuries of Christianity and it can be recognised as an original component of Chinese history and culture.
The gift was delivered to Pope Francis by Zhou Jinfeng, general secretary of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, who took part in the study seminar in the “Laudato Si’” encyclical which the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace organised in the Vatican last 28 September. The Chinese Foundation delegation present at the Vatican seminar was headed by Hu Deping, an emblematic figure of the current Chinese government – a friend of President Xi Jinping and his predecessor Hu Jintao and above all the son of Hu Yaobang, Secretary of China’s Communist Party, who was considered a reformist and booted out of power in 1987 by his former mentor Deng Xiaoping and who has been commemorated again as a figure during the past fifteen years. Hu died of a heart attack in 1989. Shortly after his death, the Tiananmen Square revolt broke out, turning Hu’s removal into a shining example of the Chinese leadership’s most deplorable practices.
The Foundation headed by Hu Deping lost no time in posting a photo of the presentation of the Pope’s, on its website, stating that the Bishop of Rome “accepted it with great joy”. The more official government bodies did not comment on the event. But the news was reported on the websites of pro-government media, such as Duo Wei Xin Wen, which credited President Xi with the initiative.
In the last response he gave in an interview with Asia Times on China last February, Pope Francis sent President Xi Jinping his wishes for Chinese New Year. This is the first time Chinese media have circulated the news about a gesture of courtesy to the Pope, attributing it to China’s political leader.
In the past, messages sent by Popes (from Paul VI onwards) to leaders of China’s Party, did not receive a direct response. Now, the fact that the information about the gift which President Xia allegedly sent the Pope reached Chinese media is a sign that an old stereotype has been broken. This is also confirmed by Beijing’s official reactions to Pope Francis’ comments on the return flight from Baku about China and the “good relations” between China and the Holy See. During the in-flight press conference, he also said he was “optimistic” about the outcome of the dialogue between the two sides, which is being handled by the working commissions.
The officials at China’s foreign affairs ministry, who were questioned about the Pope’s words, agreed that “relations between the Vatican and China are good” and added that “at the moment, channels for dialogue between the two sides are clear and effective” and that there is a willingness “to continue a constructive dialogue” and “work together to constantly improve bilateral relations”.
China’s official reaction to the Pope’s latest remarks regarding China – which appeared more conciliatory and less steeped in stereotype compared to previous statements issued on the “Vatican question” by Beijing officials – can be read as a sign that the Chinese leadership inspires and supports the decision to engage in dialogue with the Holy See in order to resolve the many complex questions that China and the Catholic Church are yet to resolve. Without demanding things of the other side, they are trying to progress along the path of a “possible benefit” for both sides.
As the missionary Antonio Sergianni – an expert on the paths of Chinese Catholicism – writes on his blog: “the optimism the Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin expressed with regard to relations between the Vatican and China in recent months, has now been confirmed by Pope Francis and the Chinese government.”