Flap Between China and the Vatican Has Nothing to Do With Religious Freedom


On Thursday China chimed in as the world congratulated Pope Francis on becoming the new leader of the Catholic Church, but Beijing didn’t forget to add a bite to its message, warning that the Vatican “must stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, including in the name of religion.” In fact, Beijing has been going through a rough patch with the Vatican over the last few decades. They still haven’t established a formal diplomatic relationship.

With China’s notoriety for suppressing religious freedom, this might lead you to wonder why China hates Catholicism so much. Is it because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is atheist? Is it because China just doesn’t care about freedom of religion? The answers are actually no, because the problem is not at all about whether China wants its people to believe in god or not. It’s all about power.

It’s true that China’s record on freedom of religion isn’t so good. In 2012, the U.S. Department of State’s annual report on international religious freedom put China in its list of “Countries of Particular Concern,” along with Burma, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, and North Korea. 

However, we need to set the record straight. The Chinese Constitution explicitly grants “freedom of religious belief,” and recognizes five major religions, namely Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. People can go to church and pray, buy and read the Bible, or get married under the blessing of clergy. There’s a catch though. All churches need to be registered and all priests need to be ordained by the state. “Suppression” of Christianity in China usually means the Chinese government cracking down on unregistered “underground churches.”  

What’s at play here is the power struggle between the CCP and the Vatican. The Chinese government spends incredible amounts of time and resources on controlling the public opinion in order to maintain domestic political stability. For such a sensitive government, the existence of an authority, a foreign authority that is, that might reduce the CCP’s control over its people is simply a nightmare.

A closer look at other heavily suppressed religious groups, introduced in the Department of State’s report, shows Beijing’s ulterior motive beyond simple oppression of religious beliefs and acts. What’s lurking beneath is Beijing’s fear; fear of losing control of its people and therefore power. Religious activities of Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims are closely related to their separatist movements. Numerous self-immolations of Tibetan Buddhists, in particular, are the utmost protests against Chinese policies towards Tibet. Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that combined Taoism, Buddhism, and Qigong, was cracked down ruthlessly by the Chinese government in 1999. According to a study, anti-government movements in Chinese history have always been in the form of new religious movements. It was no coincidence that the CCP started to oppress Falun Gong only in 1999, ten years after its inception, when it put on well-organized massive demonstrations.

Back to Beijing and the Vatican, the power game they are playing is a more fundamental one than whether Xi Jinping and Pope Francis will like each other more than Hu Jintao and Pope Benedict XVI did. Who will win this game, we are yet to see. The Chinese Communist Party is pretty tough, ruling China for more than half a century and shoring it up to the place of a global economic and military power again. But the Catholic Church hasn’t been around for two millennia for nothing.