Following Chinese President Hu Jintao's (胡錦濤) unsuccessful visit to the US, we can expect him to change his image of "incompetence" by taking an even tougher stance on certain issues. Apart from giving up its pretence of being neutral on the Iran issue in favor of opposing the US, China is also taking a hard stance on the issue of religion, as a conflict has broken out between China and the Vatican over the appointments of bishops.
Sino-Vatican relations had been improving in the past few years, especially after Pope Benedict XVI took his post last year. According to Cardinal Joseph Zen (陳日君) -- the Vatican's top appointee in Hong Kong -- the two countries could establish diplomatic ties at any time. Because the Vatican had decided to sacrifice its diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of China, China only had to allow the Vatican to appoint Chinese bishops.
The two sides had been appointing bishops together for some time -- examples include Joseph Xing (邢文之), the auxiliary bishop of the Shanghai archdiocese, Anthony Dang (黨明彥), the auxiliary bishop of the Xian archdiocese, Paul He (何澤清), the auxiliary bishop of the Wanzhou archdiocese, and most recently Joseph Xu (徐宏根), the bishop of the Suzhou archdiocese who took up his post last month.
However, China's state-backed Catholic Church -- the China Patriotic Catholic Association -- appointed Ma Yinglin (馬英林) and Liu Xinhong (劉新紅) as bishops without papal approval on Sunday and Wednesday, respectively. Although the Vatican requested a delay for deliberation, Beijing insisted on going its own way to assert its sovereignty. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) even argued that it had not received Zen's faxes conveying the Holy See's opinion, a trick Taiwan's Straits Exchange Foundation (海基會) is familiar with. Whenever the Foundation wants to discuss something with China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (海協會) that the Association does not want to hear about, the phone simply rings out.
It was just a matter of time before a conflict between China and the Vatican breaks out, because the CCP has always seen religion as a kind of dissidence. Of course, in these times of globalization, Beijing has no choice but to practice a dual tactic: Arresting religious believers on the one hand, while pretending to boost religious freedom on the other hand.
On the eve of Hu's US visit, in addition to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)-CCP Economic and Trade Forum, China held its first buddhist forum in Zhejiang Province to show off its "religious freedom" to the US. But observers pointed out that the purpose of the CCP's "united front" strategy is drive a wedge between and within people of faith, pitting Buddhism against Catholicism, Tibetan Buddhism against more mainstream practices, and so on. Speakers publicly condemned the Dalai Lama at the Zhejiang forum. A Taiwanese master also turned up to show the unity of faith across the strait. The politicized CCP version of religion is alien to how most people around the world understand their faith.
In Vietnam, another communist country, a celebration was held last November to mark the consecration of its 57th bishop, chosen by the Vatican. That is real globalization and the beginning of religious freedom.
The conflict between China and the Vatican continues as Zen and the Chinese Church rebuke each other. But after Ma's consecration in the Kunming archdiocese of Yunnan Province last Sunday, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused the Vatican of being unreasonable, and Zen of having seriously damaged relations between the two nations.