The hardline Chinese official removed last week as Communist Party head of Tibet has been appointed head of the province at the center of a debate over China’s Catholics, giving him an influential role in another sensitive religious issue.
Zhang Qingli (張慶黎), who gained a reputation as an unyielding Chinese Communist Party secretary of heavily Buddhist Tibet, has been appointed party secretary of Hebei Province, which surrounds Beijing, Xinhua news agency reported late on Sunday.
Hebei, with a population of 70 million, is home to about a quarter of China’s 8 million to 12 million Roman Catholics.
Zhang, 60, was known for his tough stance against Tibet’s exiled Buddhist spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, a man reviled by China as a separatist. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning monk denies advocating either violence or Tibetan independence.
Zhang was in charge of Tibet in 2008 when protests in the capital, Lhasa, gave way to deadly riots that rippled across other ethnic Tibetan areas. After the protests, he called the Dalai Lama a “jackal in Buddhist monk’s robes.”
Zhang’s new post will give him an influential role in China’s relationship with the Vatican, which is in dispute with Beijing over control of church affairs, especially the appointment of bishops.
China’s Catholics are divided between a state-sanctioned church that has appointed bishops without the Vatican’s approval and an “underground” wing wary of government ties. The underground church has deep roots in Hebei.
Late last year, 100 Catholic seminarians in Hebei demonstrated at the provincial government’s religious affairs office, opposing the appointment of a government official to a senior post in their seminary, AsiaNews, a Catholic news service, reported at the time.
Although Pope Benedict XVI has -encouraged the two sides of the divided Chinese church to reconcile, and engaged in a low-key dialogue with Beijing, the Chinese authorities have continued to appoint bishops without the Vatican’s approval.
Last month, the Vatican denounced the ordination of a Chinese bishop without papal approval and excommunicated the bishop. Pope Benedict has said he “deplores” the way Chinese authorities have treated Chinese Catholics who want to remain faithful to Rome.