Whatever its other accomplishments, Henry Kissinger’s new book, On China, ought to cause serious reconsideration of that now-familiar refrain, “China-is-the-lead-country-of-the-future.” Kissinger’s analysis of Chinese history has been criticized, as has his reticence about evils like the massacres at Tienanmen Square. But his conclusion—that China’s future depends on the resolution of the conflict between those of its leaders who want to maintain totalitarian political control at all costs and those who want to complete the country’s remarkable economic development with a genuine opening toward democratic governance—strikes me as a fair summary of the situation. And it should give no comfort to the China-Is-Inevitably-Number-One crowd. A country that conflicted about its political future is an unlikely contender for world supremacy.
The current division with the Chinese political leadership will also be of interest to the Holy See. In Rome, some Vatican diplomats have long advocated a fast march toward full diplomatic relations with the Beijing government; others have urged a more measured approach, which has been the path chosen by both John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The latter seem to me to have the better of the argument. Indeed, it is not easy to see any advantage to the Catholic Church in quickly closing a diplomatic deal with the Peoples Republic of China, ruled as it is today, and for three reasons.
1. The current regime cannot be trusted to keep its word. For some time, a modus vivendi was in place between the Vatican and Beijing on the appointment of bishops. It was never codified, but everyone knew the basic rules of the road: no bishops are to be ordained without the tacit approval of the Holy See. The regime brazenly broke that working agreement late last year, going so far as to drag one elderly Chinese bishop by his hair to an illicit episcopal ordination. There is no reason to think that formal diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the PRC will resolve this bottom-line issue of the Church’s independence to control its own life; that issue has to be resolved before any diplomatic deals are concluded.
2. Diplomatic relations with Beijing means severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Taiwan is the first Chinese democracy in history; the Catholic Church has made clear for three decades now that, under modern conditions, democracy is morally superior to other forms of governance, most certainly including totalitarianism. For the Holy See to throw a Chinese democracy over the side while embracing Chinese totalitarians would raise grave questions about the Church’s commitments to human rights and democracy. The struggle that Kissinger describes over China’s future must be farther along the road toward a resolution in favor of the reformers before diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China make sense—not least because that kind of resolution could render the Taiwan issue moot.
3. Diplomatic relations with Beijing under current circumstances could well impede the Church’s evangelical mission in the China of the future. There is serious persecution of Christians in China. Yet, if and when China finally opens itself fully to the world, China is likely to become the greatest field of Christian mission since the Europeans came to the western hemisphere in the 16th century. If the Catholic Church is seen as an ally of the old regime in the period immediately after the old regime falls, the Church’s missionary efforts are going to be seriously compromised. Evangelical Protestants and Mormons, who are gearing up for major missionary efforts in China when that becomes possible, don’t have to worry about such linkages being drawn. The Catholic Church should not put itself at a disadvantage in the missionary China of the future by its diplomatic actions today.
The Catholic Church is two thousand years old; the current Chinese regime took power in 1949. The Church can afford to wait. Keeping the pressure on, especially about religious freedom and the free appointment of bishops, is more important now than a nunciature and a Vatican ambassador in Beijing.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.