The new Pope, China and Tibet


I contributed the following to the International Campaign for Tibet’s blog as I feel there is a need for the Vatican to look at the Tibetan issue from a different angle.


The new Pope, China and Tibet

Bhuchung K. Tsering

March 1, 2013

On March 1, 2013, Catholics throughout the world started the day with a new experience, one that none of them had experienced in their lifetime; being without their spiritual leader the Pope, not because he had passed away, but because he had undertaken the papal version of the royal abdication. The Tibetan people had somewhat similar yet different kind of experience in 2011. While the Pope resigned from his spiritual duties now, the Dalai Lama had withdrawn himself from his temporal authorities then.

As the process begins for the search and election of a new Pope, among those watching the development closely will be the government of the People’s Republic of China. One of the unresolved religious issue in China today is the status of its estimated 12 million Catholics, which is having political and cultural implications. The Communist Government of China, despite being atheists, has been wanting to control the affairs of the Catholics and in the process giving them the false choice of obeying either the Vatican or Beijing on matters relating to their spiritual affairs. The Chinese Government has come out with different initiatives codifying the Church, creating in the process virtually two Catholic churches in China; the government-approved one and the underground one that has been showing its resilience for the past many years. The issue is further complicated by the fact that the Vatican has diplomatic relations with Taiwan and not with China.

The Vatican’s ties with China will be one of the issues confronting the new Pope, just as it was with previous Popes. In fact, there are reports saying that one of the ardent wishes of Pope John Paul II had been to “set foot on Chinese soil, kiss the ground and personally embrace the Chinese people.” Observers had also expected Pope Benedict XVI to make progress on ties with China. Pope Benedict XVI had even created a special Commission tasked to help the Vatican examine the issue of relationship with China.

Over the years, both the Vatican and China have sent feelers to each other in their effort to test the situation for improvement of their relations. But there have been no concrete outcomes.

As we await the new Holy Father, it might be worthwhile for the Vatican to look at the ongoing challenge the Tibetan Buddhists are facing in their relations with China to get an indication of whether there are any chances for a forward movement.

The Chinese authorities have been implementing a policy on Tibetan Buddhists, very much similar to the one on the Catholics, to either choose their spiritual tradition and leader, the Dalai Lama, or conform with Chinese government-approved procedures. As long as this mindset is not changed there cannot be any progress.

Secondly, the Chinese authorities seem to have decided that the very existence of a religious tradition that is independent of political leaders in Beijing is a threat to the survival of the Chinese Communist Party. Therefore, even if individual Catholics, Tibetan Buddhists or similar religious practitioners enjoy slight freedom, as long as Beijing does not change its belief that religious traditions are by themselves a threat one cannot expect progress.

When asked how the current impasse could be broken, a Vatican Spokesman told China’s Global Times, “By good will and mutual trust.” While these will certainly lead to building confidence, the solution might be closer to what a Chinese scholar, Wang Meixiu, told the same Chinese newspaper: “It boils down to how the government views and treats religious groups.”

Will the authorities in Beijing have the political will and courage to change their attitude towards religion?


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