An Asia Times dispatch today from Francesco Sisci, author of the essay “China’s Catholic Moment” in the June-June issue of First Things, observes that Chinese premiere Hu Jintao next week embarks on a state visit to Italy, the first for a Chinese leader in a decade. The visit, Sisci argues, may portend a breakthrough in relations between China and the Vatican:
Hu will come as close as possible to breathing the air around one of the pillars of Western civilization - the Papacy, the Holy See, the Vatican, the headquarters of the largest unitary religion in the world. For centuries, the Vatican has been part of the very way of thinking in the West. The idea of balancing powers came from the Roman republican tradition of two consuls, the democracy of the Greek city-states, preventing a concentration of power; it continued with the balancing of clashes and friction between the emperor and senate during the Roman Empire, and for centuries it was embodied in the talks and dialogue between European kings and the popes - the political and religious powers of the Western world.
During all that time, China had only the idea of concentration of power in the hands of the emperor. If the emperor failed to hold on to power, the empire would break up (as happened many times in the past 22 centuries) or the dynasty would fall. Religious leaders simply had to obey to the emperor, in one way or another. But since the beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, China has forfeited the idea of an emperor, a single paramount leader. China’s decision-making process is developing fast and learning from the West, and China is looking around for inspiration. As the Vatican is part of this Western tradition of balancing powers, it is inescapable for the Chinese leaders.
Jiang, at the turn of the 21st century, started the process of normalizing ties with the Vatican, a process that stalled for a few years after the Holy See decided to canonize 120 Chinese martyrs on October 1, 2001, the PRC’s 51st National Day, the first PRC’s National Day in the new millennium.
After a few years, the process restarted. Two years ago the pope issued a groundbreaking letter to Chinese Catholics that, for the first time since the beginning of the Cold War, recognized the legitimacy of the PRC and thrashed the old hostility between Catholic believers and the officially communist Chinese government. It said that a good Chinese Catholic ought to also be a good Chinese citizen.
Comments on Sisci’s “Catholic Moment” essay were overwhelmingly negative, even hostile; a number of posters accused Sisci of parroting the Chinese Communist line and acting as an apologist for a murderous regime. My own view is that such outbursts betray a sort of cultural illiteracy that is sadly typical of Americans, who assume that if the rest of the world simply acted as they do, all would be well. They forget that America called out from among the nations a tiny percentage of individuals who wished to make a new start at the price of abandoning their own ethnicity.
Many of my conservative friends seem to think that if we jump up and down on the table and scream about China’s lack of democracy, we would improve the situation. I can’t decide if ignorance or petulance dominates in this attitude. China always has been a empire, never a nation state. It holds together a welter of difference ethnicities speaking different languages through a common system of ideograms and a common culture, and always has opposed a centralizing power to centifugal tendencies. It is an inherently unstable system. Communism erased China’s traditional culture, the Confucian system that linked the “little emperor” at the head of an extended family to the “big emperor” in Beijing through a set of analogous filial obligations.
In the midst of the greatest social upheaval in modern history, the largest popular migration in all of history, Chinese leaders are painfully aware that a great empire cannot survive merely on the impetus of consumerism. That is why China’s leaders are looking to the West for more than methods of business administration. It is impossible to predict, of course, how this will proceed, but potentially it could be one of the most momentous developments of our time.
Those in the United States who want China to fail should be careful what they wish for. Iraq, Iran, or Belarus could sink into the ground without a trace and the world would carry on regardless; an unstable China would make the world security situation unmanageable, not to mention the world economy.
My mystical intuition tells me that Hu’s decision to visit Italy implie something more than the Chinese passion for Italian cuisine (the regional cuisine of Shanghai is Italian, judging from the number of restauarants operating their from Pizza Hut to haute cuisine, and the city’s signature dish is osso buco alla gremolata). My mystical intuition thinks that Hu’s presence in Italy has something to do wtih the fact that the Vatican is located in Italy. We will see; my mystical intuition gets it wrong a good deal of the time.