The Vatican knows this well. I have been told by insiders that the strategic thrust of Pope Francis’s diplomacy is all directed eastwards, towards the emergence of China as a great religious power. Chinese relations with the Vatican have long been fraught because of conflicts over the control of the Church, and in particular the control of appointments. The Communist party, like Henry VIII, wants to decide who runs the church in its country. The Pope, now as then, is not going to concede the point.
When considering the latest outbreak of persecution against Christians in China, what you have to understand is that there are already thought to be more Christians there (some 100 million) than members of the Communist party (87 million). This is not an impressive outcome for 70 years of intermittently ferocious atheist suppression of religion: when the Communists seized power in 1947, there were only around 4 million Christians in the country. Under Mao, an estimated 500,000 Christians died for – or because of – their faith. Yet since the Maoist state was opened to capitalism in the 1980s, Christianity, along with other religions, has grown at an astonishing rate.
This week it was reported that Christian leaders in eastern China had taken to the streets in protest at the removal of crosses; in the past two years, it’s estimated that more than 1,200 crosses have been removed from churches in Zhejiang province as part of a government initiative. The periodic campaigns against Christianity in China might suggest that the religion is a foreign import that the authorities can hope to suppress, and a fringe element in Chinese life. This would be almost entirely wrong. Although Christianity is undoubtedly an import to China, Christians argue that it is as well placed as any religion there, since the Communist regime so successfully persecuted traditional Chinese belief systems as well.