News of Pope Ratzinger stepping down barely registered in the Chinese media, which was dominated by the celebrations of the incoming Year of the Snake. China’s Catholic community – roughly 12 million believers, divided between the Patriotic church and the underground traditional church – was left incredulous and lost. Its challenges, and its distance from Rome, have made the resignation that much harder to understand. Media attention was limited, the majority of the articles merely stating the news without comment. The statements of Father Lombardi and reports from the international newswire were reproduced, but there was little information provided, cold and synthetic, a duty carried out without emphasis or involvement.
The reasons are twofold. The first lies in China’s conception of foreign policy. For the CCP – which is in control of the press, although in this case did not need to influence public opinion – foreign policy is merely the relationships that Beijing has with other countries. They are not interested in the relationships of the world, only in those that the world has with China. Chinese news is full of foreign visits to Beijing, or reciprocal visits of Chinese dignitaries abroad. The second reason is strictly political: commenting on the Pope would have meant entering into a contentious debate. China has historically taken a firm, cold stance on religion. It is a secular country in both its Confucian and Communist forms, leaving little room for organized congregations or the presence of different beliefs. The discussion would have inevitably turned into a political discourse. But Beijing does not have official diplomatic relations with the Holy See, the only European country that anachronistically maintains relations with Taiwan. Propaganda aside, commenting on the retiring of the head of a foreign state it does not recognize would have meant giving them status, a concession to which Beijing is hardly accustomed.
The lack of comment is not necessarily related to a lack of interest with respect to the Vatican. Talks for the normalization of relations continue via unofficial channels, although they have yet to produce results. China does not want to relinquish its dual supremacy: that of the State over the Church, and that of Beijing, who considers any external influence to be meddling in its internal affairs. Control over the nomination of Chinese Bishops – officially held by Beijing, but claimed and exercised by the Vatican – is the most evident sign of the disagreement. The silence in the face of an earthshaking, unprecedented resignation is based on these premises, and it pushes against obstinacy to find a political solution that can be mutually agreed upon. A solution will eventually be found, although it is hard to guess when, given the millenary nature of the two societies.