Pope Francis considers renewing controversial China-Vatican deal

Pope Francis considers renewing controversial China-Vatican deal Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state. Photo: CNS
The report comes as criticisms of Disney bring Chinese cruelties to the fore again, writes Ruadhán Jones

Near the end of a long list of credits is an obscure, seemingly inconsequential thank-you from Disney to the “Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Committee”.

Already alarm bells should be ringing. Xinjiang has been in the news frequently over the last few months as the region in which the cultural genocide of Uighur Muslims is taking place. Disney not only filmed in Xinjiang, but publicly thanked the body which, according to China expert Adrian Zenz, is in charge of propaganda for the region.

This department is responsible for justifying the systematic persecution of Uighur’s in that region. This includes forcing people into slave labour, demanding that Uighurs host Han guests employed by the government to spy on them, and sterilizing Uighur women.

Understandably, many were outraged by Disney’s choice not only to film there, but to thank those in charge of this persecution.

Systematic persecution

The Uighur Muslims are the most public example of China’s policy of ‘sinicising’ ethnic minorities and systematically persecuting religions. The Uighurs have been an especial target of the Chinese Communist government since the inception of the state after the revolution of 1947.

They’ve never fully integrated because of their Muslim faith, and also because of their ethnic character and foundation.

They have a different culture, different aspirations and a different way of life from the Chinese government. This situation is, according to one source, utterly intolerable to the government.

Though the most public example, however, the Uighurs are not the only ones. Persecution of Christians has increased rapidly since 2018, according to Irish charity for protecting the rights of Christians, Aid to a Church in Need (ACN). The intensification is the result of Regulations on Religious Affairs (2018) which limited many religious activities to registered sites and introduced further restrictions.

This ‘provisional’ deal with China was intended to normalise – up to a point – relations between the two states”

In ACN’s 2019 report on Christian persecution, they published a number of examples of China’s systematic maltreatment and oppression of Christians. Christians have been arrested and detained without reason, Churches have been closed and, in some cases, destroyed, Crucifixes torn down from churches and Chinese flags hung instead – the list goes on.

While China has had a limited policy of religious freedom, these regulations are in part a response to the growing popularity of Christianity in China.

This is viewed as being a threat to Chinese hegemony and is being dealt with accordingly: “The government has orchestrated a campaign to ‘sinicise’ Christianity, to turn Christianity into a fully domesticated religion that would do the bidding of the party,” Lian Xi, a professor at Duke University in North Carolina who focuses on Christianity in modern China, told The Guardian in 2019.

China-Vatican agreement

Given the background of increased religious persecution, it was perhaps a surprise when Reuters reported that the Pope had renewed the controversial China-Vatican agreement of September 2018. The September 14 Reuters’ report has not been confirmed officially by either side, but in an interview on September 16, Secretary of the Vatican State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, said that he expected the deal to be renewed, so long as China were in agreement.

This ‘provisional’ deal with China was intended to normalise – up to a point – relations between the two states. The agreement focused on ecclesiastical issues of bishop appointments, seeking to unify the State bishops, previously not recognised by the Pope, and the underground bishops, not recognised by the state.

The deal has benefitted China already, gaining in international reputation at a moment when it is coming under increasing criticism on the international stage because of its crackdown in Hong Kong and its treatment of Uighurs.

On the Vatican’s side, Cardinal Parolin has staunchly defended the deal, arguing that it has opened up avenues for negotiation between the two states for the first time since the revolution in 1947.

“With China, our current interest is to normalise the life of the Church as much as possible, to ensure that the Church can live a normal life, which for the Catholic Church means also having relations with the Holy See and the Pope,” Cardinal Parolin said in comments to journalists on September 14.

The deal has made relations between the Vatican and Rome more complicated, not less…”

Privately, sources have been more circumspect, according to America magazine. “While it’s not a good agreement, it’s better than no agreement, and there’s hope it can be improved,” a Vatican source told them.


When it first came out, the agreement was immediately panned by critics and, as further revelations about the deals content and persecution of Christians increases, these criticisms have not died down.

One of the strongest critics, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the 88-year-old retired archbishop of Hong Kong, said in an interview in February 2020 that the Vatican “lost everything and got nothing” from the deal. Cardinal Zen has said that the deal has “doomed [the underground Church] to disappear” and that even in the official Church, “the Faithful are more and more controlled”.

Criticism isn’t only from the with the Church. At a conference in Hong Kong in 2019, Sam Brownback, the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said that: “Since this provisional deal was announced last year, the Chinese government’s abuse of members of the Catholic community has continued. We see no signs that will change in the near future,” he said.

Dr Michael Kinsella, National Director of ACN Ireland, told The Irish Catholic that the deal has made relations between the Vatican and Rome more complicated, not less, hamstringing the Church’s ability to comment on situations such as the treatment of the Uighur Muslims.

“We talk a lot about how the Rhine flows into the Tiber,” he said. “Nobody really talks at all about how the Yellow River now flows into the Tiber. That for me is one of the most dangerous aspects of all.”

The exact contents of the agreement are still yet to be published – according to America magazine, the Chinese Government would only sign the agreement if it was not publicly published.