Riot police faceoff with pro-democracy protesters at Mongkok shopping district in Hong Kong Nov. 26, 2014. CNS photo/Tyrone Siu, Reuters

What China can learn from the Vatican in handling Hong Kong

By  Fr. Michael Kelly
  • July 3, 2017

Pope Francis and President Xi Jinping came into their present roles within a day of each other in 2013 – Pope Francis was elected March 13 and Xi became president March 14. However, they have each followed a completely different path in governing immense and cumbersome entities – the People's Republic of China and the universal church.

How they govern shows a complete contrast of approaches where Pope Francis has something very relevant to say about how China might manage Hong Kong, with the 20th anniversary of the handover of the British colony to the PRC falling July 1.

Despite what Josef Stalin said as the measure of the Pope's power – how many military divisions he commanded – the Pope's record thus far has much to say about the exercise of both hard and soft power. China is a heavy practitioner of both, internally and in its relations with other states.

China and the Vatican can appear to be polar opposites. They generally take contrasting views on many world issues. China, an avowedly atheistic state, has a long record of persecuting religious minorities, including Catholics. Currently there is a fundamental disagreement between Rome and Beijing about how the Catholic Church is to be run in China and how bishops are to be appointed.

There are similarities: China is a one-party, totalitarian state; the Vatican is the last surviving absolute monarchy in Europe; both have labyrinthine decision-making processes; both have tried to do their work in secrecy; both have patterns of patronage that influence who is promoted to various significant positions in their administrations; and both seek to influence public opinion throughout the world on a shared list of significant issues.

But that's about where the parallels cease.

The way Pope Francis is governing the Catholic Church is in complete contrast to the way Xi has operated from the commencement of his term, which is most likely to be renewed at the party meeting later this year.

The Chinese government and Xi in particular are terrified of any movement or group that might lead to the breakup of their control internally – witness the oppression of religious groups in Tibet and Xinjiang, the abusive treatment of human rights lawyers, the close control of minority religious groups throughout the country.

And internationally, China is engaged in a very expensive and ham-fisted effort to spread its influence in countries throughout the world through the establishment of hundreds of Confucius Centers in universities, mostly in Western nations, to propagate Chinese views; through the control and ownership of Chinese media in many countries; through peddling influence; and with the close monitoring of the millions of Chinese students attending universities in the West.

And back home, the Chinese Communist Party cloaks its inner processes and the promotion of its leaders in a dark secrecy that ensures the participation of only the chosen few in appointments and the exclusion of those impacted by the appointments from any other activity than applauding or at least mildly accepting the wisdom of the party leaders in their choices.

China has been a totalitarian state for its entire history. Either a dynasty or one party has always been in charge, and the key to control has always been an obedient military. Despite what has been achieved in the creation of participatory democracy elsewhere in East Asia (Japan, South Korea and Taiwan), there is no sign that a similar development in China is even on the distant Chinese horizon.

The fact of the matter is, participatory democracies take hundreds of years to evolve. Just look at European political history. China has no history to draw on and modify. One party rule and all its clandestine processes are around for the foreseeable future.

The Vatican, Europe's last surviving absolute monarchy, is meanwhile in the throes of dynamic change. A Catholic form of participatory democracy is evolving in the use of government by synods at all levels of Catholic governance – from the Vatican to the local parish.

The Catholic Church is not and never will be a democracy. The democracy movement that began in the 18th century in Europe and unfolded in the West left the Catholic Church to one side. What the current Pope is proposing is the return to a more ancient form of governance in the church – synods where clerics and laypeople participate and share in setting the church's direction at international, national and diocesan levels.

Parts of this model have endured in the Eastern churches – the Orthodox communities of, for example, Russia and Greece, and in the rites in communion with Rome – the Melkites, Maronites, Syro-Malabar, etc.

But for its part, the Roman rite led by the Pope in Rome assumed the colors and shapes of European absolute monarchies and reached its most extreme form in the 19th and 20th centuries. And, despite Vatican II and the establishment of the international Synod of Bishops by Pope Paul VI, "consultation" remained Roman-driven, with the outcomes of synods agreed even before the bishops had reached Rome.

That was until Pope Francis who, in the two gatherings of the Synod of Bishops focused on family matters, asked the bishops to share their views openly and not to be constrained by a Roman agenda, something that hadn't happened in over 45 years – since Synod gatherings in the early 1970s. He called for openness in discussions, even in the expression of disagreement on topics. The bishops at the synod meetings were no longer asked to be branch managers of a multinational, but leaders in their own right.

The synod participants were on unfamiliar ground. But underlying this move is the reclaiming by Pope Francis of the millennium-old principle of Catholic governance – the principle of subsidiarity, by which decisions should be made at the level and closest to the impact and effect of the decision. Some decisions will be of universal significance and should have a universally inclusive process to reach them. But most decisions in the operation of human and church entities are of local significance and should have local people being the decision-makers.

It makes the best sense to include those directly affected by decisions actually making and owning them. That is what catholicity actually means. The crude substitute for it in the church too often is the demand for uniformity.

And this brings us back to Xi Jinping and China. One-party states always like to have uniformity, cloak their processes in secrecy, never delegate power or decision-making beyond what they can immediately control, operate their power advantage through patronage, which is repaid with compliance and obedience.

And what does it produce? Passive aggression, lethargy and the constipation of societies. There's an old saying in China that "the mountain is distant and cannot be reached by the Emperor." In other words, the Chinese people, and many middle managers notionally "kowtow" but really do their own thing.

Without transparency, genuine participation in decisions affecting their lives (and not the meek acceptance of representatives nominated for them by Beijing) and the real delegation of power to manage their own affairs, Hong Kong people will be left with only two alternatives – emigration or passive aggression for those who have to remain.

(Jesuit Father Michael Kelly is the executive director of

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.