China has a remarkable capacity for seducing otherwise intelligent people. Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, a late-1950s experiment designed to make China an industrial power, was a colossal failure that caused millions to starve. Sensitive to mounting criticism, China organised carefully curated study tours for international opinion leaders in the hope that they would proclaim, as François Mitterrand and Field Marshal Montgomery foolishly did, that there was no famine in the land. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to fully distance himself from the charge of naïvety levelled in the wake of his 2013 comment praising China’s “basic dictatorship”. And China-watchers are still scratching their heads following the recent suggestion from Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo that we should look to China as an example of Catholic social doctrine in action.

Catholics themselves should be puzzled by such a statement. Sorondo is a senior official at the Vatican, which is currently negotiating with the Chinese government a new accord that would, among other things, remove impediments to the appointment of bishops, granting the Church a long-awaited measure of accommodation from China’s Communist Party. Until now, the party has alternated between outright hostility to the Church, something that prevailed until the 1980s, and, in recent times, a capricious tolerance that has allowed some Catholic communities to flourish while elsewhere, priests and bishops are imprisoned, crosses pulled down and churches demolished.

In some respects, Vatican diplomats are engaged in the kind of negotiation with Chinese officials that is familiar to their counterparts from other sovereign states. They need to keep a few basic rules in mind.

First, see China as it is, not as you would like it to be. For all of its undeniable progress, China remains under the full control of the Communist Party, whose principal objective is to stay in power, whatever the cost. The party is wary of any other institution or belief system capable of motivating or inspiring China’s citizens. Religion is therefore viewed as a threat, particularly Islam, Tibetan Buddhism and Catholicism, faiths whose reach transcends borders. This is why the party so regularly insists that religion in China be “sinicised”, which means made more Chinese – and controllable.

The ride from the airport into Beijing’s dazzling business district speaks to the great progress China has made, an insight that is no doubt relentlessly reinforced for Vatican negotiators by Chinese officials, who are also adept at flattering susceptible foreigners. But the reality is much more messy and complicated. Basic freedoms, including freedom of belief, remain under threat, something that is unlikely to change as President Xi Jinping consolidates his hold on power.

Second, stick to your principles and know when to walk away from the table. Chinese negotiators are experts at keeping an agreement tantalisingly out of reach, leading to ever more concessions from the other side. Once a card has been played, it can’t be snatched back. But it will be carefully analysed. The willingness of the Vatican to abandon its previous position and accept seven government-appointed bishops, even at the cost of asking two faithful and long-suffering legitimate bishops to step aside, must have been especially encouraging to the Chinese leadership.

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