Bishop Stephen Chow of Hong Kong is on the Chinese mainland this week for a five-day visit to the Archdiocese of Beijing.
The visit, during which he will spend time with Bishop Joseph Li Shan, head of the archdiocese and the leader of the state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, is billed as “historic,” in both Western media and in the mainland press.
It is the first time a Bishop of Hong Kong has officially traveled to the mainland in some 30 years.
But while Chow’s tour is being pushed locally as a sign of the integration of the Catholic Church into Chinese society and the ever-closer ties between Hong Kong and the mainland, he arrives with Vatican-China cooperation at a visibly low ebb.
Away from the photo ops and inevitable positive public statements, what might his visit actually achieve?
Regardless of what the Hong Kong bishop intends or hopes to achieve with his visit, Chow’s mere presence in Beijing is something of a much-needed PR coup for the state-sanctioned Church in China.
Chow, who was appointed Bishop of Hong Kong in 2021, is the most recent Chinese episcopal appointment over which the Holy See had the final word. His nomination by Pope Francis capped years of back-and-forth between Rome, the diocese, and the mainland, which saw several candidates — including the diocese’s auxiliary bishop and vicar general — considered and rejected, as either too antagonistic or too friendly to the mainland government.
Ultimately, the Vatican got its way, and its man, in Hong Kong.
But in recent years, Rome has been more often, and more obviously, cut out from the episcopal appointment process on the mainland.
The CCP and its official subsidiary, the CPCA, have moved more often to appoint bishops to dioceses without telling the Holy See, or getting their approval. More recently, Beijing has moved to create entirely new dioceses outside of Vatican recognition and jurisdiction.
With local clergy increasingly voicing disaffection with the Vatican-China deal, originally signed in 2018 and intended to ensure cooperation on the appointment of bishops, and criticism of “illicit” bishops and Communist Party-endorsed ecclesiastical structures, the run-up to Chow’s visit was given an unusually high level of coverage by mainland media.
Although Catholic affairs are hardly ever considered newsworthy by the heavily censored mainland media, Chow’s encounter with Bishop Li, head of the capital see and of the CPCA, has been repeatedly featured in recent weeks.
The Hong Kong diocese does not come under the terms of the Vatican-China agreement on bishops’ appointments, and is not part of the CPCA, which is, Vatican officials privately concede, the reason Chow’s appointment was even possible.
But those same conditions make Chow something of a figurehead, with the diocese considered to be “free” and more fully in communion with Rome than those on the mainland, even if it is still very much a Chinese diocese. From that perspective, his powwow with Li will likely be spun by the CPCA and Beijing not just as a demonstration of harmony within the Church in China but also as proof that the “spirit” of the Vatican-China deal is alive and well, despite the obvious fractures with Rome.
Chow’s visit also comes amidst the renewed prosecution and jailing of prominent pro-democracy politicians and advocates in Hong Kong, a movement with which the Church there has long been associated.
One of Chow’s predecessors, Cardinal Joseph Zen, has long been an outspoken advocate for the democracy movement in Hong Kong, and a strident critic of both the mainland government and the Vatican’s dealings with it.
Zen was also tried, arrested, and convicted last year over his role in a nonprofit which helped political detainees with their legal fees, prompting international outcry.
Chow’s official visit to Beijing will be offered in stark contrast to Zen, and strike many as a smoothing over of his predecessor’s treatment.
Despite the obvious PR benefits for the CPCA and mainland government which Chow is bring with him on his five-day trip, it would be wrong to dismiss him as either a dupe or a shill for Beijing.
When Chow was unveiled as the new Bishop of Hong Kong, he publicly admitted that he had recently attended banned events, like a prayer vigil to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and said his “personal story and that of the people of China are linked by that event.”
While avoiding pointed and public disputes with the government in Hong Kong, Chow has publicly stated that it is “unacceptable that human dignity is ignored, trampled upon or discarded.” And while stressing that his diocese’s Catholic schools need to keep to the right side of government regulation, both to protect teachers and students, he had also noted that “culture can be subversive” and highlighted the importance of the Church forming future generations of Hong Kongers.
“I am not a diplomat; no bishop is,” Chow said in an interview last year, but pointedly noted that “of course, sometimes we have to be diplomatic.” And his visit this week is, away from cameras and press statements, a chance for some diplomacy.
When the new Bishop of Shanghai was announced earlier this month, the Vatican press office admitted that the Holy See had only learned of the event through media reports. And clergy on the mainland in China report the impression that the Vatican has little, if any, direct information of events on the ground.
Chow’s visit, then, could also be an important chance for first-hand information gathering and private contact with Bishop Li, who could perhaps give Chow a more frank account of his position and freedom (or lack of it) to maneuver under CCP supervision than he would be able to manage safely through other channels.
If he’s minded, the Hong Kong bishop will also be able to offer Rome his own observations from a scheduled visit to the national seminary in Beijing, and what he makes of the next generation of priests being trained for service in the mainland Church.
Of course, Chow’s ability to be the Vatican’s man on the mainland for a few days depends in large part on how much the Holy See wants to know, or care, about reality on the ground there.
The Secretariat of State has, since the deal was last renewed in 2022, shifted from insisting the Vatican-China deal is working, and championing engagement with Beijing, to openly acknowledging the agreement has become a failed accord with a bad faith actor.
At the same time, Rome has shown no obvious signs that it sees the emergence of an increasingly autocephalous national Church in China as a major concern. Instead, the impression the Secretary of State seems to be giving is that, while the situation is bad, they realize it could always get worse — and in the meanwhile, they seem to believe they are relatively powerless to influence the situation for the better.
It is entirely possible that, even if Chow returns from Beijing with useful intelligence, he might lack for willing ears to receive it in the Vatican.
If Rome’s attitude to affairs on the mainland is increasingly to see and hear and speak of as little evil as possible, that would also leave Chow in a rather isolated position — not so much a bridge between the Vatican and Beijing as alone out on an ecclesiastical limb, under pressure from the Chinese Church and government, and without meaningful support from the Holy See.
It could be that Chow will be spending the next five days in Beijing trying to assure Bishop Li of his intentions, rather than the other way around, and trying to stave off any designs the CPCA might have on his diocese.
If that is the case, it would seem he’d be right where Beijing wants him.