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What an appointment to the pope's science academy has to do with China

Pope Francis named the former vice president and health minister of Taiwan as a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences on Saturday. While the appointment did not attract widespread international attention, it is the latest move in a complicated diplomatic balancing act as the Holy See manages relations with the two Chinas.

Embassy of the Republic of China to the Holy See. Credit:     Michael Cahill (CC BY 2.0)


The Vatican press office announced July 31 that the pope had named Chien-Jen Chen to the academy, which serves as a papal think-tank across a range of scientific and ethical issues.

Chen, who has a Ph.D in human genetics and epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University, is a lecturer in epidemiology at the Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan. Before that, he served as Taiwan’s minister of health from 2003-2005, minister of the National Science Council from 2006-2008; and the country’s vice president from 2016 until 2020.

The appointment of a senior politician from the nation officially known as the Republic of China, who is also a specialist in epidemiology, to the Vatican’s official science body is a significant step in the Holy See’s ongoing effort demonstrate quiet support for Taiwan, even as it pursues closer links with the mainland government of the People’s Republic of China.

The Holy See has recognized the government of Taiwan since 1942, while the Communist People’s Republic of China government has had control of the mainland since the conclusion of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. 

The Vatican has maintained an embassy in Taiwan since the 1940s, and has had no official diplomatic presence on the mainland since 1951, when it was officially expelled. 

In 1971, the mainland government succeeded in getting the United Nations to remove from its membership the democratic government of Taiwan, which the PRoC considers a rebel province. The UN resolution was seen to effectively endorse China’s view on the Taiwan question. 

Since the resolution passed, China has continued to exert diplomatic pressure on other nations to end bilateral relations with Taiwan, and has in recent years made the acceptance of a “one China” policy a condition of economic and diplomatic engagement with the mainland government. 

The Holy See is the last European government and the most prominent diplomatic power to maintain formal relations with Taiwan. But those relations have come under strain since a 2018 agreement between the Vatican and China, which grants the Communist Party certain prerogatives in the appointment of bishops for the mainland as part of the intended regularization of the status of the underground Catholic Church. 

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The Vatican-China deal was renewed in October last year. In the run-up to that renewal, government figures and Church leaders in Taiwan acknowledged speculation that ending formal relations with Taiwan would be a necessary condition for the Vatican to re-establish a formal diplomatic presence in Beijing — long seen as a goal of the Holy See’s Secretariat of State. 

In July 2020, the South China Morning Post quoted an unnamed Vatican official saying “Taiwan should not be offended if the embassy in Taipei is moved back to its original address in Beijing.”

In September last year, Taiwanese government officials said that they had received reassurances from the Vatican that its dealings with the mainland were limited to ecclesiastical affairs and not formally “diplomatic.”

Since then, the Holy See’s formal and informal diplomatic support for Taiwan has been closely examined by China-watchers for signs of any change in its commitment to the island democracy, while Beijing has adopted an ever-more belligerent tone toward its near-neighbor.

The appointment of a former vice president will likely be read by many in Taipei as a discreet signal of support for the ongoing relationship between the Vatican and Taiwan. And Chen’s appointment is not only significant because of his senior governmental status, but also because of his scientific background in epidemiology. 

During the global response to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the Vatican did not appeal for Taiwan to be allowed to participate in the World Health Organization’s assembly meetings — the only government with diplomatic relations with Taiwan which did not do so. 

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While the move is likely intended as a gesture meant to be noticed on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, it would also be carefully calculated not to draw pushback from Beijing, illustrating the Holy See’s ongoing difficulty in balancing its increasingly soto voce relationship with Taiwan in the face of deepening ties with China — ties which many critics of the Vatican-China deal have said come at the cost of the Holy See’s credibility on the issue of human rights.

Since the Vatican-China deal was agreed, many Vatican and China watchers have noted the Holy See’s conspicuous silence on the degenerating human rights situation on the mainland, where more than 1 million Uighurs have been forced into concentration camps as part of what survivors and human rights activists have called a campaign of genocide through forced sterilization, abortion, rape and torture.

The Vatican has also remained similarly silent on the crackdown on civil liberties and religious freedom in Hong Kong.

In June, the Holy See’s chief diplomat, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, said that while “obviously Hong Kong is the object of concern for us,” and “one can say a lot of, shall we say, appropriate words that would be appreciated by the international press and by many countries of the world,” “I — and, I think, many of my colleagues — have yet to be convinced that it would make any difference whatever.”

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