Italy allows Chen entry as president – or do they?

The Taipei Times today published an article leading with the incredible headline Italy allows Chen entry as president. The article states:

President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) departed for the Vatican yesterday afternoon to join 200 state and religious leaders paying a final tribute to Pope John Paul II.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday said the Italian government pledged to grant Chen entry to the country in his capacity as head of state.

Chen’s attendance at the papal funeral today will mark the first time a president from Taiwan has visited the Holy See since the establishment of diplomatic ties 63 years ago.

The visit will also make Chen the first president from Taiwan to set foot in a European country.

Is this in fact entirely accurate?

Let’s have a look at the article the BBC published a day before the trip happened.

A Chinese spokesman expressed “strong dissatisfaction” at Italy for granting Mr Chen a visa to go to the Vatican.

Italy has diplomatic ties with Beijing, rather than Taiwan, which China sees as part of its territory.

And later on in the same article-

If Mr Chen goes ahead with his trip, he will become the first Taiwanese president to visit the Vatican – one of only 25 nations that officially recognises Taipei diplomatically, and the only one in Europe

He is scheduled to leave Taipei on Thursday for Rome, and stay in the Vatican until after Friday’s funeral.

In fact, the Taipei Times is making a very subtle, but highly misleading mis-statement. President Chen is being received by the Vatican as a head of state, but he is not, as the Taipei Times implies, being so received by Italy. From where does this confusion arrive?

To understand, let’s go to Zimbabwe for a moment. The NYT reported this morning that-

Zimbabwe’s president, Robert G. Mugabe, arrived in Rome on Thursday to attend Pope John Paul II’s funeral, apparently using a diplomatic loophole to evade European Union sanctions that ostensibly bar him from traveling to any of the union’s member states.


Under normal circumstances, Mr. Mugabe would not be permitted to fly to Rome. He is among 95 Zimbabweans whom the European Union has barred from entering its territory on the grounds that they “commit human rights violations and restrict freedom of opinion, association and peaceful protest.”

Mr. Mugabe appears to have evaded the travel ban because he is going to the Vatican, which is not a member of the European Union. A treaty obliges Italy to grant safe passage to visitors bound for the Vatican, which has no airport.

While I imagine that Chen is certainly not a criminal like Mugabe and has as much right as any Taiwanese citizen to visit European nations as a private citizen, the assertion that he is being received as a head of state by Italy is quite false. Italy is simply giving him landing permission as a head of state on a diplimatic visit to the Vatican, but this is based entirely on their treaty obligations to the Vatican, and in no way reflects their position towards Taiwan.

Taiwan is only formally recognized as a country by a few countries around the world, in Europe only by the Vatican. The Vatican’s reasons for maintaining relations with Taiwan over communist China are clear. Unlike the other nations of the world whose responsibilities are the economic and physical safety of their citizens, the Vatican’s primary concern is the spiritual guidance of Catholics around the world. China, despite what they claim, does not allow freedom of religion, forcing Catholics to choose between either a state organized Catholic church, which was forced to cut ties to the Vatican so long ago that they still conduct Mass in Latin, or pray in secret, at risk of prosecution by Chinese authorities.

In the flurry of news related to the Pope’s funeral The New York Times also has an article on this topic. As they say,

China’s 12 million Catholics are mourning the death of John Paul II, but his passing is also a reminder of an unfinished legacy: the division of Chinese Catholics from the rest of the church, and from each other. Indeed, if John Paul II helped bring down Communism in Eastern Europe, the Communist Party that rules China proved resilient. The two sides never came to agree to normalize relations between the Vatican and China and end the diplomatic break that began more than a half century ago under Mao.

On a personal level, the pope never achieved his goal of visiting China.

Of significant interest is that fact that a Chinese spokesman for the laughably named ‘Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association’ is quoted in the BBC article above as saying “The decision to let Chen Shui-bian attend has hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, including five million Catholics.” Clearly the Vatican holds the combined interests of the 7 million hidden Catholics in China, as well as the hundreds of thousands of Catholics in Taiwan, are also worth looking out for.

5 thoughts on “Italy allows Chen entry as president – or do they?”

  1. Ahhh young padawan, you have learned the truth of the Taipei Times. The NYT it is not (Not that the NYT has always been the paragon of journalistic excellence). As I mentioned over at Japundit on another article concerning the Taipei Times, it has the standards and integrity one would normally attribute rags such as the worldnetdaily or newsmax. Plain and simple truth takes a painfully obvious back seat to green political spin. Where news is in fact editorials and where editorials are little more than ill-conceived rants. Thats not to say the Taipei Times is a bad source of information, as its one of the few available English language media regarding Taiwan. It is just that one must make a concerted effort when reading it to actually get at something anywhere near resembling the truth.

    I don’t know what it is with that line, but every single government spokesmen from the PRC seems to use it. “The decision… blah blah blah… has hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” has been used for practically everything under heaven from Japanese textbooks to the Catholic Church. The ministry of foreign affairs needs to think of a new diplomatic rebuttal. About the number of Chinese Catholics, I am really skeptical that there are actually 7 million “underground” Catholics as is claimed. There really is no statistical data to validate this(as far as I am aware) and I’ve never heard anyone actually provide any evidence for this figure. The figure in reality could be much higher, but it is equally likely that it is much lower. The other more interesting question about Catholics (and underground Christians in general) in China is whether or not some can be considered actual Christians. One of the side effects of state sanctioned Churches is that generally the established clergy have been co-opted by the government. Those who preach the gospel are overwhelmingly laymen or more curiously do not neccessarily fully understand (at least in the traditional sense) the message of Christ. David Aikman’s book, Jesus in Beijing, makes brief mention of a number of psuedo-Christian “cults” that would actually be regarded by the Catholic church as heresies. The lack of qualified ministers in the underground churches presents an interesting study in the development of a common Chinese phenomenon, that is the fusion of established religions with local superstitions or even outlandish cults. Falun Dafa is one representation of this, but Chinese history is riddled with similarly unorthodox religious movements from the Yellow Turbans to the White Lotus, the Ming cult, the Boxers, the Taiping movement. It is with no little irony that all of those aforementioned religious movements culminated in radical political movements that either destabilized or even overthrew the government (excepting Falun Dafa which despite their shrillness hasn’t accomplished much via their main propaganda organs; the Epoch Times[Another English language China related news source one should take with no little grain of salt] and NTDTV.)

    I also happen to believe there is a great mis-understanding of the role of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and all the state sanctioned churches. While they used to weave marxism-leninism (Jesus was a friend of the prolitariet!) into Christian teachings, one cannot neccessarily maintain that this is still true. The state Christians are no lesser Christians for being under the aegis of a government bureaucracy, but rather the bureaucracy provides a legitimacy that shields them from persecution by a state which has always been paranoid about foreign interference(Vatican appointed bishops) and religious movements turned political(Falun Dafa). The western media seems totally uninterested in the state sanctioned church, which is quite a shame considering that there are some western churches that have also been using the official Church to promote Christianity. I think one of Jesus’ lessons should be remembered here, that is render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.

  2. I think I should make one part of the previous post more clear, as an ommission makes the message rather confusing.

    “Those who preach the gospel[UNDERGROUND] are overwhelmingly laymen or more curiously do not neccessarily fully understand”

  3. Re Jing’s comment, while the Taipei Times isn’t perfect, it’s probably one of the better publications you’re going to find from either Taiwan or the PRC. It’s sure as hell better than Xinhua, although they both have their political biases. If you want an un-spun view of China or Taiwan, you really have to turn to foreign media.

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