Hong Kong bishop Stephen Chow arrived in Beijing this week, marking the first time in nearly three decades that the highest-ranking bishop has visited the Chinese capital. The historic visit comes at a particularly sensitive time for Sino-Vatican relations. Earlier this month, China appointed its own bishop in Shanghai in an apparent violation of an agreement with the Vatican, which grants China some—but not total—power over the selection of bishops. China has been accused of repeatedly running afoul of this agreement, which Pope Francis signed in 2018 in an effort to stave off the persecution of Catholics in China. Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former highest-ranking Catholic leader in Hong Kong, was a public critic of Francis’ concessions to China and last year became one of the earliest figures charged under the National Security Law.
Bishop Stephen Chow’s visit may indicate some attempt by the Catholic Church to regain a handle on issues concerning the PRC government, which has had strained relations with the Vatican long predating the 2018 Sino-Vatican agreement. In general, the Vatican has not spoken out strongly regarding the case of Cardinal Zen or other similar instances of the mistreatment of Catholic leaders by CCP authorities. It remains difficult to predict what Vatican’s response to the latest set of PRC actions in apparent violation of the Sino-Vatican agreement will be, in part because the full scope and text of the Sino-Vatican agreement is not public knowledge, making it unclear how serious of a breach the Chinese government’s actions constitute.