Relations between the Holy See and China since the 19th century have seen changing fortunes: from the Opium Wars to the French protectorate over missions in China, from the dramatic Boxer Rebellion to diplomatic relations being established, from the rise to power of Mao Zedong to the reforms of the new regime, up to the dialogue of today. This intricate history can be briefly summarized by looking at its principal phases.
Western imperialism and the French protectorate
Following the first Opium War (1839-1842), in the context of the weakness of the Chinese Empire and the assertion of the political, military and economic might of Western powers in China marked by “unequal treaties,” a French protectorate was established over the missions of the Catholic Church, referring to both foreign and native Catholics (Whampoa Treaty of 1844, and then of 1856).
In much of Chinese society the link with France (especially for Catholics, while analogous authority issues arose for other Christian denominations) strengthened the perception of Christianity as a foreign religion, leading to xenophobic hatred toward Christians. This would tragically explode in the Boxer Rebellion.
For its part the Holy See was conscious of the need to form an indigenous clergy, and from the middle of the 19th century a discussion began on the issue of relations between the Holy See and China.
In 1886, during the papacy of Leo XIII, there was an attempt to establish “amicable relations,” the result of an initiative taken by the Chinese. However, the pope did not send a nuncio. This was not only due to opposition from the French government but also out of fear of negative consequences for the general support for missions among French Catholics. Even so, it became increasingly clear that the French protectorate influenced the perception of the Church.