A Step Forward in Sino-Vatican Relations

Alessandro Tutino
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In July 2020, Recorded Future, an American cybersecurity company, produced a report detailing how the Vatican and several other Catholic organizations had been victims of various hacking attacks conducted by a group called RedDelta. The article, developed by Insikt Group, Recorded Future’s threat intelligence research unit, pointed out that the attacks began in May 2020 and continued until at least July 21, 2020. Moreover, it highlighted how RedDelta is allegedly sponsored by and known for engaging in cyberattacks against targets of strategic interest for the Chinese government. 

The attacks were carried out through the use of a lure document which allowed RedDelta to intrude the Vatican systems. The document in question was presented as an official Vatican letter addressed to the current head of the Hong Kong Study Mission to China. It is still unclear if the letter was forged by the group or if it was obtained and altered in order to get an access point for the incursions.

While similar attacks included other organizations and institutions (i.e. the Indonesian Ministry of Home Affairs, the Airports Authority of India), the question of why RedDelta would choose the Vatican as one of its targets remains unanswered.

Although addressing this question is not an easy task, understanding the complex historical relations between the two countries could be the first step in finding an answer to it.


The first real breach in diplomatic relations between Beijing and the Holy See took place in 1951, just a few years after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. After many attempts to pressure the Vatican, the Chinese government orchestrated a crisis with the scope of removing the apostolic mission from its territory. 

The accident resulted in the execution of Antonio Riva, an Italian businessman accused of participating in a conspiracy to assassinate Mao Zedong, a life sentence for the regional apostolic prefect Tarcisio Martina and the banishment of the Vatican’s diplomatic mission from the country, under the accusation of espionage. After this event, Beijing established two conditions for the Holy See to satisfy in order to reinstate its diplomatic relations with China: to abstain from interfering in religious matters and to break any ties with the Taipei government.

While the Holy See has shown no particular reservations in fulfilling the latter request, the former remains a point of considerable contention due to its intrinsic vagueness. The strongest point of disagreement between the two countries concerns the appointment of bishops in China. Although Beijing has been appointing its own bishops through the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the Holy See, while recognizing the possibility of consulting with civil authorities on the matter, states that such power is an exclusive prerogative of the Pope.


A radical shift in the Holy See’s approach to China was seen after the election of Pope Benedict XVI who, in 2007, declared his openness to engaging in a dialogue with the Chinese authorities in the attempt to mend the relations between the two international actors.

This move by the newly elected pontifex represented a considerable change in the Vatican’s diplomatic strategy when engaging with communist governments. It is well-known that Pope John Paul II played an important role in the fall of the USSR by protecting states which sought to break away from the Union and funding its opponents working behind Iron Curtain. His anti-communist stance was so crucial to him, in fact, that during the first visit of President Reagan to the Vatican in 1982, the two leaders immediately developed a strong bond over their shared views on the subject.

It was only with the election of Pope John Paul II’s successor that this strategy was abandoned in favor of a softer, more conciliatory one. In recent years, actions from both Beijing and the Vatican have shown some signals of reconciliation. The Vatican has expressed its willingness to develop new diplomatic ties with Beijing on the condition that the Chinese government grant more freedom of religion to its citizen and abstain from interfering with the ecclesiastical hierarchy operating within its borders.

A Step Forward in Sino-Vatican Relations
[SIR/Marco Calvarese]

Ever since 2007, when the appointment of Father Joseph Li Shan as bishop conducted by the Chinese authorities was tacitly accepted by the Holy See, the two countries have grown closer, and the election of Pope Francis in 2013 marked an ulterior step towards the rapprochement between them.

The milder position firstly introduced by Pope Benedict XVI has been continued to be supported by the current Pope, who has shown a strong interest in improving the Vatican’s relations with China and the goal of ameliorating the conditions of Catholics living in the country.


On September 22, 2018, Beijing and the Vatican signed their first provisional agreement related to the matter of bishops’ appointment in China, which entered into function one month after its signing and initially lasted for two years. While no official diplomatic ties were formed due to the Holy See’s recognition of Taiwan, the agreement granted the Pope the power of vetoing the bishops proposed by Beijing, in exchange for his recognition of the seven bishops previously appointed without papal approval

A Step Forward in Sino-Vatican Relations
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin on October 1, 2020 [Vatican Media/­Handout via Reuters]

As the agreement end date was getting closer and the Vatican demonstrated interest in renewing it for two more years, the United States’ administration voiced its concerns with the decision. On September 19, 2020, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed his opposition to the agreement’s renewal by stating through a tweet that the Vatican’s decision to pursue such a diplomatic path would endanger its moral authority. The Vatican’s “silent” response arrived during the following week when, as Pompeo was visiting the state, the Pope declined any meeting with him and justified his choice by mentioning the proximity of the U.S. election.


Despite the criticisms voiced by the U.S. Secretary of State, the Provisional Agreement was finally renewed for two more years and will remain in place until October 22, 2022. His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, has pointed out how the agreement is entirely focused on the appointment of bishops and that, although there are many other questions concerning the Catholic Church in China, it would be impossible to address all of them at once.

Chinese Catholics at Christmas Eve Mass, 2018
Chinese Catholics at Christmas Eve Mass, 2018  [AFP or licensors]

More than this, such a result is considered by the Holy See to be not only the destination of a long diplomatic journey conducted by the two parties involved but also the point of departure for more encompassing agreements in the future.

For now, one of the main results of this agreement is the appointment of His Excellency Antonio Yao Shun for the Diocese of Jining in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and of His Excellency Stefano Xu Hongwei for the Diocese of Hanzhong within the Shaanxi Province.

  • How will the Provisional Agreement influence future relations between China and the Holy See?
  • Can this agreement represent an opening of the People’s Republic of China to the West?
  • Will China engage in similar dialogues with other international religious institutions?

Suggested Readings

PR News Wire, Recorded Future Launches Threat Research Arm to Enhance Threat Intelligence Offering

Recorded Future, Chinese State-Sponsored Group ‘RedDelta’ Targets the Vatican and Catholic Organizations

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A Step Forward in Sino-Va…

by Alessandro Tutino time to read: 5 min