Can China and the Vatican make beautiful music together?
Remember ping-pong diplomacy, the exchange of ping-pong players between the United States and communist China in the 1970s that was one of the first steps that led to a thaw in relations between the two countries? If the Vatican had a ping-pong team, perhaps China would have considered sending their squad to the walled city in Rome for a match.
But the Vatican does not have a ping-pong team, as far as we know. So, the next best thing appears to be music. This week, Vatican Radio made a surprise announcement on its daily 2 p.m. bulletin. The China Philharmonic Orchestra of Beijing and the Shanghai Opera House Chorus will perform Mozart’s Requiem for Pope Benedict on May 7 in the Vatican’s audience hall, adding a stop to its already scheduled European tour.
As one diplomat said, “this could not have happened without the Beijing government approving it.” Given the fact that relations between the Vatican and Beijing have been scratchy to say the least, one can only wonder if this is the start of a mating game. It could lead to diplomatic relations and China’s recognition of the pope as leader of all Catholics in the world, including Chinese Catholics, many of whom have been forced to join the state-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
Something seemed afoot in the last few months. In November, Monsignor Pietro Parolin, undersecretary for relations with states, was reported to have made a secret visit to China. The Vatican never denied the reports. In March, a Chinese delegation secretly had talks in the Vatican, sources confirmed.
One precedent for baton diplomacy that comes to mind is a similar event that happened in the Vatican on February 20, 1988 when the now mostly-forgotten Cold War still existed.
The then-Soviet Union’s Red Army Choir performed for Pope John Paul, singing, of all things, Ave Maria. It, too, was a shocker when it was announced. But on Dec 1, 1989, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made his historic visit to the Vatican, turning relations between the Kremlin and the Vatican on their head after some 70 years of mutual distrust. Relations between Russia and the Vatican were established in 1990 and the rest, as they say, is history.
So, if music be the food of diplomacy, play on.