Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, experts have been scrupulously analyzing the Russian Orthodox Church’s (ROC) reaction to the conflict. Its support for the Kremlin triggered comments about the Church being a state-controlled ideology entrepreneur which has confused Christian values with imperial geopolitics. Indeed, the inclination towards geopolitics and great power logic can be noticed in the position of many representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate. However, this is not only the case with Ukraine or post-Soviet territory. The ROC’s entanglement in geopolitics goes beyond this and often contradicts Christian teaching. This is well seen in the Moscow Patriarchate’s approach towards China, which is discussed here. It is intriguing to observe how a Communist Party hostile towards religion has become a desirable ally against the liberal West with whom Russia shares its Christian tradition.
The fact that the US is unable to convince China to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine confirms the significance of the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership. Russia’s reorientation towards China accelerated after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The cornerstone of the new opening between Moscow and Beijing was laid, though, in 2001, when the bilateral Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation was signed. The Plan of Actions foreseen by the treaty (2004) included a point which provided information about “initiating a dialogue and a cooperation between the ‘leading religions’” of both countries. This rather modest formulation has provided the Russian state and Church with the formal ground to address the situation of Orthodox believers living in China.
The Christian Orthodox community appeared in China in the 17th century due to the efforts of Russian missionaries. Mao’s rule was devastating to all religious groups, including Christian Orthodoxy. In an attempt to minimize the stigma of being an alien community controlled from abroad, the Moscow Patriarchate decided to establish the Chinese Autonomous Orthodox Church (CAOC) in 1956. This, however, was insufficient to save it from the persecutions of the cultural revolution. According to estimates provided by the ROC, the community currently has approximately 15,000 believers who live mostly in Beijing, Shanghai, Inner Mongolia, or Xinjiang. Orthodox Christianity is not among the five traditional religions of China (i.e., Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Islam). It is not even registered and thus does not have a legal status.
For the ROC the unregulated situation of Orthodox believers presents an urgent matter. One of the first hierarchs to draw attention to this problem was Metropolitan Kirill, who as the head of the Department for the External Church Relations paid a visit to Beijing in 1993. In a lecture delivered in 2007, he formulated the official position of the Moscow Patriarchate in relation to the CAOC. The ROC does not conduct missionary activity in China, which is the territory of the CAOC. However, due to historic circumstances, the latter has found itself in difficult circumstances, and therefore the ROC, carrying pastoral responsibility, will assist it to restore the clergy and regulate its status. The ROC’s agenda in China could be summed up accordingly: new priests must be anointed, the observance of mass must be allowed, and its legal status must be achieved.
Dionisy Pozdnyaev who since 2003 has been responsible for Orthodox believers in Hong Kong, publicly acknowledges the positive approach of the Chinese government. The reality is, however, more complicated. Despite the frequent reassurances about good relations, the Chinese leadership perceives the ROC as an institution which historically was one of the instruments of Russian imperialism in Asia and today is an organisation representing Russia’s interests. This impression is strengthened due to the Kremlin’s support for the ROC. Finally, Orthodox Christianity is viewed in China as a confession of ethnic Russians. Despite this guarded approach of the Communist Party, an institutional framework for discussing religious issues has been established. There are two main platforms: the Russian-Chinese Working Group for Contacts and Cooperation in the Religious Sphere (2010) and the Interfaith Cooperation Council as a subsection of Russian-Chinese Peace, Friendship and Development Committee (2014).
The single most important event so far has been the official visit of Patriarch Kirill to China in 2013 (May 10-15). He flew to Beijing in the Russian presidential jet and was received with honors reserved for heads of state. The ROC proudly emphasizes that Kirill has been the only religious leader allowed to visit China, while a similar request from the patriarch of Constantinople was declined by the Communist leadership. Most politically significant was the meeting with president Xi Jinping who, two years later, during his visit to Moscow, visited Kirill. However, the patriarch’s diplomatic efforts did not cause a breakthrough in the situation of Orthodox Christians. Even Dionisy Pozdnyaev, always eager to praise the Chinese government, admitted that changes could happen faster.
There should be no doubts that the ROC operates under difficult circumstances in China. To regulate the status of the Orthodox community, it must tread carefully. However, the Moscow Patriarchate’s approach to Beijing goes beyond the concerns about the situation of the believers. In numerous public statements, representatives of the ROC have stressed the closeness of values between Russia and China in resisting the liberal West. Worth noting, though, is the fact that it is always the Russians hierarchs and not the Chinese who talk about the normative common front. Not even Russian state officials refer to traditional values when meeting their Chinese counterparts, meaning that the ROC’s behavior is not motivated by the need to maintain a coherent narrative with the Kremlin. It is puzzling to say the least that a church which has suffered greatly at the hands of communists is seen to be emphasizing its axiological closeness to a communist country against the liberal West. Nor can this particular approach of the ROC towards China be explained by the Russian tradition. The religious philosopher Vladimir Solovyov in the 19th century warned against the “Godless Chinese civilization” and the “Sinization of Europe” (Russian: kitaizatsiya Evropy), understood as a loss of spirituality and radical materialism. Today among the top hierarchs only Archpriest Maksim Kozlov has voiced a similar concern referring to the “spiritual emptiness” of China and describing it as a great power which has never developed a mass religiosity.
Declaring a common normative front entails viewing China as an example to follow. Russian priests refer to China as an inspiration whether it comes to controlling the internet or resisting “gender ideology.” Bishop Ilarion made a telling remark when he noted that, although communism is bad (in the USSR or China), it tends to preserve conservative social conventions. The ROC has drawn a similar conclusion as the Kremlin when it comes to the main threat. This is the West and its liberal ideas. In the face of the great power rivalry, Russia needs allies to balance against the West. The fact that China can help to bring down the liberal supremacy is more important than the godless essence of Chinese communism.
Alicja Curanović is a member of the Faculty of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Warsaw.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.