Why Beijing Barred the Pope From Hong Kong

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Just a case of bad timing or a disturbing sign of things to come? That's what residents of Hong Kong are asking after Beijing put the kibosh on Pope John Paul II’s planned visit to the former British colony later this year. Chinese officials told the Union of Asian Catholic News Agencies Monday that Beijing blocked the pontiff’s plans to visit the territory -- where an estimated 370,000 Catholics reside -- on the grounds that the Vatican maintains diplomatic ties with Taiwan. In more confident times, China’s Communist Party leadership may have been prepared to overlook such a detail, but Beijing is in no mood to entertain unpredictable guests right now. "The challenge of the Falun Gong cult has rattled Beijing, and the official attitude is that they’ll allow personal freedom of worship, they’re inherently suspicious of proselytizing or attempts to convert people," says TIME correspondent William Dowell.

Besides the fear of stirring up mainland Catholics, Beijing is also struggling with the challenge presented by Taiwan’s refusal to back down from its attempts to be treated as a separate state and by an increasing challenge from hard-liners in the Communist Party to put the brakes on an economic reform program which has dramatically increased social instability in China. But barring the pontiff may not help Beijing’s long-term goals. "People in Hong Kong view this as a sign of increasing intervention and control by Beijing in violation of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle under which the territory rejoined the mainland," says Dowell. And "One Country, Two Systems," of course, had been designed, ultimately, to coax Taiwan to rejoin the mainland.