The Roman Catholic Church in the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region (SAR), numbering around 370,000, recognizes the pope as the head of the church. However, under Chinese law, the officially permitted Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in China does not recognize the Vatican or papal authority over the church. Relations between the CCP and the Vatican have long been strained. In 1949, Pope Pius XII excommunicated Roman Catholics with ties to the Chinese Communist Party. In 1957, China appointed two bishops to head the church in China without first consulting the Vatican; the two were subsequently excommunicated by the Vatican. The Vatican's official diplomatic recognition of Taiwan is a major point of contention.
With Beijing locked in a confrontation with Taipei over Taiwan's effective declaration of independence, it is not surprising that the Pope was turned away from the recently repatriated Hong Kong. There couldn't have been worse timing for the visit. The denial of the visit also raises questions about the status of Hong Kong as a truly autonomous region, especially coming in the wake of court decisions on the Basic Law and immigration that were in Beijing's favor. The "One China - Two Systems" framework under which Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control is steadily eroding. However, both the Taiwan issue and the Hong Kong issue are secondary to the real issue for Beijing's concern with the Pope.
Beijing is struggling to contain simmering social unrest. One thing that has aided the government in this effort is the lack of nuclei around which opposition sentiment can coalesce. Demonstrations have erupted spontaneously, driven by overwhelming social and economic pressures, but without leaders they have just as quickly dissipated. Individuals have carried out acts of violent opposition, but again, they have not been coordinated under a coherent leadership and so have not posed a threat to the state. Without leadership and organization there can be unrest, but there can not be a campaign against the regime. Beijing intends to retain this edge.
Last year, attempts to register the nascent China Democracy Party were met with an overwhelming retaliation by the Chinese government, which rounded up and imprisoned the opposition leaders. Last month, China moved against the Falun Gong, a religious sect that surprised Beijing with its ability to suddenly amass thousands of followers. The Chinese government was further stunned when it uncovered the vast numbers of CCP cadre that also followed Falun Gong. As far as the CCP is concerned, there is little discernible difference between the China Democracy Party, the Falun Gong, and the Roman Catholic Church. All threaten to provide a countervailing source of leadership and allegiance and are therefore equally intolerable. Pope John Paul II even has a history of undermining communist regimes. The only difference is in the degree of foreign support each group receives and the intensity of the foreign response to the repression.
Having rooted out the China Democracy Party, the Falun Gong, and the Catholic Church, the CCP will continue to seek and destroy such threats of opposition leadership within China. It cannot afford not to.