ROME – As the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences prepares to stage a workshop this week on global affairs, changes to the online publicity surrounding the event, including graphics, wording and the lineup of speakers, suggests the Vatican is attempting to downplay what was originally an overtly Chinese focus.

Titled “Dialogue Between Civilizations on Global Commons,” the event is being hosted by the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences and is organized jointly by American economist Jeffrey Sachs, a professor at Colombia University, a UN advisor, and a member of the academy; Australian economist Steve Howard, secretary general of the Global Foundation; and Italian philosopher Riccardo Pozzo, a professor at Rome’s Tor Vergata University and another academy member.

Howard was among the speakers listed at the Global Chinese Economic and Technology summit held in Malaysia in December 2022. The title of his speech was, “China and the world in the post-pandemic global economy – Towards a shared future and sustainable prosperity.”

The Global Foundation held an event titled “The Beijing Mission” from April 28-29 of this year. The foundation’s website contains a letter of support from Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, widely considered to have been the chief architect of Pope Francis’s China policy, for a separate event the foundation held last year.

Sachs, a China supporter who has a lengthy association with Chinese institutions, serves as a consultant to the China Development Research Foundation, a study foundation headquartered in Beijing with the stated purpose of promoting good governance and public policy to aid in economic and social development.

The stated purpose of this week’s conference is to evaluate global challenges from the perspective of China and India as growing global powers.

In comments to AsiaNews, Pozzo said the goal of the conference “is to help understand China and India from their point of view. This workshop aims to promote meaningful and sustainable dialogue and results-oriented cooperation.”

However, several changes to the original promotional materials and official program indicate that the academy is seeking to play down the Chinese influence on the event, amid lingering controversy over a deal between Rome and Beijing over the appointment of Catholic bishops which critics fault for being overly accommodating of China.

An initial version of the workshop’s booklet, published online, included a cover photo portraying a global map with white dotted lines tracing movement mainly in and out of China from around the world, with China highlighted in orange.

A later version of the cover photo showed a global map of with white dotted lines tracing movement in and out of both China and India and elsewhere in Asia, and China was no longer highlighted.

Language in the informational “background” section of the booklet was also changed, with the original focusing exclusively on China, and the newer version including references to India.

In the original version of the booklet, the second paragraph of the background section begins, “China, the US, Australia, and the EU are all influential economies and major traders in the world. China’s economic and political importance has grown on an unprecedented scale and at an unprecedented speed.”

The newer version of the booklet reads, “China and India, the US, Australia, and the EU are all influential economies and major traders in the world.” The second sentence remains the same, citing only China’s economic and political growth.

In the next paragraph, a similar change was made, with the original booklet citing challenges “for incorporating China into the United Nations 2030 Agenda,” whereas the newer version mentions both China and India.

However, India is still absent from the next line, which states that, “as China becomes even more engaged in a wide array of policy areas, upgrading, supporting connecting and mainstreaming knowledge on this development outside of China itself has become a necessity.”

Several other similar changes were made throughout the section, with India included in a series of three primary questions the workshop will aim to address in the newer version.

A change was also made to the list of speakers for a panel on the first day of the workshop.

Chinese Professor Wang Bo from Peking University was originally listed to be among the panelists speaking during the second session on the first day, titled, “China and the Global Commons.”

A member of the Chinese Communist Party, Wang Bo is also a member of the Standing Committee of the Party Committee of Peking University, and he serves as Vice President of Peking University and as Associate Dean of Yenching Academy.

In the newer version of the program, the title of the session has been changed to “Global Commons” and Wang Bo has been replaced by Indian author and self-described cultural heritage professional Aparna Tandon, with the National Museum Institute in New Delhi.

Chinese Professor Bai Tongdong, a renowned scholar of Chinese political philosophy who earlier this year became the first Chinese national to be appointed as a member of the pontifical academy, is not included in the program as a speaker or participant.

According to Pozzo in his interview with AsiaNews, this is because Bai was appointed while preparations were already “in full swing,” however, he said that “we look forward to his contribution in the near future.”

The changes to the program come amid ongoing controversy surrounding the Vatican’s China policy and its disputed 2018 provisional agreement with China on the appointment of bishops.

That agreement has been renewed twice and has consistently been subject to criticism from those inside and outside of the Catholic Church of various social, political, and ecclesial ranks, including former United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen.

China has repeatedly violated the agreement, eliciting tame statements from the Vatican going no farther than acknowledging the violations and voicing hope that similar incidents would not occur.

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Vatican officials have argued that while imperfect, having some form of agreement is better than no deal at all, as it leaves the door open to dialogue.

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Other speakers on the program include representatives from several other Chinese universities and organizations, including the Center for China and Globalization, Beijing Normal University, and Shanxi University, East China Normal University.

King & Wood Mallesons, the largest global law firm in Asia, is also represented. Tandon is the only speaker representing India.

The changes suggest that the original program was aimed exclusively at evaluating the Chinese perspective of current global challenges and affairs, and that the academy at some point re-evaluated the scope of the workshop and sought to soften the emphasis on China.

Sister Helen Alford, the new president of the PASS, told Crux that the workshop was organized before she was appointed, and thus she has not been involved in its planning or development. However, she did say that “there was the hope that there would be more speakers from China than have actually managed to attend.”

“The addition of India to the PDF seems to me to be a good one, since it’s another crucial Asian culture to involve in this dialogue,” she said, saying the main organizers of the workshop would better know the reasons for the changes.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen