Despite the recent death of a long-imprisoned Chinese bishop, there are mixed signals suggesting the People's Republic of China wills an improved relationship with the Holy See. The first of these was the response from the Chinese foreign ministry to the telegram sent by Pope Francis to Xi Jinpin -- president of mainland China -- during his flight from the Philippines to Rome, which crossed through Chinese airspace. And a few days later, on Jan. 21, Hua Chunying, a spokesman of the foreign ministry, said the Chinese government is “willing to have constructive dialogue with the Vatican based on relevant principles.” Hua has also added that “China is always sincere in improving ties with the Vatican, and has been making efforts to this end.” Hua’s words proved once more the new religious policy put into action by Xi Jinping, who has been China's president since March 2013. A Vatican official involved in talks with China told CNA Feb. 4 that “when the Chinese want to change a policy, they usually start issuing declarations from the mid-ranks, in order to see what is the people's reaction.” This is why the official reads Hua’s words “as a sort of poll, in order to make the Chinese people confident in a new Chinese position on relations with the Holy See.” Despite these openings, the moment when China and the Holy See will hold diplomatic ties remains distant. The first concrete step toward these improved relations could be a sort of agreement between the Holy See and China on matters such as religious freedom and freedom of worship. One of the guidelines of the Vatican diplomats is that to seek a “reasonable freedom.” The Church in China is often described as divided, between an 'official' Church, the Patriotic Association, linked to the government; and an 'underground' Church, persecuted and whose episcopal appointments are frequently not acknowledged by Chinese authorities. The Patriotic Association has for years appointed illicit bishops who were not approved by Rome. On the other hand, there are bishops appointed by the Vatican who are not acknowledged by the Chinese government. The Chinese government has also arbitrarily cancelled some of the Chinese dioceses, and designed its own geography of dioceses of bishops which is not aligned with that in the Annuario Pontificio. All of these issues must be raised in an eventual “Vatican-Chinese agreement.” Another issue at stake is the treatment of the priests and bishops faithful to Rome. The news broke Jan. 31 that Bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang of Yixian had died after 14 years of imprisonment, wtihout charge, in a secret location. His family had been informed of his death the previous day, though no more information was given them. Bishop Shi was 94, and had first been arrested in 1954. Now that Bishop Shi is dead, Bishop James Su Zhimin of Baoding is the only remaining underground bishop kept in secret detention. He has been held by the Chinese government since 1997. Such imprisonments and deaths “have been kept under silence by the media mainstream, probably concerned not to damage relations with the economically powerful Chinese state,” the Vatican official opined. “But, as a matter of fact, this state of things must be addressed.” The Holy See has committed to Catholics in China, intending to protect and help the country's persecuted Christians, and relations between the Vatican and China have fluctuated. After Benedict XVI’s 2007 letter to the Catholics of China, the relations seemed to improve, with episcopal appointments approved of by both the Vatican and the Chinese government. Despite this, and the inauguration of Xi's presidency, the episcopal consecration of Fr. Taddeo Ma Daqin in Shanghai showed that relations could cool again. Bishop Ma had been part of the Patriotic Association, but after his consecration he announced he would leave the association, and he was confined by the government. “Illicit ordinations follow a rationale that is hard to explain,” the Vatican official reflected. “They can also be decided at a local level, so I would not exclude that illicit ordinations are an internal response to Xi Jinping's wish to improve relations. When a situation is consolidated, it is quite difficult to move people toward a new state of things.” On the Vatican's side, there is a certain openness to make further steps in order to reach full diplomatic relations, though the Holy See's maintenance of a pontifical representative to the Republic of China — Taiwan — will remain a hurdle for mainland China. However, steps forward will be made with a certain caution. Yet the Holy See and China seem to be a little closer now.