Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, Hong Kong’s outspoken former bishop, has asked Pope Francis not to visit China, saying the pontiff would be “manipulated”. Improving ties between the Vatican and Beijing has given rise to speculation the pope could reach out to China. But Zen told the Corriere della Sera , an Italian newspaper, in an interview: “I would tell him now: ‘Don’t come, you would be manipulated.’” “The few courageous [Catholics] could not meet [the Pope], and the Communist Party would show him the illegitimate bishops, including the three excommunicated ones,” the 82-year-old said in the interview. The comments come as ties between the Vatican and China have improved in the early days of the pontificate of Francis. When he rose to the helm of the Catholic Church last year, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs congratulated Francis on his election. In an interview in March, also with the Corriere , the pope said he had exchanged letters with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “We are close to China,” Francis reportedly said at the time. “I sent a letter to President Xi Jinping when he was elected, three days after me. And he replied.” The Vatican and China have not had formal talks since Beijing severed ties 63 ago over allegations of espionage. Informal talks were last known to be held in 2010. Yet Beijing’s unsanctioned ordination of bishops in 2010 and the house arrest of Thaddeus Ma Daqin, the outspoken auxiliary bishop of Shanghai, two years later have soured ties. Ma, who gained widespread popularity by publicly resigning from the state-sponsored Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, has since been under de-facto house arrest at the Sheshan Seminary in the city’s Shanghai’s outskirts. Only one public appearance has been reported, in October 2013. Since January, authorities in Zhejiang province have demanded Christian communities to take down crosses from their churches or else these would be demolished. Hundreds of churches or crosses have so far been torn down in the province under the campaign, which local officials say only targets structures that violate building codes. In his interview, Cardinal Zen said he did not see signs of dialogue happening between the Catholic Church and China. “Even if under these conditions Beijing was to extend a hand, it would be a trick under these circumstances,” he said. “Our poor bishops are slaves, the Communist Party denies them respect, tries to take away their dignity.” A close Western observer of the Vatican’s ties with China said he was convinced Francis was eager to visit China. For many years, the Vatican has indicated that it wanted to move its nunciature (diplomatic mission of the Holy See) from Taiwan to the mainland, the Jesuit China scholar said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He cautioned, however, that Beijing might be hesitant to receive the current pope. “Given that Francis has also been outspoken on issues of corruption and the treatment of the poor, one could see China being very wary of allowing him a microphone.” Bishop John Fang Xingyao, chairman of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, told the South China Morning Post in a telephone interview on Thursday that Cardinal Zen should “look forward” instead of “looking backward”. “It is in the interest of both China and the Vatican to establish formal relations as early as possible. And for that to happen, communication between the two sides is important,” he said. “China has established diplomatic relations with more than 100 nations, and I can’t see why we can’t establish ties with the Vatican.” Zen also commented on Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations, saying he initially had high expectations in Xi but had been disappointed. Xi “was clear in saying multiple times that the Communist Party must not loosen its grip on power to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union,” Zen said, adding that the spectre of Soviet collapse was why Xi did not want to give Hongkongers the right to elect their representatives freely. “He is afraid people in China will demand the same [right to vote],” Zen said. The cardinal called the unexpectedly high turnout in Hong Kong’ grass roots poll last week “half a miracle”. Pope Francis is set to visit South Korea in August to participate in the Asian Youth Day and to visit the Philippines, which has the largest Catholic population in Asia, in January next year. But a visit to China is not on the pope’s agenda, a staffer reached at the Vatican’s press office said on Thursday. “It is not up to the Hong Kong Dioceses with reference to the schedule of the Pope,” a spokesperson for the diocese said. Cardinal Zen spoke in Italian, according to Guido Santevecchi, the journalist who conducted the interview. Zen could not be reached for further comment. Additional reporting by Teddy Ng and Jennifer Ngo.