China said today it will publicly snub Pope John Paul II by ordaining new bishops loyal to Beijing on the same day the pontiff plans to consecrate Roman Catholic bishops in Rome. The Vatican said the move would hurt efforts to improve tense relations between the Holy See and Beijing.

A spokesman for the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, the official name of China's state-sanctioned church, said Beijing would hold its own ceremony Thursday, just hours before the rites at St. Peter's Basilica, where the pope will ordain bishops from Poland, Italy, the United States, Hungary, Angola, India and Romania on the Feast of the Epiphany.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls expressed "surprise" and "disappointment" because the decision by the Chinese association came at a time when there have been "raised hopes" for a normalization of relations. "This gesture will raise obstacles that certainly hinder the process," he said.

It is unclear why China chose to challenge the Vatican just now. In recent months, China's security services have increased their surveillance of religions, prompting criticism from Washington and human rights groups. Last July, it outlawed the Falun Gong spiritual movement in what has become its biggest crackdown on dissent since it crushed student-led democracy demonstrations in 1989.

Another Falun Gong leader was sentenced to four years in jail today, a Hong Kong-based human rights organization said. In all, nearly 2,000 people are estimated to have been jailed in this crackdown.

"The Chinese government, which is again forcing its desire for absolute control on Catholics, is certainly behind the ordination decision," said the Rome-based missionary news service.

China's Communist government prohibits Chinese Catholics from accepting the spiritual authority of the pope because of its sensitivity about sovereignty and its desire to control religion. China and the Vatican broke off relations in 1951 when the Vatican closed its embassy in Beijing and moved it to Taiwan.

Beijing cites the Holy See's ties with Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province, as an insurmountable obstacle to reestablishing relations. Chinese observers said China's real concern is that improved ties with the Holy See could spark an even greater resurgence of Catholicism in a country that is already experiencing a religious renaissance--much to the chagrin of the officially atheistic ruling Communist Party.

China says it has 4 million Catholics; the Vatican says there are 8 million and that most practice secretly in a vast network of house churches--home to Catholics and evangelical Protestants alike.

The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which does not recognize the pope's authority, has about 70 bishops. The pontiff, often quietly, has named his own bishops and cardinals in China. Ironically, some of the men have been ordained twice--once publicly by Beijing and once secretly by the Vatican.

The Chinese official said today that the three candidate bishops are Su Changshan, 73, an auxiliary bishop of Baoding in the northern province of Hebei; Lu Xingping, 35, an auxiliary bishop of the eastern city of Nanjing; and Zhan Silu, 39, auxiliary bishop of the Mindong diocese in the southeastern province of Fujian.

China's move today seemed to end, at least for the time being, hopes of a rapprochement between the Vatican and Beijing. In recent months, the Vatican has quietly lobbied for better relations and for more rights for Chinese Catholics.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to comment today on the ordinations but said the Vatican should avoid interfering in China's religious affairs.

CAPTION: Newly elevated bishops prostrate themselves before the pope during an ordination ceremony at the Vatican on the Feast of the Epiphany in 1996.