If you want to know how Hong Kong has transformed from one of the freest places on earth to a dystopia, observe its courthouses and jails. Since Beijing imposed the draconian National Security Law on Hong Kong in 2020, the city’s authorities have cracked down on dissenting voices by arresting and jailing hundreds of people in the name of national security. From executives of independent newspapers to publishers of children’s books, no one is safe. This week, another set of pro-democracy activists, including the 90-year-old Cardinal Zen, faces trial under the law.
The cardinal’s trial relates to an anti-extradition bill protest held in 2019. The bill sought to extradite “criminals” to mainland China, which would erode Hong Kong’s judicial independence and harm Chinese dissidents in the city. Millions of Hong Kongers took to the street to protest. A small fraction of protesters experienced violent encounters with the police after the police deployed brutal anti-riot tactics. The Hong Kong police ended up arresting thousands of people as a result of the protests.
Zen and other civil leaders set up the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund in 2019 to provide “humanitarian and relevant financial support to persons injured, arrested, attacked or threatened with violence” during the protests. But the fund was dissolved in 2021. Still, Hong Kong authorities arrested Zen and three other trustees of the fund, charging them with “colluding with foreign forces” and “threatening national security” by “failing” to register the fund appropriately.
All those arrested who were associated with the relief fund pleaded not guilty to the charges and were out on bail. Their trial was set to begin last week, but it was delayed because the presiding judge tested positive for Covid. Undoubtedly, Zen, known for his outspokenness and support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, is the government’s primary target.
Prior to becoming a cardinal, then-Bishop Zen emerged as an incredibly outspoken Catholic leader in Hong Kong as it began to flourish under British rule. In 2004, the government of Hong Kong attempted to take the management of Catholic schools away from the church and give it a government-organized “Incorporated Management Committee.” Zen led the Catholic Church’s challenge of the government’s policy in Hong Kong’s courts. If Catholic schools “did not have the freedom to continue [their way of managing their schools],” Zen warned, the church’s mission “would be ruined, and this would damage the entire society of Hong Kong.” Pope Benedict XVI recognized Bishop Zen’s courage and elevated him to the College of Cardinals in 2006.
After seven years of litigation, the church lost its battle when Hong Kong’s Supreme Court ruled against the church on Oct. 3, 2011. Two weeks after the ruling, the 79-year-old Cardinal Zen went on a three-day hunger strike in protest.
Shortly after succeeding Pope Benedict XVI in 2013, Pope Francis eagerly sought to restore the diplomatic relationship with Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) severed China’s relationship with the Vatican in 1949 and mercilessly persecuted millions of religious believers. But in the 1980s, hoping to attract foreign investment, the CCP began to show a limited tolerance to religious believers “so long as they were under the control of ‘patriotic’ associations.” Since then, China has experienced explosive growth in Christian populations.
Many Chinese Christians prefer to attend underground house churches than government-sanctioned churches, and Chinese Catholics remain loyal to the pope and the bishops he appointed. To have complete control of Chinese Catholics, Beijing insisted that the Vatican accept only Chinese government-appointed bishops and give them full authority to rule a Chinese diocese. Francis’s predecessors had rejected Beijing’s demand. Pope Benedict XVI explained, “the authority of the Pope to appoint bishops is given to the church by its founder Jesus Christ. It is not the property of the Pope, nor can the Pope give it to others.”
But Pope Francis was willing to cave to Beijing. An alarmed Zen traveled to the Vatican several times, hoping to persuade Pope Francis not to compromise the church’s principles and point out that persecution of Christians has intensified under Chinese leader Xi Jinping. But Pope Francis refused even to grant Zen an audience.
In February 2018, the Vatican announced that it had reached a secret deal with Beijing. The announcement came one month after Chinese police used excavators and dynamite to destroy a megachurch in China. Suspected that Beijing wouldn’t have signed the deal unless it got what it wanted, Zen decried the agreement as “a total surrender” by the Vatican and “an incredible betrayal” to mainland China’s 7 million Catholic faithful.
Back in Hong Kong, Zen continued to fight to preserve the political and religious freedom of the city’s 7 million population. In 2019, Beijing-appointed Hong Kong chief executive, Carrie Lam, tried to scuttle the controversial extradition bill through the city’s legislature. Zen and leaders from other Christian organizations urged “[the Hong Kong government] not to rush to amend the fugitive bill before fully responding to the concerns of the legal sector and the public.” Zen also called on the faithful to join the peaceful protests when it became evident that Lam wouldn’t listen.
After police brutality against protesters was reported, the Catholic dioceses asked the government to “launch a thorough independent inquiry” on reported police brutality and “make an explicit, public statement that the Bill has been ‘withdrawn’ to meet the strong demand of the general public.” Carrie Lam eventually withdrew the extradition bill under public pressure.
This week’s trial of Zen does not bode well for the 90-year-old. Up to this point, everyone charged under the National Security Law has been convicted. Beijing and Hong Kong authorities undoubtedly will make the cardinal pay for his lifetime of activism and advocacy for political freedom, religious freedom, and human rights.
Rather than issuing a strongly worded condemnation of Zen’s arrest, Pope Francis is reportedly considering making even more compromises to appeal to Beijing, including possibly closing its Nunciature of China in Taiwan and reopening one in Beijing instead. Pope Francis also said he was ready to visit China, something Zen strongly opposed. When asked about Cardinal Zen’s arrest, Pope Francis reportedly said Zen “says what he feels, and you can see that there are limitations there.” The pope wouldn’t condemn China as undemocratic “because it’s such a complex country.”
Cardinal Zen’s unbreakable spirit stands in stark contrast to Pope Francis’s cowardliness.