The arrest of the pro-democracy Cardinal Zen raises many questions about the Catholic Church's strategy to improve relations with China.
Arrested and then released on bail on May 11, 2022, the nonagenarian Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of the enclave of Hong Kong, appears – more than ever before – to be the incarnation of Hong Kong’s resistance to Beijing’s increasingly tight hold. His indictment by the local judiciary for “collusion with a foreign power” is causing great “concern” on the part of the Vatican, which has worked – with difficulty – for a rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China in recent years.
Cardinal Zen was accused along with four other members of the board of the “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund,” an association originally aimed at financing pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. “The individuals are suspected of conspiracy and collusion with foreign countries or foreign forces to endanger national security – an act of a serious nature,” the Commissioner’s Office, the Beijing Foreign Ministry’s representation in Hong Kong, said in a statement.
The Holy See’s statement, issued a few hours after the announcement of Cardinal Zen’s arrest, said the Holy See was following the case “very closely” but did not comment further. The Diocese of Hong Kong, headed since December 2020 by 62-year-old Jesuit Bishop Stephen Chow, took more than 20 hours to issue an official statement, a sign of the delicate nature of the case. The diocese said it was “extremely concerned” and stressed the importance of managing the “incident” in a way that “respects the law” and maintains religious freedom “under the Basic Law.”
The legal framework of the Hong Kong Administrative Region vis-à-vis the “Mainland,” the People’s Republic of China, is at the heart of an intense power struggle between supporters of democracy and the Hong Kong exception, including Cardinal Zen, and those who since 2014 have advocated its gradual attachment to the mainland.
An important step in this confrontation was the adoption of a national security law by the Hong Kong executive on June 30, 2020. This legislation, imposed by Beijing, opened the door to a crackdown on pro-democracy movements, a trend that has since been verified. Cardinal Zen’s arrest was only the latest in a long list of imprisonments, the most high-profile of which was that of Jimmy Lai, owner of the anti-Beijing newspaper Apple Daily (closed by the authorities in 2021) and a major financial supporter of Cardinal Zen.
In the case of this arrest, as on several occasions in recent years, an apparent timidity of the Catholic Church in dealing with Beijing on the Hong Kong question has been pointed out by several Hong Kong activists. It should be noted that the current head of the Hong Kong government, Carrie Lam, and his successor John Lee Ka-chiu, who was elected on May 8 without a candidate, are both Roman Catholics.
Criticism of the Holy See
The Holy See has been criticized for its “Ostpolitik” since the beginning of Francis’ pontificate. This policy is embodied in particular by its Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a follower of Cardinal Casaroli. This rapprochement of the Vatican with Communist China – which operates on similar bases to those adopted in recent years with Vietnam – is perceived by Cardinal Zen as a weakening of the Holy See’s support for opponents of Beijing, especially in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but also for those of the “underground Church,” an underground and historically martyred fringe of the Catholic Church that opposes the patriotic Church, which is led by the Communist Party.
The signing in 2018 of pastoral agreements – the terms of which remain secret to this day – between the government of Xi Jinping and the Holy See on the appointment of bishops had provoked the fury of the senior Hong Kong prelate, who experienced this rapprochement as a “betrayal” and a “compromise.” He repeatedly attacked Cardinal Parolin in the press, even accusing him of lying, and tried unsuccessfully to plead his case with the Pope.
Hong Kong and the Holy See
Hong Kong plays a key role for the Holy See, which has set up its diplomatic “base” there for discreet discussions with Beijing. It is notably through this discreet antenna that Chinese hackers succeeded in conducting a cyber attack on the internal system of the Vatican during the summer of 2020, a fact confirmed to I.MEDIA by a Vatican diplomat.
Zen’s arrest poses a major problem for the Holy See, which must defend the rights of the high prelate, a member of the College of Cardinals. Moreover, Cardinal Zen has many supporters in the United States, where the issue of religious freedom is one of the historical axes of opposition to the rise of the Chinese rival – among Democrats and Republicans alike. His ties to the United States are already being pointed to by supporters of the communist regime as evidence of his compromise.
At the same time, the Holy See should try not to compromise the few advances made in the last four years – which have allowed the appointment of 13 bishops, only six of whom were appointed after the signing of the agreement between the Vatican and China. This is all the more important as the agreement must be renewed by both parties next October, and the Holy See has made it known that it wishes to sign a “definitive” agreement.
Not unlike the situation in Ukraine?
Contacted by I.MEDIA, two diplomats accredited to the Holy See compared the situation in China with that faced by the Holy See in Ukraine, trapped between Ukrainian Catholics and its desire for rapprochement with Russian Orthodoxy. Cardinal Zen also seems to have made this connection: In recent weeks he has published numerous articles on Ukrainian news in which the Holy See’s policy of not condemning Russia was questioned.
Reacting to the arrest, the Italian sinologist Francesco Cisci considered that it was a great mistake made by Beijing: “It was perhaps not the wisest thing to arrest a 90-year-old man who, whatever his condition, cannot be too dangerous and who only becomes so after this arrest.” In his view, the Chinese government risks further inflaming the situation in Hong Kong after the arrest, which would put the Holy See – the only entity able to persevere in dialogue in all circumstances – in a favorable position to resume talks.
One sign, a few hours after the arrest, might support this analysis: the Hong Kong government’s insistence that Cardinal Zen’s arrest was “completely unrelated to the profession or religious origin of those arrested.”
As he left the Chai Wan police station on April 11, Cardinal Zen did not say a word in front of the swarm of journalists. Now the words of the man who, at the 2006 consistory in which he was created a cardinal, was urged to give his “blood for the growth of the Christian faith” could have a real impact in the weeks to come, well beyond Hong Kong Bay.