Cardinal joseph zen is no friend of the Chinese Communist Party. Since the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997 he has been a thorn in the party’s side, criticising its human-rights record and its squeezing of the former British colony’s autonomy. On May 11th he was arrested under the new national security law. His alleged crime was raising funds for activists during the pro-democracy protests of 2019. He was released on bail shortly after.
Though it was not unexpected, Cardinal Zen’s detention shocked the city, whose autonomy, even for the first 20 years of Chinese rule, meant people enjoyed much more religious freedom than is allowed on the mainland. Catholics and Protestants have played a big role in pro-democracy movements, especially in 2019. But since the security law was passed in 2020, many have retreated from political activity.
In January International Christian Concern, an ngo, warned that mainland bishops had met their counterparts in Hong Kong to urge them to preach “religion with Chinese characteristics”. The party has built relationships with senior Catholics in Hong Kong, most of whom now sing from the party’s hymn sheet, promoting dialogue and compliance.
John Lee, Hong Kong’s chief executive-elect, himself a Catholic, has claimed he will protect religious freedom. But the arrest of Cardinal Zen, coming so soon after Mr Lee was chosen, sends a different message. In 2020 China installed Xia Baolong as head of Hong Kong and Macau affairs. Mr Xia was previously responsible for a campaign against house churches in Zhejiang province.
Christians in Hong Kong are still free to worship publicly. But sermons on social justice are now rare and many priests have purged their social-media accounts. Some tell of strangers photographing those attending their services. Dissent has been “completely silenced”, says one cleric. “The arrest of Cardinal Zen is a concrete sign that the process of cracking down on religious freedom has begun.”
The moves come amid a much bigger shift in relations between the Vatican and the Communist Party. After decades of animosity, Pope Francis began a process to improve the relationship, culminating in an agreement with the party in 2018. It was a compromise that acknowledged the pope as head of the church and gave the Vatican the final choice of bishops but allowed the party to select the shortlist in China. The agreement was renewed in 2020, and is up for renewal again in October.
Easten Law of Princeton Theological Seminary says the deal has helped the party in its aim to “sinicise” Catholicism, by discouraging confrontation and persuading Catholics that they can support both party and pope. It has also emboldened some underground Catholics on the mainland to worship more publicly. Still, it has been widely criticised. It gives an avowedly atheist political party an explicit say in the internal workings of a Christian church. Many feel it has made it harder for the Vatican to speak truth to Chinese power. In 2019 Cardinal Zen called the Holy See’s approach to China “blatantly evil”.
The Vatican theoretically gained more influence over China’s 10m-12m Catholics—previously it could not engage with those who worshipped in government-sanctioned churches and had little access to those loyal to the pope in secret. But only six Vatican-approved bishops have been appointed since 2018. Dozens of posts remain vacant, suggesting that the Chinese government is not sticking to its side of the deal. Persecution of Catholics has continued. At least two bishops were detained in 2021 for refusing to toe the party line. Some fear the pope has been outfoxed. “I don’t see how the Vatican has benefited from the relationship,” says Fenggang Yang of Purdue University in Indiana.
The Vatican said it was “concerned” about Cardinal Zen’s arrest. All Catholics realise that Hong Kong is connected to the bigger relationship, says one priest. The Vatican’s weak response to Cardinal Zen’s arrest was expected, he says, “but still I feel disappointed.” Having spent decades as a separate territory, where people were free to believe what they wanted, Hong Kong must now get used to being just another Chinese city. ■