ROME – From the outside, the most recent protests in Hong Kong can seem terribly simple: A tiny erstwhile democracy is being swallowed by a vast police state through a new national security law, thus creating a classic tale of David v. Goliath, with David standing for freedom and Goliath oppression.

Italian Father Franco Mella, a member of the Pontifical Institute of Foreign Missions, offers a reminder that while at a distance what may stand out is the black and white, up close it’s usually the shades of gray.

Mella lives and ministers in Hong Kong, where he was a protagonist in the 2004 “Umbrella Movement” demanding greater transparency in the territory’s elections process, and where today he’s a counselor and advisor to the young people who make up the nerve system of the current protest movement.

Above all else, he’s a believer in dialogue.

“We always remind the movement that you can’t give up on dialogue,” he said. “There has to be dialogue, because there’s no alternative.”

For Mella, the “one people, two systems” philosophy the protestors are struggling to uphold carries within itself the seed of permanent conflict.

“The agreement on a country with two systems isn’t very good,” he said in a recent interview with the Italian news site Formiche, conducted by veteran Italian Catholic journalist Riccardo Cristiano.

“By the nature of things, it creates the illusion that one [system] is better than the other … communist on one side, and capitalist on the other,” Mella said. “But communist China isn’t the system of the original Christians communities of which some dreamers speak, and the capitalism of Hong Kong doesn’t recall a system that places business and labor at the service of all.”

“Here the great capital is with the authorities, while the students are in the streets,” Mella said.

For Hong Kong to imagine itself as superior to the rest of China, Mella said, either for moral or practical reasons, would be to “lose its relationship with the rest of the Chinese people.”

In that regard, Mella is a supporter of the controversial 2018 accord between the Vatican and the Chinese government over the appointment of bishops, which was intended to heal a breach between an above-ground, official church in China and an underground “church of the catacombs.”

“It was a great intuition for important developments, pursued with great acumen by Cardinal [Pietro] Parolin,” Mella said, referring to the Vatican’s Secretary of State. “The agreement speaks to all Chinese, and it does so starting with religious liberty, treating it as a point of departure from which to proceed.”

“It was definitely not a betrayal of the underground church,” Mella said, “but an important message that looks ahead to the path of freedom.”

Mella obviously is aware that not all Catholic observers in China see that deal in the same positive terms – especially, perhaps, Cardinal Joseph Zen, a retired bishop of Hong Kong and a ferocious critic of the Vatican’s policy of rapprochement with China.

“I know that there are those who don’t think this way, and I talk to them, including Cardinal Zen,” he said. “Recently, he’s made choices I don’t understand … anyway, I’d say that if you don’t start a process you’ll never get anywhere, that’s for sure.”

To be clear, Mella is not a naïf when it comes to the pressure China is placing on Hong Kong to rein in the protests.

“They’ve arrested everyone, moderates and hard-liners, hawks and doves, right and left,” he said. “They’re all inside. Now the police are coming en masse.”

Mella believes the security forces are pulling out all the tricks to try to discredit the protest movement.

“When millions of people came out in the streets in Hong Kong, if they’d wanted to do a lot more than smash a few windows, as happed last year, they certainly could have,” he said. “That makes me wonder who actually smashed those windows. Was it groups of violent protestors, more inclined to violence? Or was it police infiltrators who wanted to discredit the movement?”

“The type of arrests and the way they were conducted,” he said, “suggests the second hypothesis.”

He’s also no apologist for the new national security law, saying, “The regime doesn’t want to understand that this isn’t the way to handle, let alone resolve, the problems we’re facing.”

Yet as Mella sees it, Hong Kong’s future is inevitably as part of China, and its energies should be directed at leaving the entire country’s future rather than trying to maintain a quixotic independent status.

He said he’s not yet sure if the youth filling Hong Kong’s streets buy that, but he said he won’t stop telling them.

“That will be understood later, but for now they know someone will keep reminding them the goal must remain dialogue, speaking to all the Chinese,” Mella said.

“That, I think I’ve understood, is what the real enemies of freedom don’t want,” he said. “Indeed, it’s what they fear.”

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