Hong Kong cardinal says current bishop in an ‘impossible situation’

Hong Kong cardinal says current bishop in an ‘impossible situation’

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired bishop of Hong Kong, speaks to members of the media during a news conference in Hong Kong Sept. 26 concerning Pope Francis's landmark agreement with China over bishop nominations. (Credit: Jerome Favre/EPA via CNS.)

Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong and a longtime critic of the Chinese Communist Party, has called a new national security law the end of democracy and said he does not envy the area’s current Church leaders, who he said will be walking a tightrope as Beijing exerts more control.

ROME – Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong and a longtime critic of the Chinese Communist Party, has called a new national security law the end of democracy and said he does not envy the area’s current Church leaders, who he said will be walking a tightrope as Beijing assumes more control.

“This is the end of everything. Hong Kong has become just like any place in China, we have no guarantee of anything,” Zen told Crux July 1, three days after the new security law went into effect.

“The Basic Law, the ‘one-country’ system, are finished,” he said.

Among other things, the law, which went into effect at 11p.m. June 30, bans treason, secession, sedition, subversion, foreign interference and terrorism. It also stipulates that whenever they deem it necessary, the Chinese Central government in Beijing can establish agencies to help the Hong Kong fulfill its security requirements.

A semi-autonomous region granted certain freedoms the rest of China is not afforded as part of China’s “one country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong was required to introduce security measures after the British returned the territory to China in 1997.

However, many pro-democracy activists and national leaders have criticized the law as interrupting freedoms promised to Hong Kong when it came back under Chinese control, with some voicing fear that articles in Hong Kong’s Basic Law protecting freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom to assemble will be dismissed.

“In China, the law means nothing. They will just say one word, now (they) can do everything,” Zen said.

Zen said he sympathizes the current apostolic administrator of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong, who will now be required to navigate political and social upheaval caused by the new law.

Referring to recent comments made by Tong insisting that the security law will pose no threat to religious freedom given assurances in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, Zen suggested his fellow bishop could be influenced by pressure from Chinese central authorities.

“The Chinese force everybody to declare, especially those who have some influence in society, so leaders in religion, so they are forced to declare something in support of the law. That’s unavoidable, otherwise they become enemies of the government,” he said.

Zen recalled a meeting Tong participated in between representatives of the Chinese government and some 50 leaders in Hong Kong, saying he is unsure what Tong’s contribution in the meeting was, and wondered whether the concerns he expressed behind closed doors aligned with his public statements.

“I have so much pity for him, because he’s really in an impossible situation,” Zen said.

Capturing the delicate nuances of the situation, Zen reflected that by appearing to speak in favor of the government, Tong “will surely avoid bigger trouble for the Church, but then a portion of the Church may be very unhappy because here people understand that this so-called state security law is really the instrument the government is using to crush everything in Hong Kong.”

Noting how police began making arrests and using water cannons and tear gas during a July 1 march which drew some 500,000 people together to protest the security law, Zen called the move “foolish,” saying he watched the entire march on television, and found the situation “sad,” but also “laughable.”

“They’re doing something which, if you watch it, you can’t refrain even from laughing, because it’s absurd what they are doing, and now they can do anything,” he said, calling the march “a very small beginning.”

“There are no guarantees anymore in Hong Kong,” he said, noting that many have appealed to the United Nations Human Rights Council to intervene.

“We have to try anything in the world to see if they can do anything to help us,” he said, but added that he does not have much hope, “because there is no real international disposition to command on individual states.”

Zen stressed that his own role within the Church is to pray and warn people to prepare for what comes next. For those who are able to get out of Hong Kong, “let them go,” he said. “There’s no need to use them as a sacrifice. They are in the hands of God.”

Several countries have offered to assist Hong Kong citizens fleeing because of the security law. The United Kingdom has offered residency to up to three million people from the former British colony, and Taiwan this week opened a new office, the Taiwan-Hong Kong Services and Exchange Office, to assist asylum seekers from Hong Kong.

The United States Wednesday approved a new bill sanctioning groups which undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy, or which limit its freedoms. It specifically targets police units interrupting protesters, as well as banks and other companies which do business with entities found to violate Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

In return, China has threatened retaliation against the UK should it move forward in its plan to grant residency to Hong Kong citizens. Chinese Foreign Minister Zhao Lijian earlier this week said that they condemn the UK’s proposal “reserves the right to take further measures,” adding, “the British side will bear all the consequences.”

Noting that the Vatican has remained silent since protests broke out in Hong Kong last summer over an extradition bill that was later retracted, and since they flared up again over the security law, Zen said he has “no voice in the Vatican,” and challenged someone else to ask them about their position.

“I am not even sure if the pope receives my letters,” he said, saying he has written to the pope several times and even visited him in person but has received no answer to his concerns. “So don’t ask me the question, ask the Vatican.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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