ROME – Earlier this week prominent Catholic millionaire and media tycoon Jimmy Lai was arrested in Hong Kong along with two of his sons and two executives of his Next Media company on charges of collusion with foreign forces and conspiracy to defraud under China’s new national security law.
The three were released on bail late Tuesday night and Lai was cheered as he walked into the offices of his Apple Daily paper. However, if he is eventually charged and convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison, or could even life if it is determined that he had committed a crime “of grave nature.”
Lai, 72, made his initial fortune through the fashion chain Giordano before investing his money into media organizations, Next Media and Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s most notorious anti-Beijing paper.
A Catholic, Lai is also a known supporter of prominent Catholic personalities in Hong Kong who have been outspoken in criticizing China over the new law, which went into effect June 30, as well as human rights abuses and limits to religious freedom, prompting speculation that these people could be next on Beijing’s blacklist.
One of the prominent figures Lai has supported is Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, who has openly criticized China on several fronts and has also vocally opposed Pope Francis’s approach to China, most notably over a 2018 agreement on the appointment of bishops, the renewal of which is currently under negotiation.
In 2005, Zen spoke of getting an initial gift of HK$3 million, or roughly US$387,000, from Lai for his birthday.
According to the South China Morning Post, that initial gift turned into a string of donations amounting to around US$20 million, which Zen has said he has used to fund the so-called underground church in mainland China which is faithful to Rome but resists the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association; to send Chinese priests to Rome to study, and to fund his own trips to Rome.
The money given to Zen amounts to roughly one third of all donations Lai made to various causes, the bulk of which had ties to the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, the paper reports.
In numerous interviews this summer, Zen said they needed a “miracle” and that he was ready for arrest under the new security law, insisting that the law meant the end of democracy and freedom in Hong Kong.
Speaking to Crux in July, Zen said the new law was “the end of everything,” and that Hong Kong has now become “just like any other place in China…the Basic Law, the ‘one-country’ system, are finished.”
Zen declined a Crux request for comment on Lai’s arrest.
Hong Kong’s current apostolic administrator, Cardinal John Tong, has made no public statements on the security law apart from a brief interview with the diocesan weekly Chinese-language publication Kung Kao Po, in which he said he did not believe the new law constitutes a threat to religious freedom.
After Tong’s comment, Zen indicated that he believed Tong had made the statement to appease Chinese authorities, but that the comment did not reflect his genuine position.
So far, Tong and Zen are among the only Catholic leaders to speak out on the new security law and its implications for Hong Kong. Zen has been consistently and vocally critical of Pope Francis’s silence, as he has yet to speak out on the security law or the protests that have gripped Hong Kong since last summer, when a bill allowing extradition to mainland China sparked unrest before eventually being withdrawn.
Pope Francis on Wednesday met with U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who in June came under fire from Chinese authorities for issuing a statement saying that any new security laws imposed on Hong Kong “must fully comply with China’s human rights obligations,” including measures outlined in international treaties that protect civil and political freedoms
In response, China’s mission to the U.N. in Geneva issued their own statement saying Bachelet’s remarks “grossly interfere in China’s sovereignty and internal affairs and violate the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
China expressed “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to Bachelet’s comment, insisting that legislation on national security “falls within the sovereignty of a state.”
The pope’s meeting with Bachelet was private and the contents of their discussion have not been made public, so it’s not known if they discussed the situation in Hong Kong or other issues related to China.
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