It’s commonly asserted in the West that the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ is a combination of the characters for ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity.’
This comes to mind after the sudden death of the Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung of Hong Kong on Jan. 3 of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 73, leaving the diocese vacant for the first time since it transferred to China in 1997.
Yeung’s death comes at a critical junction in relations between the Vatican and China, and the choice of his replacement will be closely watched by both the Communist authorities in Beijing and the country’s estimated 13 million Catholics.
On Sep. 22, the Vatican and China signed a “provisional agreement” on the appointment of bishops, officially recognizing eight prelates named by the Chinese government. According to most reports, the agreement — the details have not been publicized – allows the Chinese government to propose bishops, with the pope only getting a veto on the choice, one which he would be under a lot of pressure not to utilize.
The deal was an attempt to end the schism which has existed in the Chinese Church since the 1950’s when the Communist government established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association to oversee the country’s Catholics independent of Rome. A parallel “underground” Church in communion with the pope also existed, and each jurisdiction claimed about half of the Catholics in mainland China.
Many Chinese Catholics decried the agreement has a betrayal of the underground Church, which has suffered persecution for decades, and a surrender to the Beijing regime. Critics also pointed out the reconciled bishops are more loyal to the Communist Party than the Catholic Church and claim that at least two of them have secret families.
Since the signing of the deal, the Chinese authorities have done nothing to alleviate these concerns, and have ramped up their campaign against the Church, arresting priests who refuse to join the Patriotic Association, detaining bishops, demolishing religious buildings, and publishing rules prohibiting minors from attending religious services.
The crackdown is not isolated, and in conformity with President Xi Jinping’s efforts to exert greater Communist Party control over all aspects of religious life in China.
In all of this, the Vatican has been conspicuously silent, in the hope of not derailing the agreement.
In the Vatican’s dealings with China, Hong Kong is a special case – the ex-British colony is governed by a Basic Law which gives its residents the freedoms it enjoyed under UK administration, including religious liberty. Its bishops are appointed by the Vatican without Chinese government interference.
Despite this freedom, the Vatican has trodden carefully when appointing bishops to Hong Kong, and since the territory transferred from Britain to China in 1997, it has never appointed a bishop directly to the post, instead appointing a coadjutor bishop, an auxiliary bishop who automatically takes over when the ruling bishop leaves office. This lessens any possible pressure the Chinese government could place on the Vatican in the face of a vacant diocese, as well letting Beijing get a sense of what the new bishop will be like when he eventually takes power.
(In fact, in the similarly situated ex-Portuguese territory of Macau – the much smaller city reverted to Chinese rule in 1999 – when Bishop José Lai Hung-seng retired suddenly for health reasons in 2016, the Vatican on the same day announced Hong Kong auxiliary Bishop Stephen Lee would succeed him, and he was installed less than a week later, thus avoiding an interregnum.)
With the death of Yeung, the danger is that the Communist authorities may try to use their new bishop-making powers in the ex-British territory.
The Catholic Church in Hong Kong has nearly 400,000 members but makes up only about 5 percent of the population. However, it has played a prominent role in the territory since British rule, providing a social safety net through its educational, housing, healthcare, and other social service systems. Catholics have been prominent in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, but have also exerted an over-sized influence in the Beijing-backed administration: The current Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, is a Catholic, as was one of her three predecessors, Donald Tsang.
By virtue of its unique character, the Bishop of Hong Kong has usually been seen as the de facto voice of Catholics in China. This voice has been amplified by the fact that all three bishops since the handover have been cardinals, one of whom, 86-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, has been the most outspoken critic of the Vatican-China deal.
The two most likely candidates for the job are the two Hong Kong-born bishops currently serving: Lee in Macau and current Hong Kong auxiliary, Joseph Ha.
Lee, a member of Opus Dei, has been a strong supporter of the agreement with China and has tended not to be involved in politics. The Franciscan Ha, on the other hand, has been a vocal proponent of Hong Kong’s democracy activists, as leader of the diocese’s Peace and Justice Commission, has often advocated policies which would be looked on with disfavor by Beijing’s Communist regime.
This is not to exaggerate the difference between the two prelates: Lee is not a disciple of the Communist regime, nor is Ha as outspoken a critic as Zen, who is loathed by the Chinese government religious authorities.
But Chinese Catholics will be looking at the appointment as a sign of the Vatican’s willingness to stand up for religious liberty in China.
If Francis chooses Ha, or a like-minded candidate, it would show Chinese Catholics the pope is listening to their concerns, especially in Hong Kong, where the Church has been especially jealous of protecting its historic freedoms. It would also keep one of the few aces the Vatican has up its sleeve when dealing with China, which likes to think it holds most of the cards in its dealings with the Holy See.
If Francis is seen to bend to Beijing’s will on Hong Kong, he could risk further alienating members of the underground Church, many of whom have been hesitant to accept the Vatican-China deal and accept their new Communist-backed bishops.
Zen has already hinted at the possibility of a new schism in China, with some in the underground Church refusing obedience to both Beijing and Rome.
The interim Catholic leadership in Hong Kong has said an new leader won’t be appointed until after Yeung’s funeral on Friday. The pope is expected to act quickly, since the longer the diocese is without a bishop, the more likely it will seem Beijing is being consulted in Yeung’s successor.