Arrested Hong Kong cardinal a fiery critic of Beijing

HONG KONG – Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 90-year-old Catholic cleric arrested by Hong Kong police on national security charges, has long been a harsh critic of Beijing’s control of religion and political monopoly, as well as the Vatican’s efforts to secure a working agreement meet the ruling communist party.

Zen left a police station on bail Wednesday night after his arrest along with other former trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Support Fund, which helps people arrested during the 2019 anti-government protests. The former Hong Kong archbishop has not yet commented on his arrest.

A police statement said the former trustees were suspected of endangering national security by making inquiries to foreign countries or foreign authorities and calling for sanctions against Hong Kong.


Widely condemned abroad, the arrests are another campaign to quash all forms of dissent in the city under a sweeping national security law passed in 2020, a year after authorities quashed pro-democracy protests challenging China’s rule over Hong Kong put.

The crackdown is increasingly penetrating the city’s long-respected economic, religious and educational institutions, as well as non-governmental organizations, many of which have shuttered their businesses in Hong Kong. When the city was handed over to China by Britain in 1997, the city was promised it could preserve speech, assembly and judicial independence, but critics say Beijing has failed in its guarantees.

China’s Foreign Ministry returned the criticism, with spokesman Zhao Lijian saying, “We are firmly opposed to any act that denigrates the rule of law in Hong Kong and interferes in Hong Kong affairs.”

“Hong Kong is a law-based society where no organization or individual is above the law and all illegal acts are punished by law,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing.


Separately, the ministry’s Hong Kong office issued a statement saying that “preserving national security is warranted, foreign interference is purely futile.”

Zen had once attempted to build bridges with the Chinese Communist Party-controlled Catholic Church by attending Beijing-approved seminars in mainland China. But he also said these experiences showed him the lack of religious freedom in China and fueled a deep distrust of the officially atheist ruling party.

China severed ties with the Holy See in 1951 after the party took power and established its own church. Foreign priests were expelled and many of their Chinese counterparts spent decades in prisons or labor camps.

In recent years, the Vatican, particularly under Pope Francis, has sought to reach an agreement with the Chinese government and unite the churches.

Zen has been particularly scathing against attempts by some in the Vatican to reach an agreement with the party over the appointment of mainland bishops, a power traditionally exercised by the Holy See and claimed by Beijing.


In 2018, he warned that a deal between the Vatican and China that ceded too much authority to Beijing would put the country’s Catholic supporters in a big “birdcage.”

“The communist government just wants the church to capitulate because they want complete control over not just the Catholic Church but all religions,” Zen said at the time.

A tacit agreement was reportedly struck in 2018 for China to submit names to the Vatican for approval, but it had little perceptible impact on relations between the sides. Zen accused the Holy See of selling off underground Catholics who remained loyal to the Vatican.

Zen, a regular blogger, wrote about a desperate trip to Rome to prevent an underground bishop from being replaced by a Beijing-favored excommunicate.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said on Wednesday that the Holy See had “received with concern the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest and is following the evolution of the situation with the utmost attention”.


The Hong Kong Catholic Diocese also issued a statement on Thursday, saying it was “extremely concerned” about the condition and safety of Zen.

“We have always upheld the rule of law. We trust that we will continue to enjoy freedom of religion in Hong Kong under the Basic Law in the future,” it said, referring to the city’s mini-constitution.

Zen has outsized political influence in a city where Christians are a minority but hold many elite positions, particularly in government and education.

Born into a Catholic family in Shanghai in 1932, Zen went to Hong Kong, then a British colony, in 1948, a year before the communist takeover of the mainland.

In 1989, as Zen and others in Hong Kong watched student-led pro-democracy protests in China unfold, before a military crackdown in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square left many dead.

He took on an activist role after being appointed junior bishop of Hong Kong in 1996, a year before Britain handed control of the city to Beijing. He frequently drew the ire of Chinese Communist leaders, who called him a “Vatican agent.”


Zen supported the city’s pro-democracy movement and was an outspoken critic of proposed anti-subversion legislation, which officials were forced to shelve. He went on a three-day hunger strike to protest a government plan to limit the churches’ influence in publicly funded schools.

The junior bishop took over the Hong Kong diocese in 2002 and Pope Benedict XVI. made him a cardinal in 2006, which he says signals the pope’s focus on China. Zen retired from his Hong Kong post in 2009.

Also arrested on Wednesday was singer and actress Denise Ho, who has spoken out openly on a range of issues from the pro-democracy movement to LGBTQ rights.

Ho, a Canadian citizen, was previously banned in mainland China and lost her commercial endorsements after publicly supporting a 2014 push for expanded democratic rights known as the Umbrella Movement.

Ho was arrested earlier in December after police raided an independent online news site on which she had previously served and accused her of conspiring to publish a seditious publication.



Associated Press writer Kelvin Chan in London contributed to this report.

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Joel McCord

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