Why is China afraid of a 90-year-old Catholic bishop?

Joseph Zen, Hong Kong’s Catholic bishop emeritus, in April 2021. (Jerome Favre/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
Joseph Zen, Hong Kong’s Catholic bishop emeritus, in April 2021. (Jerome Favre/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Why is China afraid of a 90-year-old Catholic bishop?

On Wednesday, Beijing directed Hong Kong’s National Security Department to arrest Cardinal Joseph Zen, the city’s Catholic bishop emeritus. The pretext was that he had violated Hong Kong’s national security law in colluding with foreign forces — by serving as a trustee of a humanitarian relief fund.

Arrested along with Zen, who turned 90 in January, were four other trustees: popular singer Denise Ho; Margaret Ng, one of Hong Kong’s top barristers and a former legislator; former legislator Cyd Ho, now in prison on separate political charges; and professor Hui Po-keung, arrested at the airport as he was attempting to fly to Europe for a new teaching position. These five were trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, established in 2019 to assist with the legal and financial needs of those arrested in pro-democracy demonstrations. After delivering nearly $32 million in assistance, the fund was shut down in October under pressure from the National Security Department. By any rational measure, the threat — if the government considers food assistance and legal fees a threat — ended with the closure of the fund.

Which points to the very simple answer as to why Cardinal Zen was arrested: He is a threat to the Chinese Communist regime. Still powerful as a force of resistance in the Hong Kong Catholic Church, Zen was the last inspiring symbol of Hong Kong’s democratic movement untouched by the Chinese security apparatus.

Part of what makes Zen so dangerous to the regime is his moral clarity, his courage and the power of his witness. Born in Shanghai, Zen has never had any illusions about the Chinese Communist Party. From championing the cause of Catholic clergy oppressed in China, to fighting to keep the Hong Kong government out of Catholic schools, to doing his damnedest to get Pope Francis and the Vatican to pull back from their failed China engagement strategy, Zen has always shined a light on those who would sweep the Catholic Church and the people of Hong Kong away to forgotten corners. Other than the Dalai Lama, there is no individual more despised by the State Security officials who oversee religious affairs in China than Zen.

I’ve seen this courage and devotion up close — which is why I know this latest threat will not get Zen to kneel. In all my travels with him — including five trips to the United States since 2004 — and from countless hours in personal discussions and conversations over meals, I have witnessed how he responds to pressure.

In 2007, the cardinal was scheduled to visit the White House to meet with President George W. Bush. Before the visit, we got a call from the office of the Apostolic Nuncio in Washington, D.C. We also saw now-disgraced Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who repeatedly used his influence to block church criticism of the Chinese Communist Party so as not to interfere with the diplomatic accord he was desperately trying to broker between Beijing and the Vatican. Both McCarrick and the nuncio’s representative pressed Zen to cancel the meeting with the president, saying it would give the “wrong impression”. He refused both times, chuckling when he told me about it.

Another quality of Zen’s that alarms Beijing is his humanity — his generosity and compassion. In 2014, when I was targeted and harassed by Hong Kong authorities on a political bribery charge, Zen came to see me. The cardinal spoke to me about my duty as a father and a husband. He reminded me that I had a responsibility to put my family first. Knowing the risks and hardships facing dissidents against the Chinese regime — risks to which he has exposed himself time and again — he wanted to spare my wife and children.

That fall, my family moved to the United States, to a home the cardinal visited a few times. On each visit, it was our family and the kids’ school that most attracted his interest. We often joked we had a cardinal as our parish priest. But this is normal for Zen — who, even during the week in which he was arrested, was out checking on his flock in the Hong Kong community.

Zen, in other words, is everything the brutish Chinese regime is not. The other 612 Fund trustees posed similar threats through the power of their own democracy activism. The priest, the lawyer, the politician, the professor, the singer — all from different walks of life, yet all profoundly decent and motivated by the knowledge that the rights of all are based on the protection of all.

We who desire democracy for Hong Kong are often asked if we will stand for others, as one day the regime might come for us. In Hong Kong, thousands who have answered that question face arrest and jail. Cardinal Zen has never flinched from standing up for others. Now it is up to the rest of us to stand up for him.

Mark Simon is the former group director of Next Digital and was deputy to Hong Kong publisher and democracy activist Jimmy Lai from 2001 to 2021.

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