Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen has warned of a growing “political intimidation” of journalists in the Chinese city following the jailing of media mogul Jimmy Lai last week.
Lai, an ardent critic of the Chinese Communist Party, has been charged under the city’s controversial national security law on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces.
Cardinal Zen said the arrest of Lai, a Catholic, is “obviously a case of political intimidation,” adding that the democracy activist’s arrest was a warning to others.
“There is a clear policy direction: suppress the freedom of expression,” said the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong in an interview with the Catholic News Agency.
The cardinal called the decision to deny Lai bail “ridiculous.”
“Jimmy has been charged with many other criminal offenses [related to his pro-democracy activism] and still the bails were granted for these cases, but now for such trivial thing he is not even allowed bail?”
“This is evidently all about political persecution,” Cardinal Zen told CNA.
Lai, 73, appeared in court on Dec. 12, handcuffed to a chain around his waist, and led by a police officer.
He was earlier charged with asking foreign countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong or China, and taking other “hostile action.”
Among the evidence presented by the police include a tweet asking Donald Trump to sanction Chinese officials.
If convicted, Lai could spend the rest of his life in jail.
Lai was born to a rich family in mainland China in 1947. His family suffered once the communists took power in 1949, with his mother being sent to a labor camp. At the age of 12 he was smuggled into Hong Kong. Cardinal Zen baptized him in 1997, the same year that the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule.
Cardinal Zen said that since the national security law came into force on July 1, authorities in Hong Kong had launched a systematic crackdown on civil liberties.
He also warned that it could be used to silence the Church in Hong Kong.
He said the attacks on basic freedoms in Hong Kong extended beyond political repression and represented a growing threat to the Church.
“I have often said that there would not be any religious freedom when there is no freedom,” he said in the CNA interview.
In recent months, the Diocese of Hong Kong has issued directives to Catholic schools on “fostering the correct values on national identity.”
The diocese has also urged students to respect Chinese national symbols including the flag and national anthem and has blocked a Catholic pro-democracy campaign that was set to run in local newspapers.
Cardinal Zen called the measures “very sad,” adding that “we can no more freely announce the gospel values” in Hong Kong.
The cardinal has been an outspoken critic of the Holy See’s accord with the Chinese government, first agreed in 2018 and recently renewed for another two years.