On May 11, 2022, Cardinal Joseph Zen, “the conscience of Hong Kong,” was arrested. For those like me who experienced formidable years alongside the cardinal, it will remain a day of unforgettable sadness.
The cardinal is 90 years old and feels the frailty of his age. He lives modestly in the residence of the Salesians in Hong Kong, a priest among others, without the shade of luxuries and privileges. He is a brave man, the noble father of the democracy movement, the leader of an entire civic community.
The arrest of Cardinal Zen is a completely political, demonstrative, intimidating, and dare I say, even quite inhumane act. Can one arrest a 90-year-old man who millions of people around the world look up to and respect?
Cardinal Zen was released on bail that is humanly a relief because we don’t have to imagine him in a prison cell. But the unbearable gravity of the arrest remains: there will be a trial, hateful charges aimed at discrediting a noble and generous person.
And we cannot forget that many of our democratic friends remain in prison for their ideals of freedom. The arrest came along with other prominent members of the pro-democracy movement, including three valuable women, Margaret Ng, Cyd Ho, and Denise Ho.
Cardinal Zen is charged with collusion with foreign forces. The indictment is based on his formal responsibility in the establishment of the “June 12” fund, which was created to help — with legal, financial, moral, and medical support — people injured, arrested, attacked, or threatened with violence during the democratic demonstrations that began on June 12, 2019, and ended on July 1, 2020, with the introduction of the National Security Law.
The fund used to collect donations, including from abroad it is to be assumed. But it had suspended its activities after the introduction of the National Security Law. And so it is a backward application of a law that is nonetheless liberticidal.
The arrest is a terrible business card for new Chief Executive John Lee — the man responsible for introducing a police regime in Hong Kong — who was elected with 99 percent of the vote of the special election commission last May 8.
Lee will take office only next July 1, yet it is intended to make it clear that he, or rather Beijing, is already in charge. This resounding arrest (we are still talking about a cardinal) I think also has something of a spitefulness to Carrie Lam, the disastrous governor who preceded him, but who shares the same Catholic faith with Cardinal Zen.
Since 2003, Cardinal Zen has been called the “conscience of Hong Kong”: a leader in a city that has sought for itself a path to freedom and democracy, as moreover provided for in the Basic Law that governs Hong Kong.
We have seen him with the people on the streets, in the squares, in the prisons, in Victoria Park — a shepherd alongside the people. Millions of citizens took to the streets in Hong Kong, and Cardinal Zen with them, among them, in front of them. A movement of people, of young people, of people demanding to be free, to be protagonists of their own destiny.
South Korea had Cardinal Stephen Kim: the father of the motherland who saved the country from military power by welcoming protesters threatened by the police into the cathedral (1987). The Philippines had Cardinal Jaime Sin, who called the people to defend Cory Aquino who was elected president instead of dictator Ferdinand Marcos (1986). Hong Kong has Cardinal Zen: “the conscience of Hong Kong.”
Cardinal Zen’s arrest thickens more ominous black clouds over Hong Kong. It cannot get any better in the coming months and years. It will get much worse before it gets better. The pattern of progressive control by the regime had already been implemented in China: first eliminate political enemies; then economic enemies; then cultural enemies; and finally religions.
Even more difficult months and years await the Catholic Church in Hong Kong. For some bloody historical determination the wonderful people of Hong Kong will not be able to live in freedom and democracy.
Father Gianni Criveller, is a PIME missionary and China expert, who has worked with Cardinal Zen for a long time in Hong Kong. This article appeared on the AsiaNews website, which is run by the PIME, on May 13, 2022.