It has been just four days since a special committee elected hardliner John Lee to rule Hong Kong at Beijing’s will, and the message is loud and clear: there will be no tolerance for support of pro-democracy demonstrators past or present.
The elderly cleric, Cardinal Joseph Zen, was apprehended as he tried to board a flight to Germany on Tuesday. Also taken into custody was 45-year-old Denise Ho, a beloved pop singer and actor, along with lawyer Margaret Ng and scholar Hui Po-keung. Though later released on bail, they are not allowed to leave the country.
The arrest of a 90-year-old Catholic cardinal and one of the city’s most popular Cantopop singers for “collusion with foreign forces” is indisputable proof that the “one country/two system” project has failed and that Hong Kong is now officially under Chinese rule, pro-democracy groups said Wednesday in a statement.
The pro-democracy group was especially vocal prior to the pandemic when China passed its national security law that allowed so-called dissident resident in Hong Kong to be tried and punished on mainland China. Hong Kong returned to China from British rule in 1997, which marked the beginning of a struggle to maintain autonomy, of which it is now clearly losing grasp. Increasingly stringent laws have sparked fierce push back.
Zen had been a staunch supporter—spiritually and financially—of pro-democracy demonstrators who regularly protested against China’s increasingly harsh clampdown of their freedom.
The Vatican issued a statement of concern for Zen’s safety, noting that Hong Kong had traditionally not been part of China’s clampdown on Catholic worship. “The Holy see has learned the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest with concern and is following the development of the situation very closely,” the press office said in a statement Wednesday. It is understood that Pope Francis—who has slalomed a fine line between the Catholic church supported by the Communist Party and the one long supported by the Vatican—may intervene directly on Zen’s behalf.
In 2021, the Vatican cut a deal of sorts with the Chinese government, which had only allowed Chinese Catholics to worship openly in the Communist-backed churches. The deal meant that the Vatican recognized cardinals and other prelates who were named by the Communist party, which is something previous popes refused to do. “China is not easy, but I am convinced that we should not give up dialogue,” Francis said to critics at the time.
The arrest of Zen—who is a Vatican sponsored cardinal, not a Chinese government prelate—is officially due to his involvement in the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which financially supported pro-democracy protesters who were jailed over the last several years. The group had been under light investigation by outgoing Hong Kong leader Carrie Lamb, but is now more clearly under scrutiny for past and present activity since Lee’s election.
The U.S. State Department also expressed concern over the arrests. Kurt Campbell, the Indo-Pacific coordinator, said that the “clampdown” was worrying, telling an online audience on Wednesday: “All I can tell you is that I think we are increasingly troubled by steps in Hong Kong to pressure and eliminate civil society.”