Cardinal Zen Prepares for Trial in Hong Kong, and the World Takes Notice
The much-watched trial of Cardinal Joseph Zen, a widely respected Catholic cardinal from Hong Kong, was delayed from its scheduled start this week. He and five others were charged with failing to apply for a local society registration for their former nonprofit, the 612 Humanitarian Fund between July 16, 2019 and Oct. 31, 2021. The fund offered financial and legal aid to pro-democracy protesters who protested a controversial bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China in 2019.
Cardinal Zen has been a consistent advocate for greater freedom and democratic reforms in Hong Kong, and a staunch critic of the Chinese Communist Party. He was ordained in 1996 and become bishop in 2002, leading a diocese with over 400,000 Catholics. He was named a cardinal buy Pope Benedict XVI in 2006. Throughout that time, he became known as a champion for freedom. Never fearful of sparking the ire of Chinese officials, he even held masses to remember the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. Now, he is looking at the possibility of a fine or even jailtime for his activism.
Several prominent pro-democracy activists — including Jimmy Lai, Joshua Wong, and Agnes Chow — have already been jailed on criminal charges stemming from protests in 2019. During the protests, Hong Kong was still a semi-autonomous city with much greater political and economic freedoms than the mainland. These freedoms were key to the city’s thriving economy and robust civil society. Sadly, measures taken by the central Chinese government began to erode this distinction, culminating in the infamous national security law. It was intended to crush dissent, and it has been effective to that end.
In 2019, the entire world heard loud and clear the demands of hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong protestors who wanted more democracy and resisted mainland China’s influence. These days, it is rare that pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong participate in international public discourse. Pro-democracy advocates have largely been harassed and terrified into silence. Religious freedom too is in peril.
The trial against Zen and his fellow activists is meant to make an example of them. Why else would the government bother issuing criminal charges against a 90-year-old cardinal beloved among human rights advocates and well-known to international media? The 612 Humanitarian Fund over which they were charged is already defunct. The charges against Cardinal Zen and his compatriots prove that Hong Kong is not the city it once was. It is now Communist China through and through.
Although Hong Kong has faded from international headlines, it is critical that we remember what the Chinese government has done there. As China seeks to expand, the territories in which it exerts more power can expect any political freedoms they have to fade as well — and quickly. This is particularly relevant for Taiwan.
The Chinese government has been increasingly aggressive toward its island neighbor which Beijing claims as its own territory. Yet, Taiwan has some advantages that Hong Kong did not. Taiwan is fully self-governing, rather than partially as Hong Kong used to be. The United States partners with Taiwan’s military and has a strategic interest in seeing Taiwan remain self-governing. For many Taiwanese people, being governed by China is unthinkable, and one need look no further than Hong Kong to see why.
Yet, regarding this small but mighty ally, the Biden administration has sent mixed signals. This week, for the fourth time, President Biden vowed in a “60 Minutes” interview to mobilize American forces to defend Taiwan if China’s military invaded. Once again, White House aides walked back Biden’s statement, telling “60 Minutes” that U.S. policy on Taiwan had not changed.
The Biden administration seems to not have a consistent policy, or perhaps the policy of President Biden is different from that of the White House staffers who keep walking back his comments. Regardless, Biden’s comments ought to be encouraging to Taiwan as they observe the fate of Hong Kongers and the pro-democracy protesters with whom they deeply sympathized in 2019. Taiwan was able to offer some Hong Kong protestors refuge when the national security act became law. Let us hope they can be that safe haven for decades to come.
Cardinal Zen’s trial will now begin on September 26. Freedom-lovers around the world should boldly speak out for this faithful leader who has championed faith for so many. The fall of Hong Kong will go down in the history books, but we must not forget that its people are right now suffering the disappointment of having lost freedom.
Arielle Del Turco is Assistant Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council, and co-author of "Heroic Faith: Hope Amid Global Persecution."