As academics and lawyers urge Beijing to respect religious freedoms after recent church demolitions and detentions, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun has spoken of the damage the current regime has inflicted on Christians.

In a recent interview with the Register, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong criticized the corruption and restrictions on religious liberty in China, but said he has "full confidence" in Pope Francis to give clear direction for the Church in the country.

Cardinal Zen spoke April 29 on the link between economic and religious freedom at an Acton Institute conference in Rome. In his talk, he stressed that the Holy See is handling the situation better than in the early 2000s, when the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples was ridden with "inertia," leading to the ruling Communist Party "taking advantage and strengthening its positions."


What are your hopes for Chinese Christians under the leadership of Pope Francis?

I have full confidence in Pope Francis, because he is full of love, and he’s also very wise and can be decisive when he wants to and sees it as necessary. That’s what we need at this moment, because it’s very difficult to face the Chinese authorities. We don’t see any sign of a sincere will to set things right. They say Pope Francis likes to tango, but you can’t tango alone — so it’s up to the Chinese government. So far, we don’t see any sign.


Are you happy with the Vatican’s approach, particularly that of the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples (Propaganda Fide), of which you’ve been critical in the past?

I have said many things about Propaganda Fide in previous years, but, nowadays, we have new personnel, and, at the end of his pontificate, Pope Benedict gave very clear direction. I’m sure Pope Francis is going to continue in that direction, so let’s have some hope. But, surely, the damage that has been done is terrible.


Can it be repaired, be put right?

Yes, everything can be put right, but it takes time.


This conference has been about how economic freedom can bring religious freedom. Do you see the economic advances in China eventually bringing about religious freedom?

You cannot deny that the economic freedom [that China has had] has brought some good fruit, but I tend to see the negative aspects, because it’s the worst kind of capitalism: a capitalism without rules, without fair competition.

So I’m afraid there are many more bad effects than good effects, especially concerning education of the people, because they [overall] have become really materialistic and selfish, looking for easy money [and] have no moral standards. They [often] cheat on everyone, and so, everything is fake: fake medicines; fake buildings, which collapse at the first sign of an earthquake. All that is frightening, because it’s not the deception of something material, but the deception of the capital of a people. Chinese people used to be honest and hardworking, but that’s no more [in many cases].


The world has recently remembered the great example of St. John Paul II and his role in history in bringing down Soviet communism. What can we learn from him today in the context of China?

Pope Benedict said something wonderful: He said John Paul II had conquered communism by preaching, "Who is a human being?" So, actually, he challenged communists with the question: "Who is man?" It’s that type of question that’s important: Who is a human being? Then you have a real solution. We have to follow that way.