Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun has for many years tried to make good use of his position as bishop of Hong Kong to be an outspoken critic of the Chinese government and its record on religious freedom and human rights. During a break from last month’s Synod of Bishops on the Word of God, he spoke about the situation in China, the effects of the Olympic Games, life in Hong Kong, the recent synod, and why he sees it as his mission to be a thorn in the side of the Beijing government.

Your Eminence, what were the most interesting and important parts of the synod, in your view?

It was a very pastoral theme. For sure, there are very important theological foundations of the biblical apostolate, but we put emphasis on the pastoral, that means, on the knowledge of living out the holy Scripture and spreading the practice of reading holy Scripture to all the faithful — and even having it translated into many languages to help those who don’t know other languages in the world.

The most interesting aspect of the synod was the exchange of experience from all parts of the world. We know there are many initiatives going on everywhere, and so many people are really engaged in this apostolate. So maybe it’s still a very long-term plan, but it’s moving — and moving steadily.

What insights did you gain at the synod which helped you in the situation facing Catholics in China?

In China, the revealed word of God doesn’t seem to have reached too many people. Those who have received the holy Scripture by faith are still few, and so maybe we have to understand the word of God in a more comprehensive sense, including the word of God in creation, the marvels of the universe, the creation of human conscience. That is also the word of God.

In Hong Kong, we can say the Bible is well-known to many people because, in our education system, which stems from our British regime, it was even a subject for public examination. So we have many Catholic schools, also Protestant schools, and almost half of the student population are in Christian schools. So they all have some contact with the Bible. But it’s one thing to know the Bible like any other kind of knowledge, and another to accept it, to live it. So I think we still have much work to do on that point, even for our own Catholics, because the rich treasure in the word of God is still to be discovered. Certainly, the Church, in its liturgical reform, has presented a much richer repertoire of readings. But the priest should prepare better homilies, sermons, to help people to understand the word of God.

Turning to the situation in China as a whole, have you seen much positive change since the Beijing Olympics this year?

I’m sorry to say we see no change at all. They succeeded in making a very good show of the Olympic Games. They got a lot of medals, and that was very good. And we are happy that nothing happened, but we don’t see any benefit in terms of religious freedom, or even a little step in the direction of more democracy.

There were so many restrictions, even during the Games, especially among the so-called underground community of the Church. So I’m sorry to say we cannot see any changes resulting from the Games.

Is there perhaps a fear that now that the Olympics are a fading memory and the world’s eyes are no longer on China as they were that some restrictions may come back?

Yes, that fear may be justified, but we hope it may not be realized because the highest authorities seem to have some intention of improvement. So let’s hope. Still we try to be optimistic.

In August, the Bishop of Beijing, Joseph Li Shan [of the official state-run Chinese Church], said he very much hoped the Pope would visit China and issued an invitation. Is such a visit possible in your view?

I don’t think that’s anything serious; it’s just the bishop of Beijing, and he hasn’t the authority to make such a decision. It’s just a very simple desire.

He may be expressing a desire, but it’s really of no importance. He has no authority to make such an invitation. The government would place no importance on his wishes.

Are you optimistic of such a visit yourself?

Oh no, and at this moment, I would discourage the Pope from going to China, because there is no real condition for any improvement.

The visit of the Pope would simply be manipulated, as they do with all the visits of the cardinals. I’m discouraging all the cardinals from going to China.

A senior Chinese Communist Party official [Zhou Tianyong] recently predicted that China will finish its political and institutional reforms and be a working democracy by 2020. Do you think that’s feasible?

I’m sorry to say in China everything is unpredictable. We may have a democracy in two years; we may have to wait for 20 years.

Do you think the current financial crisis could possibly help prospects for religious freedom in the country?

No. It’s certainly something which concerns everybody, because everybody is connected with everybody else in the world economy: You insure me, and you are insured by somebody else — the whole world is connected. I know that China’s huge reserve is in American dollars, so they must be affected also by the global crisis.

How could greater democracy help the cause of religious freedom in the country?

The two things go together because they’re both about respect for the human person. Democracy means respect for the human person, and so then you should respect his conscience and religious belief. I would wish, first of all, for a little more democracy in the [Communist] Party, because it seems there is no democracy in the party; so there is no progress.

Everything comes from our authorities but, then again, we have reason to suspect that although sometimes there may be good intentions at a high level, further down people are concerned about their own interests, and they want to disrupt any change, any improvement.

Have imprisonments of members of the unofficial Church increased in recent weeks and months?

Not more and not less. It’s just as usual, and that’s bad enough.

Do you see greater collaboration, a greater mingling, between the “underground” and official churches?

The two groups simply cannot do anything with each other under such government control. They have no problem among themselves. It’s the government that is controlling and punishing one or the other, so the problem is with the government.

It’s not among the two communities. There is certainly a division between the two communities, but it all owes itself to the policy of the government.

As bishop of Hong Kong, you’ve had quite a few struggles with the Chinese authorities over the years.

Oh yes. When I became bishop, the situation was completely new, because as bishop of Hong Kong, we [those who serve in this role] are supposed to have a higher degree of autonomy, even after ’97 [the year the British handed Hong Kong over to China].

So I think we have to use this freedom to speak out, not only for ourselves in Hong Kong, but also for the Church in China. And that, certainly, displeases the regime, because in the Communist Party any criticism cannot be tolerated. Anyone who criticises is its enemy.

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.