Cardinal Zen’s Arrest Will Test the Vatican’s Agreement With Communist China

The bishop emeritus of Hong Kong was arrested with four others Wednesday for ‘collusion with foreign forces’ and has since been released on bail.

In this picture taken Sept. 11, 2020, Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, speaks with a reporter during an AFP interview at his residence in Hong Kong.
In this picture taken Sept. 11, 2020, Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, speaks with a reporter during an AFP interview at his residence in Hong Kong. (photo: Isaac Lawrence / AFP via Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — The arrests of Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun and four pro-democracy activists Wednesday on charges of alleged “collusion with foreign forces” pose a direct challenge to the Holy See and the effectiveness of its recent controversial efforts to work more closely with Beijing.

The Holy See issued a brief statement on Wednesday afternoon saying it had “learned with concern the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest and is following the situation with great attention.”

The 90-year-old bishop emeritus of Hong Kong was released from custody late Wednesday but on police bail and so still faces pending charges.

The cardinal has been an outspoken critic of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s autocratic rule and his arrest comes just three and a half years after the Holy See signed a secret and controversial provisional agreement with Beijing aimed at legitimizing the appointment of bishops. 

The agreement, which the cardinal decried as a “betrayal” of the underground Church loyal to Rome, was renewed in late 2020. The latest developments will test the effectiveness of those accords and whether they have in fact offered the Holy See any true bargaining power. The Vatican has always argued that patience is necessary before these agreements bear fruit and it will be of interest to see how they respond as the cardinal’s case proceeds. His arrest is also a significant test for his current successor, Bishop Stephen Chow Sau-yan, who took charge of the diocese last December.

The cardinal was arrested with four others for running a now-disbanded fund that helped defend those apprehended for pro-democracy protests. 

The “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund,” set up in 2019, raised more than $32 million for those affected, but Hong Kong police shut it down last year under the territory’s national security law that came into force in 2020. 

Cardinal Zen and the U.S. government have criticized the law for eroding civil and political freedoms that Beijing had promised Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” arrangement when the territory was returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997.  

All five of those arrested were trustees of the “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund” and include the well-known senior barrister and politician Margaret Ng; activist and pop singer Denise Ho; former lawmaker Cyd Ho (already in prison on a separate charge); and former academic and activist Hui Po-keung.

Sources in Hong Kong have told the Register that Hui “triggered” the arrests as he prepared to board a flight from Hong Kong to Germany on Tuesday. All five have been charged for alleged “collusion with foreign forces.” 

“These are the most respected people in the democracy movement and it’s a real coalition,” said Mark Simon, a friend and former business associate of Jimmy Lai, a Catholic business tycoon jailed last year for breaching the national security law by taking part in pro-democracy demonstrations. 

Simon told the Register that to arrest three of the five “would have had to be signed off by Beijing, especially Cardinal Zen, given the implications with the Vatican, so what it tells us is they don’t care what’s going on or who’s in charge. In other words, they don’t care about a fresh start with the new chief executive.” 

John Lee is the new chief executive, effectively the head of the Hong Kong government, a former ex-security chief for Hong Kong and a staunch supporter of Beijing. Reportedly deeply unpopular due to his crackdown on protestors during demonstrations over a controversial extradition bill in 2019 (the protests were the pretext for the national security law), Lee’s appointment at the weekend has been widely seen as Beijing tightening its grip on the former British colony. He takes up his post in July.  

Benedict Rogers, founder of the NGO Hong Kong Watch, condemned the arrests, telling CNA that they “signal beyond a doubt that Beijing intends to intensify its crackdown on basic rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.” 

Friends of the cardinal have told the Register that he has long expected to be arrested and is not afraid of his fate at the hands of the authoritarian, Beijing-led rulers now running Hong Kong.