Cardinal Zen on China and Christianity

Cardinal Joseph Zen is sometimes called the “conscience of Hong Kong.”

Cardinal Joseph Zen is sometimes called “the new conscience of Hong Kong.”

That’s due to his outspoken defense of religious freedom and political rights.

He has often been the target of criticism from state media in mainland China, and he was banned from entering China from 1998-2004.

For example, he used his position to oppose the “consecration” of two bishops who belong to the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. He later referred to the nominations, which did not have papal sanction, as “a declaration of war.”

Since he stepped down as archbishop of Hong Kong, he has continued to be outspoken. He denounced “false interpretations” of the latest papal encyclical in China, after fears that Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) could be manipulated to vindicate the Communist regime’s social and economic policies.

Cardinal Zen, the only Chinese cardinal under the age of 80, spoke with Register correspondent Simon Roughneen.

What are the latest developments in relations between the Holy See and Beijing?

We know that there is an exchange going on; we know that there are contacts, but we do not know the exact status of what is discussed between the Holy See and Beijing. The responsibility for these discussions is clearly divided and is not handled here.

The Chinese government has imprisoned numerous Catholics as well as other Christians and human-rights activists (such as Gao Zhi Sheng and in Xinjiang, Alimujiang Yimiti). How difficult is it to be a practicing Catholic or Christian or human-rights defender in China nowadays?

The Catholic Church is interested in all problems relating to human rights in China, which is a big issue. However, we have to be concerned, naturally, for our own people first. Some Catholics are in jail for 10 years and more now, and we remind the Holy See to bring this up when communicating with Beijing. In China, people are imprisoned without any due process, such as Bishop Su of Baoding, who is locked up now for 13 years.

A recent report outlined that more than 13 million abortions are performed in China each year. What does this indicate about the nature of Communist rule in China?

This is very sad. Remember, in China, we cannot deploy Catholic moral teaching on this subject, as there is no public space for this. If the Church has more space in society, then we can work to teach the people about this issue. However, the problem of abortion is a worldwide one, and the figures for abortion almost everywhere are truly frightening.

The 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre has just passed. How do you assess the legacy of those events for China today?

The government in Beijing is surely aware that there are strong feelings about this memory among many people, but the government seems nervous to acknowledge this or to examine what happened. In Hong Kong, we persevere in speaking out and remind [the country] that without addressing the legacy of Tiananmen Square, there can be no healing or reconciliation. The truth needs to be told and responsibility for what happened needs to be taken. Without settling this matter, we cannot reconcile, or move on, and we can have no guarantee that such a thing would not happen again.

Some analysts have speculated that perhaps as many as 10,000 Chinese convert to Christianity every day. Do you think (and hope) that China could eventually become a Christian nation?

We heard many people in the past also say that China could become Christian. Now, we have a vision based on hope, rather than fear, for the future. But we cannot make predictions about these matters.

However, in China, it is thought that the majority of new Christian converts are to Protestant denominations. If this is the case, why do you think this is? How can the Catholic Church attract more converts in China?

Yes, converts to the Protestant denominations are much more. Part of this is because the system to which they convert is flexible. One can go once or twice to a church and, therefore, be counted as a convert. The Catholic way is thorough, and time-consuming, as we know. Significant time spent in catechesis is needed before anyone can enter the faith. Government policy does not help us either, as there is a division on the ground between the Church and the state-sponsored entity. And Chinese society is changing, becoming less religious and spiritual, and becoming more and more materialistic and secular, especially in the cities, but also beyond.

The United States and China recently engaged in a high-level bilateral dialogue, and many people feel that the future of the world will hinge on this bilateral relationship. Does this mean that the U.S. should unconditionally engage with the Communist rulers in Beijing?

There must always be a balance between the various advantages inherent in any relationship on the one hand and the need for truth and to speak the truth on the other hand. You can never betray the truth to gain a material advantage. So I hope the U.S. does not abandon human rights and democracy. It is a practical issue as well as a moral one, for, in fact, rights and progress in other areas are inseparable, and you cannot move forward in other spheres without giving people their rights and basic freedoms.

Simon Roughneen writes

 from Bangkok.