Cardinal Joseph Zen a Longtime, Vocal Critic of China’s Policies

The most prominent critic of the current Vatican approach to Holy See-China relations is the Salesian bishop emeritus of Hong Kong.

Cardinal Joseph Zen
Cardinal Joseph Zen (photo: via CNA)

The most prominent critic of the current Vatican approach to Holy See-China relations is Cardinal Joseph Zen, 86, the Salesian bishop emeritus of Hong Kong.

Cardinal Zen served as the bishop of Hong Kong from 2002 until his retirement in 2009 and was named a cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006. After his retirement, he remained a vocal critic of China’s hostile policies toward religion and democracy.

A native of Shanghai and raised Catholic by his devout parents, he fled China to escape the communist oppression and made his way to Hong Kong. There, he entered the Salesians and was ordained a priest in February 1961.

Sent to Rome for further studies, he earned a doctorate in philosophy from the Pontifical Salesian University and returned to Hong Kong to teach at Holy Spirit Seminary College and then in other Salesian institutions and seminaries in China.

In 1996, Cardinal Zen was named by Pope St. John Paul II the coadjutor bishop of Hong Kong. He succeeded to the see in September 2002, five years after the

onetime British colony had passed into Chinese control. As shepherd of the half million Catholics of Hong Kong, he became one of China’s foremost advocates for democracy and religious freedom, a role that often put him in the spotlight internationally and that also brought criticism from Chinese government officials.

Amid the massive protests in Hong Kong in 2014 against the increasing restrictions in the region on human and religious freedoms, Cardinal Zen presented himself to a police station and announced he was ready to face prison. As was described in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, he reportedly told authorities, “I’m prepared to be jailed, which is the strongest and most sincere proof of the unfairness of the system in Hong Kong.”

After his retirement from the Hong Kong Diocese in 2009, he remained an active critic of Beijing; and in recent years, he has been publicly expressing great alarm over the efforts of the Holy See to reach an agreement with the communists to normalize diplomatic relations and forge an agreement on the status of the Church in the country.

In January, he met with Pope Francis to express his concerns, and he has continued to warn against giving too many concessions to Beijing and betraying the Catholics of China, who have endured persecution for so many years. As he said in an interview with the Register last year, “I’m not against the dialogue, but I am worried that it may not have good conclusions, as you need to have goodwill on both sides, and I cannot see goodwill on the side of the communists.”

He added:

“For so many years they have conquered the Church; their only purpose is more power, not to give any back. They probably want to see a decision from the Vatican telling the underground Church to come up, so then they will have full control of the Church. They [the underground Church] would be the ones who would be betrayed: They have resisted under so much pressure, and I’m afraid, truly afraid, that the Vatican officials will be cheated by China. The Chinese are masters at playing with words, so they may give an agreement that looks okay but is not. I’m worried.”


Matthew Bunson is a Register senior editor.