Hong Kong’s Catholic Church in President Xi Jinping’s Era
An interview with Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung, Pope Francis’ choice to shepherd Hong Kong.
Twenty years since Hong Kong’s passage from British colonial rule to Chinese central government rule, 20 years since the application of the “one country, two systems” formula, Beijing is dropping the pleasantries. The communist giant has increasingly exerted its power over education, the judiciary and the electoral process governing the island’s 7.35 million people.
This trend was reinforced with the October 2017 Chinese Communist Party congress that re-elected President Xi Jinping party chief and commander of the army.
Last August, Pope Francis selected mainland-born Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung, 72, a calm, thoughtful and conciliatory man, to lead the influential 500,000 Catholic community of Hong Kong.
Bishop Yeung succeeds Cardinal John Tong Hon, 78, bishop of Hong Kong from 2009 to 2017. Last year, Cardinal Tong announced, “The Vatican and China could be close to a milestone agreement” — a declaration that infuriated his predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, 86, the bishop of Hong Kong from 1996 to 2009, who has been a determined voice against any agreement between the Holy See and Beijing.
Register senior correspondent Victor Gaetan interviewed Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung in a bustling diocesan office, adjacent to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
You described Hong Kong as a potential bridge between Chinese authorities and the Holy See when you became bishop last summer. How are you serving as a bridge?
Well, what is a bridge? It tries to link isolated pieces of land, right? So when we say we would like to play the role of a bridge, we do not mean we want to be a third party, because the Chinese government would never allow Hong Kong to get involved as a third party.
For example, during the Sino-British negotiations over the future of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong governor could not even join the meeting. Only the British and Chinese negotiated. The current situation is similar.
We offer ourselves as a bridge for better communication.
Can you share any concrete examples?
In China, there is only one Catholic Church. Some are under the control of the government, the patriotic Church; others refuse to be controlled and are sometimes called the “underground Church.” But the patriotic and the underground, they are both still the Catholic Church. If they need some help, we will by all ways help them.
For example, on formation or on canon law, or in offering the sacraments, we can provide help, and we do. Isn’t that the role of a bridge? We want our sheep to all join together.
You make no distinction between those churches recognized by the government and those that are unregistered or unofficial?
If people in China are in need, they are people in need. We don’t worry if someone belongs to the so-called patriotic Church or the underground. It is only the government making this problem. The question becomes: Will the government allow you to get involved in certain matters?
Can you go to China?
If I want to go into China to preach, whether at a patriotic or unofficial church, I still need to seek approval from the government first.
I have visited China many, many, many times, even for a priest’s ordination — just once — but I have never attended the ordination of a bishop. The ordination of a bishop is an entirely different situation. A priest is usually recognized by both the patriotic association and unofficial Church.
In 2016 there was a lot of anticipation that Beijing and Rome would announce a new agreement mainly on the selection of bishops. In 2017, especially after the Chinese Communist Party congress, there has been more apprehension. How do you see current relations between the Catholic Church and the Chinese government?
We have to wait and see.
Some people say that after the party congress [held in October 2017], the party is exerting more control over religious matters. Others say authorities are consolidating power to better run China, but in a few years, when major problems are solved, maybe they will loosen up.
When a boat is not sailing, it is not necessarily because its bottom has hit against the rocks. Maybe it isn’t sailing because of wind or currents.
Regarding the Church and the Chinese government, many topics are discussed. If something is against our principles, I don’t think there is any reason to sacrifice our principles. Once you sacrifice your principles, there is nothing left.
But can we set this aside? Can we still maintain a calm and peaceful atmosphere? Even when we are not reaching mutual agreement over a major issue, can we talk about something else?
You don’t have to turn the tables, slam the door, break down the bridge!
That’s the Holy Father’s spirit! Hong Kong’s 2014 “Umbrella Movement” was a high-profile movement, led by students, for direct democratic elections. Some Catholics, including Cardinal Zen, participated, but there is a wide spectrum of opinion within the Church regarding the need for political reform in Hong Kong I understand. What do you think?
The people engaged in the “Umbrella Movement” have a vision, an enthusiasm. I believe they are offering themselves to help Hong Kong society move forward, much better than the British administration. And, after 20 years of Chinese administration, is there something we can do better? Is there a way we can still move forward?
The political situation, election reform — there are lots of things we can still change for the better. The government really did not answer their [the students’] demands. The central government said: “Now everything is shut down; we are not going to allow the legislative council or different parties to talk about the future of Hong Kong.” No dialogue.
Without dialogue, can there be change?
The basic thing is that, in Hong Kong, people have different concepts of the phrase “one country, two systems” [Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s 1980s formulation for the relationship between China and Hong Kong].
Some people worry, “There will not be two systems anymore, only one!”
Other people, on the other side, say, “Wait a minute, when you talk about two systems, are you trying to separate the two systems entirely, like you are seeking independence? Then, let’s not talk about it, because it’s absolutely not allowed!”
On this, too, it is too early to say.
Are we becoming more controlled by the government? I think, yes, but the Church still maintains its freedom and liberty for all activities.
What is the future path? You are the future.
I am a very positive person. I always look positively toward the future. We are all in the hands of Our Lord, and time passes very quickly.
If we try to plan everything, and try to get everything under our control, well, that is not wise. You try your best to do something positive; and, of course, you can’t go against the teachings of the Church or do something immoral to embarrass the Church.
The Church means love, and Jesus himself never asked his people to turn against the government and have a revolution. The apostles, in their letters, always say: Cooperate with the government. We Christians always say: “Pray for them.”
And we are doing the same. If the government makes a wrong decision, against our human values or Church teaching, we have to say so. But we still want to be an instrument of peace.
The Hong Kong Diocese averages 3,000 adult souls joining the Church each year. What activities are behind this number, besides the Holy Spirit?
We have done a lot of work in our Catholic parishes. Members invite family and friends to study, to participate in catechism [classes]. And the Catholic Church has a big influence in this society because the Catholic Church is the largest school-sponsoring body here in Hong Kong. The Catholic population is around 5% of the school population. Of 1,000 students, only about 50 are Catholic.
The non-Catholic students recognize they attend a Catholic school because they are told before their parents enroll them. And why do parents favor our schools? Because we emphasize the value of life, love and peace, respect and justice. Basic human values are central. People believe their children should grow up with these values.
When adults join the Catholic Church they usually come from “no religion,” with no prior membership in a religious community.
What is the relationship between the Church and state in delivering education?
The Catholic Church is a school-sponsoring body, but we are not allowed to directly manage the school. It is the Incorporated Management Committee (IMC) that has sole responsibility to manage, although we have the majority of members — parents, teachers, laypeople. Even if we want to hire a principal or change a principal, it is the IMC that decides.
We have very few priests in the schools — less than 100 diocesan priests and another 100 religious priests — less than 200 priests running 300 schools. We emphasize that their presence in schools is very important.
Hong Kong Executive Carrie Lam, the island’s highest political authority, attended a Catholic high school and is a practicing Catholic. During the election, she was criticized for announcing the creation of a bureau of religious affairs. How threatening would that be for the Catholic Church?
I think the background on that was some religious groups, such as Buddhists or Taoists, have probably voiced to the government that they would like to have more schools, [saying], “Why does the Catholic Church have so many?” And I think she said, out of good intentions, “Why not have a religious bureau to solve some of these problems?”
But when we hear the term “religious bureau,” we think of mainland China, we think of the [Chinese Catholic] Patriotic Association, of course, and we don’t want to be controlled. We want to maintain our freedom, our liberty to offer education to the people.
Many religious leaders said, “Wait a minute, Mrs. Lam. We don’t want that.” So because of strong opposition from religious groups, she said, “No, you misunderstood me. But if you don’t want it … [wipes hands] that’s it.” She put the idea away. And she did not say, “After a certain amount of time, we will discuss it again.”
Senior Register correspondent Victor Gaetan is an
correspondent and a
contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine
the Washington Examiner.