Leaders From China’s State-Run Catholic Church Brief Hong Kong Clergy on President Xi’s ‘Sinicization’ Plan

Critics see this conference, held in mid-November, as a precursor to a further crackdown on religious freedom.

Bishop Stephen Chow (C) celebrates Mass in Hong Kong's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on December 4, 2021.
Bishop Stephen Chow (C) celebrates Mass in Hong Kong's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on December 4, 2021. (photo: Bertha Wang / AFP/Getty)

ROME — Chinese bishops, priests and theologians from the country’s state-run Church have formally briefed Hong Kong clergy on implementing President XI Jinping’s socialistic vision of religion — a move critics see as a possible precursor to a further crackdown on religious freedom.  

The conference took place a week before the forced installation Nov. 24 of an underground bishop as an auxiliary of a diocese not recognized by the Vatican. In a statement, the Vatican expressed “surprise and regret” over the installation, saying it violated the Provisional Agreement it had signed with Beijing in 2018 on the appointment of bishops. 

The online conference, billed as the “Second Mainland-Hong-Kong Catholic Sinicized Theology Exchange,” was held Nov. 15-16. The first such meeting took place in secret on Oct. 31 last year at the instigation of mainland religious officials. 

This year’s conference involved more than 50 specialists from mainland China and Hong Kong and was jointly organized by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPCA), China’s state-run Church, the Chinese Catholic bishops’ conference theological research committee and the Holy Spirit Study Center of the Diocese of Hong Kong.

According to a report on the CPCA-run ChinaCatholic.cn, the participants “exchanged and discussed the significance of Bible translation and interpretation in relation to the Sinicization of the based on Vatican II’s Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation).”

But the two-day conference also appeared to place a premium on “Sinicization” — a political ideology that aims to impose China’s model of socialism and support for the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. 

In his opening speech, Bishop Joseph Shen Bin, president of China’s Catholic bishops’ conference and the CPCA’s vice-president, said 2022 had been a “very important year,” noting in particular the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) being “victoriously held” in Beijing last month. The high-level congress, held every five years, secured an unprecedented third term for Xi as general secretary of the CCP. 

Bishop Shen Bin stressed that, at the congress, President XI had “once again put forward the requirement of adhering to the direction of Sinicization of religion in China and actively guiding religion to adapt to the socialist society” and that the Catholic Church in China was going along with this, becoming “gradually determined to follow the path of Sinicization that is compatible with the socialist society in terms of pastoral care, evangelization and formation.” 

The CCP-backed bishop also noted that this year marks the centenary since Cardinal Celso Constantini, the first apostolic delegate to China, arrived in the country. The bishop highlighted that the cardinal “vigorously promoted the inculturation of Catholicism,” and that one of his important decisions was to lead an accurate translation of the Bible into Chinese. 

He said it was “necessary to inherit the spirit of Cardinal Constantini and further study the fruits of our predecessors,” adding that it was not just necessary to “jointly promote the translation and interpretation of the Bible” with the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, but also “promote Sinicization of Catholicism in China.” 

He also predicted that the online exchange, “guided by the spirit” of 20th National Congress, would fully implement “Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” and would adhere “to the direction of Sinicization of Catholicism in China.”

Among those addressing the meeting was Cardinal John Tong, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong. Noting that President Xi has encouraged Hong Kong’s youth to work hard to build society and serve others, Cardinal Tong said the Church needs to nurture more young theologians and scholars, and continue to develop a path of evangelization that is suitable for today's Chinese religion and culture. 

Eleven theologians and priests gave keynote addresses, and included the secretary general of the CPCA, Chinese theologians, the director of the Bible Department of the CPCA, a professor of a Protestant theological seminary, and a Jesuit priest from the Holy Spirit Seminary of Hong Kong. 

The ChinaCatholic article concluded by saying that “after two days of wonderful discussions, the participants agreed that the Bible is the spiritual foundation of the Church, and the Sinicization of the Church in our country requires in-depth research on the translation, interpretation and preaching of the Bible. 

“Therefore, the exchanges and cooperation between the mainland church and the Hong Kong church are very meaningful, and it is hoped that similar seminars will continue,” it added.


Hong Kong Concerns

Bishop Stephen Chow Sau-yan of Hong Kong afterwards sought to reassure a group of Hong Kong priests, telling them on Nov. 16 that the online meeting was oriented towards an exchange of ideas on faith and culture, that clergy should retain their own independent thinking, and that no brainwashing was involved. He made similar points in a recent interview in relation to the national security law being imposed by China on Hong Kong. 

But a Hong Kong priest told the Register on condition of anonymity that this emphasis by the Chinese authorities on cultural exchange is a strategy that the CCP frequently uses. 

“They would always start with something seemingly benign and harmless (like cultural exchange), but we all know that they have no intention for a real dialogue,” he said. “Once they think the time is ripe, they will change strategy and begin to crack down on religions.”

Church sources in Hong Kong have also told the Register that Bishop Chow met recently with John Lee, Hong Kong’s chief executive, and asked Lee whether religious freedom will be affected in the face of a crackdown in civil freedoms with the imposition of a draconian national security law in 2020. Bishop Chow was reassured by Lee’s response that it would be safeguarded and is now asking priests to convey this message to Catholics in parishes. 

But the Hong Kong priest told the Register that he and others remain skeptical and think a picture is being deliberately painted of religious freedom not being under threat in Hong Kong. 

“This would fit into the CCP’s narrative that Hong Kong is completely back to normal,” the priest said, “when in reality the city has already lost its freedom.”


Vatican Statement

Meanwhile, the Vatican issued a statement Nov. 26 saying “the Holy See noted with surprise and regret” over what appears to be the Sinicization of another kind: the forced installation of an underground bishop by the CPCA. 

Bishop John Peng Weizhao, legitimately appointed by Pope Francis in 2014 and secretly ordained as an underground bishop of Yujiang (for which he was reportedly arrested and held in custody for six months), was installed on Nov. 24 as an auxiliary bishop of Jiangxi, a diocese not recognized by the Vatican.

The CPCA said Bishop Peng’s installation ceremony took place with “the consent of the Jiangxi Provincial Catholic Educational Affairs Committee and the approval of the Chinese Catholic bishops’ conference.” 

It also said Bishop Peng swore an oath at the installation ceremony to “guide Catholicism to adapt to socialist society” and contribute to the “dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” The Vatican said in its statement that “prolonged and heavy pressure from the local authorities” preceded the installation, that it was not in line with the twice-renewed 2018 Provisional Agreement, and “did not occur in accordance with the spirit of dialogue.”

The day after the installation, Cardinal Joseph Zen, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong who has strongly criticized Beijing’s crackdown on religious freedom and the Provisional Agreement, was convicted by a Hong Kong court and fined HK$4,000 ($512). He was found guilty along with five others of failing to register a fund they established to help people arrested in 2019’s pro-democracy protests receive legal support. All had pleaded not guilty. 

In a Nov. 22 interview with America Magazine published Monday, Pope Francis said of current Holy See-China relations that “the reality is to dialogue or not to dialogue; and one dialogues up to the point that is possible.”

“With China I have opted for the way of dialogue,” the Holy Father said. “It is slow, it has its failures, it has its successes, but I cannot find another way.”