New Hong Kong Bishop and Beijing: Will His ‘Middle Way’ Bear Fruit?

NEWS ANALYSIS: Charting a course between placating China’s communist regime while remaining attentive to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement will not be an easy challenge.

Newly appointed Bishop of Hong Kong Rev. Stephen Chow (R) speaks at a press conference with Cardinal John Tong (L) in Hong Kong on May 18, 2021.
Newly appointed Bishop of Hong Kong Rev. Stephen Chow (R) speaks at a press conference with Cardinal John Tong (L) in Hong Kong on May 18, 2021. (photo: Peter Parks / AFP/Getty)

VATICAN CITY — Jesuit Father Stephen Chow Sau-yan, the newly nominated bishop of Hong Kong, is expected to adhere to the Holy See’s disputed diplomatic approach to the People’s Republic of China, while at the same time be attentive to those concerned about the communist regime’s clampdown on freedom and democracy in the former British colony.

But maintaining a middle way will be a challenge, according to Church sources and informed sources in Hong Kong, who see Father Chow as neither too pro-Beijing nor overly sympathetic to the territory’s pro-democracy movement. 

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, who served as bishop of Hong Kong from 2002 to 2009, told the Register May 19 he had believed only two kinds of candidates were possible, “one who will be on his knees [to Beijing] or one who is ready for martyrdom.” 

“Now the Holy See seems to believe in a third one and Father Chow seems to embody such hope,” he added. “I would be more than happy to be wrong.” 

Born in Hong Kong in 1959, Father Chow has headed the Society of Jesus’ Chinese Province since 2018, but his lifelong passion has been education. He has held several senior educational roles in the Hong Kong Diocese and has two master’s degrees and a doctorate in the fields of psychology and education, all earned at institutions in the United States. He is currently a school supervisor at Hong Kong’s Jesuit-run Wah Yan College.

His nomination on Monday, which he had reportedly once turned down believing it was “not the time,” came as a surprise to Church observers as the two leading candidates were overlooked. These were reportedly Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing of Hong Kong, opposed by Beijing after he took part in a pro-democracy protest, and Father Peter Choy Wai-man, a diocesan vicar general, viewed as sympathetic to the communist government. 

Now Bishop-elect Chow will be thrust into a politically charged environment far different to the academic one to which he is accustomed. Not only is this a time of high tension as Beijing removes freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong when Britain handed the territory over to Chinese rule in 1997, his appointment comes after the Holy See’s renewal last year of its provisional agreement with Beijing on the appointment of bishops — part of an approach that Cardinal Zen sees as a terrible betrayal but which the Holy See argues is necessary for improved Sino-Vatican relations.  

It also comes after a long wait, during which the territory’s internal struggles have deepened disunity in the diocese. Two years have passed since the sudden death of Bishop Michal Yeung Ming-cheung, the previous ordinary of Hong Kong, at the age of 72. Bishop Yeung’s predecessor, Cardinal John Tong Hon, 81, has been administering the diocese while Pope Francis decided on a replacement.

“The situation in the diocese wasn’t ideal,” missionary Father Sergio Ticozzi, a priest of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in Hong Kong, told the Register May 19. “The lack of a leader caused a variety of people to take advantage of the situation in order to carry on with their own plans. Although good plans, they were their own personal plans, and so this created a bit of disorder — disunity more than disorder — within the Church.” 

Father Ticozzi said he therefore viewed the appointment as “very positive,” adding he was also “happy with the balance that he has.”

Hong Kong Catholics number about 404,000 in total (about 5.3% of the city’s population) and tend to be divided between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy factions, the former comprising pro-establishment figures who prefer a less confrontational approach. 

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, is a Catholic and sympathetic to the Chinese Communist Party’s policies, while the majority of the faithful, and especially the young, are fiercely anti-Beijing. 

Among them is Hong Kong Catholic media tycoon Jimmy Lai, jailed for 14 months last month for taking part in unauthorized assemblies during mass pro-democracy protests in the city in 2019. Eight others, some of whom are Catholics, were also sentenced for their parts in the demonstrations. 

Their sentences are the consequence of a sweeping national security law passed last June that critics say undermines the former colony’s autonomy and which can result in life sentences for anyone committing what the authorities view as secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Bishop-elect Chow said he had “no big plan” on how to unify Catholics in the diocese but added that he believed God wanted them to be united. 

“Unity is not the same as uniformity,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “One thing I’ve always mentioned recently in schools is unity is plurality. We need to respect plurality.” 

His middle way was evident last year when he commented on the national security law, saying it would be explained and discussed with students at Jesuit-run schools in Hong Kong “as an objective fact,” but he forbade them from promoting ideas such as Hong Kong independence — something that would provoke the authorities. 

Mark Simon, Jimmy Lai’s deputy for many years and a senior executive within Lai’s media network, told the Register May 19 that the “gap between Beijing and even the Vatican is actually bigger than last year.” Bishop-elect Chow, he therefore observed, will be walking a line “that will always be moving — in the direction of less freedom.”

“Staying in the middle means he ends up further away from the people,” Simon contended, adding that the Chinese Communist Party “is not going to back down or say ‘Okay, all good.’ As such, to stay neutral, Chow will have to stray further from his original line of neutrality.” 

Simon stressed that the most crucial aspect of this appointment is that Bishop Ha remains No. 2 in the diocesan hierarchy. “He’s very pro-democracy, it’s 100% the reason he was blocked,” he said, adding that, like Cardinal Zen who until recently regularly visited the imprisoned, “he also is out among the people and has a long track record of working with the poor.” 

Father Ticozzi said that although Bishop-elect Chow “lacks knowledge of the structure of the diocese” and has “no inside knowledge of it because he belongs to the Jesuits,” he believes he makes “good use of people” and will quickly learn how to work as a bishop as “he’s intelligent and able to do it.” 

“He’s very open to listen to the people, especially the young generation,” Father Ticozzi said. “He has been working with young students and so knows the aspirations and desires of the young people.” 

The Italian-born priest, who has served as a missionary in Hong Kong since 1969, stressed that Father Chow has been involved with those who have no possibility to emigrate and so have concerns about Hong Kong’s future. “This is a guarantee that he will listen to them and try to understand them and at the same time he will listen to Beijing.” 

The bishop-elect can “balance the two extremes, carry on and lead the Church along a middle way,” Father Ticozzi said, but added that his attitude to Beijing “will be based on obedience.” 

“These are the Jesuits; they’ll pay more attention to being obedient to the Holy See and will carry on the policy and attitude that the Holy See has suggested,” he observed, but also stressed that Bishop-elect Chow will be in a position “to influence the Holy See’s attitude and try to bring a bit more balance” to Rome’s position — “not be too pro-Beijing but at the same time concerned about the desires and requests of the Hong Kong people.” 

Cardinal Tong will continue administering the diocese until Bishop-elect Chow is consecrated bishop — something that won’t happen until Dec. 4, according to Lai’s newspaper, Apple Daily. After that a “honeymoon period” with mainland China will take place, predicted an unnamed priest quoted in the newspaper.  

In his comments to the Register, Cardinal Zen called on the faithful to “pray for the newly elected and see what is to happen after a probable ‘honeymoon’ (long or short).”