It was a Saturday morning in July 1997, a week after Hong Kong was handed back to China. Cardinal Joseph Zen was waiting inside the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, all smiles. He was there to christen his friend and founder of Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai. I was there as Jimmy’s godfather.
We were a happy little band that day. But today, 25 years later, Jimmy has been imprisoned. And 90-year-old Cardinal Zen, who was arrested in May by the National Security Police, is about to be put on trial.
The trial against the cardinal and five others involved in the now-defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund was due to begin on Monday, but was postponed until at least Wednesday because the judge came down with Covid. The 612 Fund was created to help pay legal costs for those arrested in the 2019-2020 pro-democracy demonstrations. Prosecutors claim the fund was not properly registered under Hong Kong’s Societies Ordinance – a law often used against triads or secret societies. The conviction carries a fine of about $1,300.
One question is whether the authorities will settle for a fine. Originally, the defendants were arrested for collaboration with foreign forces, which can carry a life sentence. A guilty finding would feed a narrative that these people were collecting illegally to undermine China.
The trial comes at an awkward time for the Vatican, as its 2018 agreement with China is now up for renewal. Will Pope Francis go ahead even if China puts its cardinal on trial on a patently ridiculous charge?
Cardinal Zen is on trial alongside Margaret Ng, a prominent former lawmaker; scholar Hui Po-keung; Cyd Ho, a former legislator; Sze Ching-wee, 612 Fund Secretary; and Denise Ho, a popular singer and gay rights activist.
They also have their masters. But unfortunately not in Rome. “The Holy See has heard with concern the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest and is following the development of the situation with extreme attention” was the Vatican’s only official comment.
The Vatican’s architect of the still-secret deal with Beijing, Cardinal Foreign Minister Pietro Parolin, professed his “closeness” to his fellow cardinal – before revealing his true priorities. “The most concrete hope,” he said, “is that initiatives like this will not complicate the already complex and not simple path of dialogue.”
Just two years ago, Cardinal Zen, who grew up in Shanghai, flew to Rome in a desperate bid to get the Holy Father to reconsider his China deal. But a pope who always seems to have time for private audiences with celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio refused to meet a cardinal with long first-hand experience of Chinese communism. Cardinal Gerhard Muller noted that no senior Vatican official had expressed solidarity or a prayer initiative for Cardinal Zen at last month’s gathering of cardinals in Rome.
On a return flight from Kazakhstan on Thursday, the Pope suggested this was no accident. When a reporter asked about Cardinal Zen, the pope did not offer a word of support, noting only that the cardinal “says what he feels,” despite knowing there are “limitations.” The Pope refused to even say that China was undemocratic. The only thing missing was a rooster crowing in the background.
In contrast, Joe Biden’s press secretary said the president is calling for the immediate release of “those who have been wrongfully detained and charged, like Cardinal Joseph Zen.” Likewise, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi condemned the cardinal’s arrest in a Washington Post op-ed, where she also called him “the embodiment of moral strength” and highlighted his opposition to the Sino-Vatican Agreement.
What would it take to admit the deal was a mistake? The brutal persecution of the Muslim Uighurs? Beijing’s increasingly aggressive push to appropriate the Catholic faith by making it serve the Chinese Communist Party? If a show trial for a cardinal doesn’t do it, what would?
The assurance that Vatican diplomats are working on it is little consolation. The last thing Cardinal Zen wants is a deal that gives him preferential treatment. Or worse, one who guarantees his own freedom in exchange for a renewal of a Sino-Vatican deal that he views as a disaster for the Chinese people.
Cardinal Zen is no stranger to Hong Kong prisons. He regularly visits inmates. If prison should ultimately be his destiny, this good shepherd would consider it a great gift to suffer right next to his sheep.
“Martyrdom is normal in our church,” he said after his arrest. “We may not have to, but we may have to bear some pain and steel ourselves for our loyalty to our faith.”
It is clear that the Chinese Communist Party and the local Hong Kong authorities do not know what to do with such a man. Unfortunately, neither does Pope Francis.
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