Religious freedom is a core Hong Kong value, yet few appreciate its significance in this largely secular city. Religious faith gives people a sense of purpose and an unyielding spirit to serve the civil community, which is an essential feature of free and democratic societies.

One can see the importance of religious autonomy in Hong Kong by considering the Catholic Church, whose influence in the city spread beyond its members. The Catholic Church administers a fifth of Hong Kong’s schools, despite the fact that only around 5 per cent of the city’s population are Catholic. Caritas Hong Kong is one of the city’s largest and most active NGOs, running numerous hospitals and social service centres. The Hong Kong Catholic Diocese is also at the forefront of democratic movements, with its open and unconditional support making it an essential participant in the upkeep of Hong Kong’s autonomy and the city’s struggle for freedom.

One cannot call a country ‘free’ without it also being free for religious beliefs to flourish. The Chinese government clearly views freedom of religion as a threat, seeing it as a bad influence which causes people to hope beyond the totalitarian dome they are condemned to live under.

church cross demolition
Christians protest in front of a church in Leqing, Wenzhou as authorities attempt to remove a church cross.

It is exactly for this reason that the horrors of persecution and scandal in the world today cannot compare to the slow torturous ordeal that religious activists experience under Chinese yoke. The most vivid example of this is the present state of the Chinese Catholic Church. Although Catholics have historically flourished in many countries lacking in freedom, there is no country in which the Catholic Church finds its position more difficult and uncertain than mainland China.

Recent developments between the government and the Vatican have made apparent headways but the Chinese Church will remain incapacitated for many years to come, with state policies confounding members and draining them of resources.

If Hongkongers do not pay attention to the gift of religious freedom they still possess, any autonomy in civil organizations worthy of democratic societies – not just Churches, but also NGOs, schools, and hospitals – are going to be under threat alongside the electoral and political freedoms that we are currently struggling for.

A history of persecution

The persecution of Chinese Catholics in modern times began in 1951 when, in the wake of the Korean War, Christians were jailed by the communist government in an attempt to weed out Western influences within the country. Many such as Father Beda Chang died after repeated accounts of arrest and torture, while others such as Bishop Ignatius Kung were released only after Mandela-length imprisonments.

bishop joseph Fan
Photo: UCSNews.

With foreign missionaries exiled, religious orders banned and religious educational institutions dissolved, the continued existence of the Catholic Church survived somewhat underground by maintaining their fidelity to the greater Catholic Church worldwide, with the Holy See in Vatican City as its spiritual centre and the Pope as its leader.

The imprisonment and death of underground bishops continued after China’s Open Door Policy, but it only served to further enrich the faith of the Church. Consider the case of Bishop Joseph Fan of Hebei who was martyred in 1992. After his frozen body was wrapped in a green plastic bag and dumped on the steps to his own Church, the bishop’s funeral was attended by tens of thousands of Catholic mourners across the country. This evidence of continued devotion and unity among the clerics and laypeople nevertheless did not deter the authorities from demolishing the bishop’s grave.

Of course, the persecution of Catholics has historical precedence in other dictatorial countries throughout modern history. In spite of this, the Catholic Church has always found ways to eventually resolve such difficulties, whether it be supporting democratic movements in Eastern Europe or re-establishing diplomatic relations in Vietnam and Cuba. However, neither policy seems to have found its way into the Chinese Church, despite years of negotiation and hope.

The reason for such uncertainty and inability for the Catholic Church to cope in China is that there is a lack of cooperative consistency between the Church within China and the Church out of China. In all the historical examples mentioned above, Catholics have continued to flourish within dictatorships because they remain united and clear as to where their religious positions on socio-political issues were with respect to their governments’.

It is this clarity of position – reinforced by the unconditional support of the Vatican – that inspired the rise of social justice movements such as Solidarity in Poland, which Deng Xiaoping called the ‘Polish Disease’ because it eventually overthrew the communist regime in the country. This keeps the faithful united to their Church and civil communities whenever governments cross the line in suppressing religious and other social freedoms.

In China however, such opportunities do not exist. One important reason is because there are two Catholic Churches in the country: one loyal to the Vatican, and the other supported by the Chinese government through the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.

Now a divided Church is also nothing unusual in Catholic history, and Catholics in other countries have had little problem in obeying the Vatican instead of their dictatorial governments on matters of faith and morals. This union of spirit was in fact present in the Chinese Catholic Church in the early years of the People’s Republic when the entire Church, both underground and open, was persecuted.

This changed when the Vatican began legitimising many bishops in the Chinese Open Church and agreeing with the Chinese government on a framework under which episcopal candidates had to be approved by both the Chinese government and the Vatican. This move towards reconciliation – highlighted in the 2007 papal letter – was intended by then-Pope Benedict XVI as one which would comfort as well as clarify where Chinese Catholics ought to stand with regards to their faith: bishops in the Open Church that were approved by the Holy See are legitimate, while unapproved episcopal ordinations are not.

However, confusion ensued after the papal letter was issued. For many in the Underground Church the letter sent a discouraging message, implying that their devotion was rendered pointless by the fact that bishops in the Open Church enjoy both an extent of freedom from the government and the seal of legitimacy from the Vatican. On the other hand, for Catholics in the Open Church the motivation to push for greater freedoms for their underground brothers and sisters diminishes: why search out for underground Masses and risk the chance of being imprisoned when you can worship openly in cathedrals?

One might even ask as to why the Underground Church should persist in bringing a bad name to all Catholics in the eyes of the Chinese government – why not reconcile with the Open Church completely, resurface and practice your faith and charity openly with the blessing of the government?

‘Blessing’ from Beijing

The answer of course, is that the Chinese government does not bless. Leo Goodstadt, using the reopening of Buddhist temples as an example, explained that Beijing always has ulterior motives whenever it promotes the revival of religion. Close monitoring of clerical homilies, suppression of religious charity work and sporadic imprisonment of Catholic activists still continue to this day despite decrees issued by the State Council to ostensibly ensure citizens’ freedom to religious belief.

bishop joseph
Joseph Zhang Yinlin. Photo: VOA News.

Whenever the Vatican seems to score victories by approving Chinese bishops one by one, out-of-the-blue illegitimate ordinations dictated by the Chinese government destroy whatever minute progress that was made in negotiations. Is it not unreasonable then to doubt China’s sincerity in approaching a long-lasting agreement between it and the Vatican on the positions of both the Underground and the Open Churches?

Even legitimate consecrations such as that of Bishop Joseph Zhang this year were strictly monitored and the number of celebrants limited. Neither does the Chinese government take dissidents within the Open Church lightly: when the Chinese government chose Father Joseph Xing to be a successor to the Shanghai episcopate, his refusal to attend illegitimate ordination ceremonies led to his ‘disappearance’, after which the government chose to elect Father Thaddeus Ma instead. However, Ma’s bold homily during his ordination ceremony and subsequent resignation from the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in 2012 led to his demotion and house arrest.

As of 2015 the Diocese of Shanghai is in a period of Sede Vacante, essentially a church without a head. This suppression of devoted clergymen in the Open Church, together with the continued imprisonment of numerous Catholic leaders in the Underground Church, drains the ecclesial resources of Chinese Catholics.

The essence of the dilemma is thus this: the Open Church is supported by both the Chinese government and the Vatican, but can only – at least openly – profess support for the Chinese government. This one-way profession to an atheistic government does no good to the inspiration and devotional lives of Chinese Catholics, who often depend on their clerical leaders for spiritual direction and encouragement.

One other effect is the slow growth of the Open Church’s membership: in a letter issued before his death, Bishop Jin laments the stagnating membership of the Chinese Catholic Church relative to large increases in Buddhist and Chinese Protestant organizations.

Even so, non-Catholic religions in China have not fared well under state supervision. Consider the pathetic puppetry of the Panchen Lama, the continued exile of the aging Dalai Lama, and ongoing accusations of the Abbot of Shaolin Monastery for abusing monastic funds, drinking alcohol and keeping mistresses. How shameful is this for a country that was the centre of Buddhism for centuries?

On the other hand, radical Protestant sects have devolved into terrorist organisations in an attempt to confront the government head-on, such as the so-called ‘Eastern Lightning’ cult whose members bludgeoned a woman to death last year for refusing to convert.

Eastern Lightning’ cult
Eastern Lightning’ cult members stand trial.

There are justifiable fears therefore that a state-controlled Catholic Church would in the long term be drained of its spirituality and rendered, like all civil organizations in the country, a puppet of the government. Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong notes that there is also lack of courage among mainland bishops to speak up for their communities, preferring to let their non-religious communist party leaders take the microphone.

Hong Kong’s role

What of Catholics in Hong Kong? The faithful in the city’s diocese – who are not under the control of the Mainland government – are also split as to what is to be expected. Cardinal Zen’s hard-line approach and enthusiasm for participating in democratic movements in Hong Kong contrasts Cardinal John Tong’s more moderate approach which favours patient attempts at reconciliation.

Cardinal Zen
Cardinal Zen. Photo: Wikicommons.

Cardinal Tong’s stance might be regarded by Zen’s supporters as ineffective ostpolitk. They would argue that historically, it was the Catholic Church’s hard-line stance and not moderation which led to the emancipation of the Catholic Church in communist regimes, the most spectacular case being Poland. Then again, China is not Poland: we do not have a Chinese Pope like the Polish John Paul II, and Catholics do not comprise 90% of the Chinese population as they do in Poland.

A state-controlled Catholic Church also ensures that her funds and property belong to the Chinese government, and when the funds are in the state’s hands, so does the organization’s autonomy. I travelled to Shanghai in 2014 to make a pilgrimage to several of the city’s Catholic sites. The dilapidated state of the Xujiahui Cathedral and the empty Sheshan Basilica pained me greatly. Religious art which has inspired converts and saints throughout Catholic history is drastically lacking in China, and such art cannot survive without patronage. Can one really expect such patronage to come from a government commanded by an atheistic political party?

This is not to say that those outside of China are unable to help. Hong Kong frequently sends missionaries and charity workers into China to strengthen the faith of their brothers and sisters, while Mainland seminarians also manage to find ways to travel to the city to be educated under a healthy atmosphere of religious and academic freedom.

As for the Vatican, a burning concern for Chinese Catholics is demonstrated very subtly outside of the inconclusive negotiations: Papal Masses in St. Peter’s Basilica usually include petitionary prayers in different languages, and in every single major Mass since Pope Francis’ election – from his own inaugural Mass to Easter and Christmas vigils every year – Mandarin was included, praying for either grace in the hearts of politicians or for increases in priestly vocations.

Moreover, the Vatican appointed Hong Kong’s own Father Savio Hon as Secretary for the Congregation of the Evangelization of Peoples in 2010, the highest office ever attained by a Chinese in the Catholic Church. Hon, along with his Congregation’s new Prefect and Vatican’s new Secretary of State all have extensive experience in dealing with the Church in China, making it clear that the Vatican is sincere in hoping for the flourishing and reconciliation of Chinese Catholics.

church cross removal
Christians make crosses in China. Photo: Weibo.

Bishop Joseph Fan once had the opportunity to flee communist China but refused. When asked why, he replied: “I am Chinese. My vocation is in China, and if I am to die in China it will be a blessing to the country. My death will be the Lord’s affirmation for our people because He accepts the sacrifice from this land, He accepts a son of the Chinese people.” It is this devotion and spirit of love that keeps the persecuted faithful and alive in their communities. The future of Chinese Catholics remain uncertain, but the Vatican must act swiftly in making new breakthroughs with the Chinese government in order to prevent righteous men like Bishop Fan from being relegated to the dustbin of history.

Any Hong Konger concerned with their freedom, religious or otherwise, should therefore be attentive and alarmed at the stagnant developments on religious freedom in China. Being deprived of meaning and motivation in the civil realm and handing over every concern in life to the state is what Beijing wants. If Hong Kongers do not engage with their civil and religious communities right now, then we truly do not deserve the title of being a people struggling for democracy and freedom.

Chung Chiu

Dominic Chiu

Dominic Chiu is an international relations analyst and consultant from Hong Kong. He is based in Washington, D.C.