Retired Hong Kong cardinal Joseph Zen has criticised the Catholic Church’s effort to negotiate a deal with China, which could see the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Beijing.

In a Thursday interview with the UK’s Catholic Herald, the 85-year-old activist cited the continued persecution of Catholics in China and the illegitimacy of a rival “patriotic” church as reasons why he believed Pope Francis’s advisers were wrong to pursue the deal.

Catholic church
Joseph Zen.

The Chinese government has arrested a number of pastors following their opposition to the removal of publicly-displayed crosses in the eastern provinces, the area of the country where Christianity is most widely followed. While the Vatican maintains the global right to appoint bishops, Beijing has appointed its own through the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) – the country’s party-controlled official church.

Despite the Vatican’s current diplomatic recognition of the Taiwanese government, it has conducted secret negotiations with Beijing in recent years.

Left out of discussions

Zen told the Catholic Herald that the Vatican has been impolite in bypassing its own Chinese clergymen in its recent discussions with Beijing.

“There are not many Chinese cardinals,” he said. “There are two [Zen and Hong Kong bishop John Tong] – but I don’t know anything!”

He accused the advisers of Pope Francis of wanting to achieve “success at any cost” with Beijing. “How can they believe they know the situation better than me?” he asked.

Zen added that the Vatican Commission on the Church in China – set up by resigned Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 – has “disappeared” under his successor.

Vatican City St Peters Square
Vatican City. Photo: Diliff via Wikimedia Commons.

Zen said he was not against dialogue between the Vatican and Beijing, and added there were some “good people” within the official Chinese CCPA.

He speculated that progress in the discussions may have come to a standstill, because Beijing may have asked for too many concessions from the Vatican.

See also: In Pictures: ‘Underground’ Catholics pose challenge for Pope’s hopes of better China relations

Born in Shanghai, Zen arrived in Hong Kong during the Chinese Civil War between the Communists and the Nationalists – the latter of whom fled to Taiwan following defeat in 1949.

He was bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong from 2002 to 2009, a period in which he participated in numerous pro-democracy protests in the city and publicly called for the protection of human rights in China.

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.