HKFP Exclusive

Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen, 86, is continuing a one-man fight inside the Catholic establishment to oppose a deal between the Vatican and China over who can appoint bishops in the officially atheist country.

A potential agreement between the Vatican and Beijing was reportedly in its final stages in March – though Zen often called it a “deal with the devil” and a “complete sellout.” Perhaps – in part – because of his efforts, the critical voices he inspired, and the ever-harsher suppression of religion in China, the Vatican now says the deal is not going anywhere soon.

“I had a very special experience. I know China. I know the church in China. I have worked seven years, spending six months a year from 1989 to 1996 in [government-recognised churches] teaching the seminaries,” Zen, born in Shanghai to Catholic parents, said in an interview with HKFP.

Cardinal Zen
Cardinal Zen. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

“I met so many people, people of the government, people of the church, so I really know the situation. I see how the church is being persecuted, and the bishops are being humiliated. I think nobody else has had such experience,” he said at his home – the Salesian House of Studies built in the 1930s on a Hong Kong hillside.

Zen, officially an emeritus bishop, hardly shows any signs of retiring as he still has a busy schedule and blogs about Catholic affairs in English, Chinese and Italian. Zen speaks with a strong voice, but because he can no longer hear well, he often put his hand around his left ear and leaned forward to hear questions during the interview.

The Vatican, which severed diplomatic relations with China in 1951 and maintains diplomatic ties with Taiwan, relaunched negotiations with Beijing in 2015.

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China, with around ten million Catholics, has its own state-run Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association which chooses its own bishops. But there is an unofficial underground church loyal to the Vatican. Under the proposed deal, the Vatican may make a major compromise to recognise a handful of bishops endorsed by Beijing, including seven excommunicated by the Vatican.

Deal postponed

But Zen said that, according to his knowledge, both the Vatican and China have encountered difficulties in reaching the final agreement, which may now be delayed until June.

Cardinal Joseph Zen
Cardinal Joseph Zen at the Vatican. Photo: Facebook/Joseph Zen.

“Some are saying maybe now there are difficulties on the Chinese side, because there are people who think that they don’t need the agreement, they can control everything. Maybe there are voices in China against the eventual agreement,” said Zen.

“You see that there are many actions on the side of the government which show that they are tightening control on religion. And so it’s more difficult to understand how the Vatican can come to a deal at this moment, because obviously they are seen as collaborating with the government.”

For instance, new regulations on religious affairs were installed on February 1, under which minors are banned from entering places of worship.

“There is no reason for optimism,” said Zen. “Any agreement on the side of the Vatican may be seen as collaboration with the government to persecute our own people; that’s terrible.”

The cardinal said China’s recent amendments to the constitution, such as the removal of the presidential term limit, may also have influenced how the Vatican looked at the issue.

Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping taking oath on March 17, 2018. Photo: Screenshot.

“Surely they should take into account also these new things – which are not encouraging any agreement. I really hope that a miracle may happen, the Pope may say we need more time to be more cautious, to consider again,” he said. “No deal is better than a bad deal. I really cannot understand how people can say bad deal is better than no deal, I don’t think it’s correct.”

Zen stressed his loyalty to the Pope. Zen travelled to Rome in January to personally give the Pope a letter from the 88-year-old persecuted Chinese Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou.

Zhuang, a priest loyal to the Vatican but not recognised by China, was one of two bishops asked by the Vatican to step aside for priests excommunicated by the Vatican but accepted by Beijing.

“I told him everything. I wrote so many letters,” Zen said. “My last letter was very clear, I have the impression that the Pope now is aware of the worries in the church in China, so I don’t think I need to see him again or say more things.”

“Maybe now there are some other things which may make the Holy Father more aware that he is not receiving good information from people around him.”

Cardinal Joseph Zen Pope Francis
Cardinal Joseph Zen meeting with Pope Francis. Photo: Facebook/Joseph Zen.

Few allies

Zen has been in a war of words with the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who he said was considering the potential deal like a diplomat, but not from religious standpoints.

“I can understand that Pope Francis may not be well informed about the real situation in the church in China, because he comes from South America,” Zen said. “But these people like Parolin, they must know very well the situation, so I really cannot understand how are they so enthusiastic to push for a deal, so they may have a wrong objective.”

“Because from the point of view of Catholic faith, they are not going to achieve anything. Maybe they are more interested in diplomatic success. That’s very sad, because they are the collaborators of the Pope, the faith should be the first thing in their mind.”

“It’s very scary. These people – they should understand a lot of things, why do they do this? They are not naive, they are evil.”

Cardinal Pietro Parolin
Cardinal Pietro Parolin. Photo: Kremlin.

However, Zen has fewer and fewer allies in the Vatican.

Savio Hon, a top Hong Kong priest with similar views to Zen, against the China deal, was an influential ally of Zen’s. Hon was in Rome and had direct access to the Pope but, at 67, he was sent to Greece last year as the Vatican’s representative, despite the fact that he never served in the diplomatic service. Some considered it a punishment.

Cardinal Fernando Filoni, another top priest who worked many years in Hong Kong caring for the church in China, was also cautious of the China deal. But he too was another ally lost, gradually switching towards Parolin’s side.

“Unfortunately the voices in Rome around the Pope are all in favour of Cardinal Parolin. That’s very sad. I hope now there are many voices everywhere, in United States, Italy… Germany, I hope some of those voices may reach the Holy Father.”

Among the bishops that Beijing reportedly asked the Vatican to recognise, Bishop Joseph Liu Xinhong of Anhui and Bishop Paul Lei Shiyin of Sichuan were two who have children with their girlfriends. It was a violation to the law of celibacy that only unmarried men, without children, can be priests.

“Everybody knows – now [officials in the Vatican] come out to say that they don’t have cogent evidence, that’s ridiculous,” Zen said.

Bishop Joseph Liu Xinhong
Bishop Joseph Liu Xinhong of Anhui. File Photo: UCAN.

Zen recalled another case of a Chinese priest who cannot be legitimised by the Holy See, since he did not observe the law of celibacy, but the Chinese wanted the bishop – who he did not name – to be recognised.

He said the Vatican conducted an investigation, but the investigator simply reported back the priest’s denial: “They just want to cheat themselves.”

Vietnam-style deal?

China’s situation is often compared to that in Vietnam – another deal brokered by Parolin. In Vietnam, the Holy See proposes a list of bishops to the Hanoi government, and Hanoi makes its choice, before the Pope appoints them.

But Zen said Vietnam has a strong base of Catholic followers, and the government cannot interfere in the church.

“I think that one thing that the Pope may have difficulty to understand is that, with a really totalitarian regime, you have only your spiritual strength,” Zen said.

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Zen also said China’s case was very different from those of Hungary, Poland and the then-Czechoslovakia, where they have a long history of faith.

“Even the collaborators of the government – they could not be that bad. Because they know that they will not be accepted by the people. To be accepted or to be tolerated by the people, they have to be decent [in] some way,” he said. “But unfortunately, in China, among the bishops in the open church – there are too many collaborators of the government.”

Chinese Christians have been resisting the government’s continuous actions to remove crosses from churches.

“They are not afraid to be persecuted. They are ready to suffer. When you are not afraid of the government, the government is afraid of you,” Zen said.

Catholics Zhejiang cross
Catholics defending the cross at a church in Zhejiang, China. Photo: RFA.

Zen warned there may be serious consequences after signing a bad deal with China, which may disappoint Catholics in China – both those in “underground” churches and those in government-recognised ones.

“I am very much afraid that some may have some irrational reaction, like a kind of rebellion against the Pope, that would be very unfortunate – I am against any kind of such rebellion. I think that fidelity to the Pope is our bottom line; even if we cannot understand what the Pope is doing, we must obey,” Zen said.

Differences in Hong Kong

Zen, who often has to visit doctors for heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, said he cannot find someone else to continue his work.

He said his successors Cardinal John Tong and Bishop of Hong Kong Michael Yeung may have differences in experiences and overall views of history. Tong and Yeung were more optimistic about the China deal, with Tong calling those who oppose it “unreasonable.”

Michael Yeung
Michael Yeung. Photo: HKFP/Kris Cheng.

“I think it’s very important to discuss about history,” he said. “I am still reading much about the history in Germany, in Russia, in Europe. I think maybe we have different views because we understand the history differently. I think we must have long-ranged vision, and not just look at today.”

He said they may have different considerations in weighing advantages and disadvantages of the Vatican-China deal: “Maybe I am too pessimistic. I see more bad effects of the agreement, they may see some good effects.”

But Zen stopped short of criticising his successors, saying that they must respect each other and it was not good to fight each other.

Visiting local activists in prison

A significant part of Zen’s schedule is filled with prison visits for those serving long sentences, which he has been doing for decades. Recently, his workload was even heavier, he said.

“Because of the Umbrella Movement, of what happened in North East [land development protests], Mong Kok [clashes] – all those cases there are many people in prison, some welcome our visits, so I go round to visit them,” he said.

Cardinal Joseph Zen
Cardinal Joseph Zen. Photo: Facebook/Joseph Zen.

Around the Lunar New Year holiday Zen visited three prisons in one day. “Unfortunately I am very busy and I am not strong anymore – I’d like to do more,” he said.

Zen, who is vocal about democracy and human rights in Hong Kong, was never charged by the government over his support for the Umbrella Movement, even after he surrendered himself to the police. Instead, the 74-year-old Reverend Chu Yiu-ming was charged as one of the instigators of the protests.

Asked to comment on why he was not targeted by the Hong Kong government, he said with a laugh: “You ask them.”

“Surely they have their reasons, but there are several people who are not yet arrested. So if one day I remain the only one, then I will protest, I will come to protest. But since there are still many in the same case in the same situation, I just wait.”

Zen said he believes that it is key for more people to speak up about China’s suppression of religious freedom and about the China deal.

“Our voice is weak, their voice is strong, it will be good to raise concerns of more people,” he said.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.