The new leader of Hong Kong’s more than 400,000 Catholics says the church will adopt a position of “passive co-operation” in politics as the city grapples with the fall-out from months of protest and the imposition of a wide-ranging national security law by Beijing.

Stephen Chow Sau-yan was appointed bishop of the Hong Kong Diocese by the Vatican on Monday, filling a position which had been vacant for two years following the death of his predecessor, Bishop Michael Yeung, who died in early 2019.

stephen CHOW
Reverend Stephen Chow. Photo: Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong.

Chow, a 62-year-old Jesuit, met the press on Tuesday morning and addressed questions about religious freedom in the city, the role of the church in the city’s schools under the national security law, the maintenance of unity within its ranks and its votes in the revamped election committee.

The new bishop said his appointment was the outcome of lengthy discussions within the Diocese. Despite initially declining an invitation to be appointed bishop last year, Chow said he decided to obey the decision of Pope Francis.

“I’ve always worked in education and don’t know the Diocese that well,” said Chow, who until now was head of the Chinese province of the Society of Jesus.

Chow said he “really doesn’t know” if the Vatican informed Beijing of his appointment. A China-Vatican agreement, which allows the Pope to appoint bishops approved by the Chinese government, was extended late last year.

Despite the fact that the agreement does not cover the dioceses of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, some observers question whether Vatican has made too many concessions to the Chinese government over its choice of church leaders.

One of Chow’s tasks as the new bishop is to strive for unity within the church while working with the government, other charities and religious groups on the city’s social issues.

“The question is how to walk with young people, to keep them company with empathy, so we could walk closer together again,” he said.

Veteran educator

Since 2007, Chow has been the supervisor of Wah Yan College catholic secondary school for boys. After studying psychology and philosophy at the University of Minnesota he joined the Society of Jesus in the 1980s, before returning to the city to teach at the Kowloon campus of Wah Yan College in 1988. He also obtained a master’s degree and a doctorate in the US.

Wah Yan College.
Wah Yan College. Photo: Screenshot via Google Maps.

The Diocese controls close to a hundred schools in the city, which are expected to incorporate national security issues and national education into its curriculum under the national security law enacted by Beijing. Chow said he hoped students will continue to be given “space for thought” in their school life, adding that students need to understand issues “objectively” even though they might be sensitive.

Earlier, the bishop said the the national security law will be explained to and discussed with students “as an objective fact,” although students are not allowed to promote ideas of separatism.

“Passive Cooperation”

In response to a question about whether Catholics are facing suppression in the mainland, Chow said the removal of crosses by the authorities there “is not something we are happy to see”.

“Removing crosses I think is not nice, but we need to understand the reason behind it. I don’t like to use the word ‘suppression’, ” he said.

While the new bishop had been vocal about participating in protests in the wake of the Tiananmen Square Massacre shortly after his return to Hong Kong in 1989, the situation this year may be different.

“Whether this year’s [June 4 vigil] is possible, it depends on the legal requirements,” said Chow, adding that commemoration could be done in different ways and he will pray for those who died in the incident.

Separately, the catholic church and its schools in the city will also have around a dozen votes in the revamped election committee, Chow said, adding that the church would maintain its usual position of “passive cooperation” in the city’s politics.

“We respect our church members’ political opinions,” Chow said. The church is “a platform to those interested [in politics]” that may enable them to select the city’s leaders in elections.

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Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.