05/06/2023, 18.59
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Post-COVID recovery and denied freedom are the two sides of Hong Kong today

by Gianni Criveller *

Fr Gianni Criveller, PIME missionary and sinologist, talks about the climate he found in Hong Kong, torn by years of pandemic and repression of the pro-democracy movement. Card Zen baptised Albert Ho, and met in prison with Lee Cheuk-yan and the latest detainees. Bishop Chow's positive visit to Beijing brings hope for the future.

Milan (AsiaNews) – I recently spent two months in Hong Kong and found a city with two sides.

For starters, anti-covid restrictions have been lifted. For two years, the city was isolated from China and the rest of the world, with enormous harm to the local tourist industry and other sectors.

Now, as its recovery gets underway, the city can show its best, proof of its resilience and its capacity to face serious difficulties, be they economic, social or political.

Being there, I felt this spirit of recovery, a reviving economic and social life, admiring the proverbial traits associated with it, namely efficiency, safety and tidiness.

But I also found another, less reassuring side, one that is increasingly growing after the uncompromising imposition of a national security law on 1 July 2020.

Since then 200,000 people have left the city, including many families with school-age children who have no faith in the patriotic education imposed in schools. The number of teachers and Catholics leaving the city is also disproportionately high.

More than a thousand people are in prison because of their involvement in the pro-democracy movement in 2014 and 2019. Thousands more are under investigation. It has often been pointed out that many pro-democracy leaders are Christian.

Card Joseph Zen visits them in prison, as he earnestly explained to Pope Francis when they met at Casa Santa Marta on 6 January, the day after Pope Benedict's funeral. During one of his visits in prison, Card Zen baptised Albert Ho, a prominent pro-democracy leader.

Card Zen himself was arrested, tried and convicted but not jailed. At present, he is still under investigation for “collusion with foreign forces”. He was forced to surrender his passport. He got it back for a few days in order to travel to Rome for Pope Benedict’s funeral on condition of not giving interviews.

Unfortunately, more people were arrested in March, Albert Ho among them. Later, Ho was released on bail for health reasons, only to be re-arrested some time later. Other people involved with Hong Kong’s trade unions and pro-democracy movement were also arrested and released on bail.

These arrests have raised serious concerns among people who are truly pro-democracy, committed to freedom and democracy via legitimately non-violent means. Public opinion is again paying attention to those whose commitment to freedom has landed them in jail. Some, including Lee Cheuk-yan, have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

While I was in Hong Kong, I went to visit him in prison. I found a friend who has all my admiration. He is facing with courage, and I’d even say with serenity, years in prison. He is living this period supported by his faith, and with a certain irony, perhaps to reassure friends and family about his state.

Some Catholics, including my PIME confrere Fr Franco Mella, hope that the government will implement an amnesty.

Hong Kong Bishop Stephen Chow also wrote about the people in prison in his Easter message suggesting that an act of clemency is called for in order to appease society. The bishop should be commended for his unprecedented and courageous position; above all, we must hope that the authorities will seriously take his idea into consideration.

Bishop Chow made an important visit to Beijing on 17-21 April with his auxiliary, Bishop Joseph Ha, a Franciscan, and Vicar General Fr Peter Choy, plus his secretary, K.C. Wong, a layman known and respected in the Catholic community.

The visit was closely followed by many people, for its possibilities as well as pitfalls, like having the Hong Kong Church align itself to China’s religious policy. It seems that the visit went well. Events and meetings were largely restricted to the Catholic community and its institutions. Archbishop Joseph Li Shan of Beijing had formally invited the bishop of Hong Kong.

For Hong Kong’s Catholic episcopate, this is the first significant step towards the Church in mainland China and, to some extent, offers a possible point of contact with the Church in Rome, helm of the worldwide Catholic Church.

The visit could only take place within the limits set by China’s religious policies. Chinese authorities in charge of religious policy require the faithful to “love the motherland and their faith”.

Once back in Hong Kong, Bishop Chow explained this principle, but certainly did not endorse its instrumental use. Simply put, loving simultaneously one’s country and one’s religion does not contradict Catholic doctrine. For Bishop Chow, country means its people.

It is encouraging that during the visit a great deal of attention was dedicated to the memory of Matteo Ricci, the missionary who introduced Roman Catholicism to China through friendship, cultural and scientific exchange, and accommodation. A prayer vigil was held in Beijing cathedral for Matteo Ricci’s beatification.

The three guests from Hong Kong visited his grave and those of other religious buried alongside the Italian missionary. The cemetery where they lay is located inside the campus of the Beijing Administration Institute, which also houses the Beijing Municipal Party Committee School. It is impressive how Matteo Ricci still unites two parts that often seem far apart, i.e. the Catholic faith and the Chinese nation.

A few days ago, the three leaders spoke about their visit, in Cantonese with English subtitles, and the video was posted on The Catholic Way YouTube channel. In it, they express in a simple but direct way, what they got from their visit to Beijing.

Bishop Chow expresses his gratitude for the welcome, care and fraternity offered by Beijing’s Catholic community. Bishop Joseph Ha cites the experience of discernment made together during  various moments of life. He said he was also struck by how relevant Matteo Ricci's lesson is still today and how strong and alive is the faith of Chinese Catholics he met in Beijing. Vicar General Fr Peter Choy focused on the experience of synodality between Churches and hopes for ever-greater inculturation of the Gospel in China, precisely on the basis of Matteo Ricci’s teachings.

The understanding and unity of the three Hong Kong Catholic leaders were awesome. Being together in Beijing was a positive thing that put them at ease. Hopefully, that same feeling of togetherness among sister Churches will grow between Hong Kong’s ecclesial community and Beijing’s as well as those in other dioceses in mainland China.

Now that they are back in Hong Kong, one can hope that the Church in Hong Kong will not be deprived of its freedom and that the demand for clemency for “political” prisoners will be accepted.

May the Diocese of Hong Kong, as a sister Church, support the journey of China’s communities towards greater ecclesial communion with the Catholic Church as a whole.

* PIME missionary and sinologist

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