ROME — “People are afraid Beijing wants to control the city and make Hong Kong like the cities of mainland China,” said Father Sergio Ticozzi, an Italian missionary in the East Asian metropolis. “The young generation especially don’t feel they have any future, will have no freedom, and so are very worried about the situation.”
A priest of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, Father Ticozzi shared these concerns with the Register on June 9 as China’s ruling Communist Party looks set to impose a controversial national security law on Hong Kong, bypassing its own legislature.
The law, expected to come into force in August, is being seen not only as a major blow to the city’s freedoms that have been guaranteed since the former British colony was returned to China in 1997, but also as a clear warning to the Vatican and other institutions dealing with China that Beijing cannot be trusted and is willing to renege on international agreements.
“We fear we’re at the end of the road,” said Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong. “They’ve gone back on their promises, so now we’re becoming ‘one country, one system.’”
According to a 1984 Joint Declaration signed by China and the United Kingdom, Hong Kong was to be handed over to China in 1997, with the guarantee that it would have a high degree of autonomy for 50 years until 2047, governed by the principle of “one country, two systems.”
“The deal was clear, and the guarantee to Hong Kong’s citizens was absolute,” wrote Lord Christopher Patten, Hong Kong’s last British governor, in a May 31 article for the journal Project Syndicate that he shared with the Register. “But with his recent decision to impose a draconian new security law on Hong Kong,” Patten added, “Chinese President Xi Jinping has ridden roughshod over the Joint Declaration and directly threatened the city’s freedom.”
Patten is so concerned about the situation that he has asked the United Nations to send a special envoy to defend human rights in the city.
The new security law ostensibly aims to “prevent, stop and punish acts and activities endangering national security” such as terrorism. But particularly controversial is that the legislation threatens to establish, if necessary, agencies in Hong Kong that will “protect national security in accordance with the law.”
This would give law enforcement officials in China power in Hong Kong, undermining the city’s autonomy and likely leading to a subversion of Hong Kong’s laws, say critics.
“The law covers unspecified crimes such as sedition and secession and would allow China’s version of the KGB, the Ministry of State Security, to operate in Hong Kong, presumably using its customary methods of coercion,” argued Patten — a possibility, he believes, that Beijing took advantage of while the world’s attention was on the coronavirus pandemic.
Cardinal Zen told the Register June 6 he expected “very bad things to come” from the new law and wondered how it could be executed and that it might even be enforced retroactively. “This is really a turning point,” he said. “Those who are able to leave [Hong Kong] are trying to leave and are trying to send away their money, too. We are awaiting the complete disappearance of Hong Kong.”
He agreed with Patten that a U.N. envoy would be helpful, but thought it “foolish” for Beijing to continue with such a law, as it will harm Hong Kong’s vibrant economy, evidence of which is already seen.
Father Ticozzi said it is not just the young who are concerned, but immigrants from China who thought they had escaped the communist regime and young couples with young children who are worried about the kind of education Hong Kong will offer if and when it falls under control of atheist China.
He said a “minority” of immigrants believe “all will be fine and we should not be afraid of the future.” But he added that many others do not trust Beijing and are “afraid they will impose the same methods in China that will affect Church schools and priestly ministry, because many aspects of Church ministry in China are related to the government.”
He noted that another law, making it a punishable offense to disrespect China’s national anthem in Hong Kong, going into effect on June 12, is creating further unease.
Patten said these are just the latest in a series of freedom restrictions that Beijing has attempted to impose since 1997, but which have increased in magnitude in recent years.
Last year, for example, Beijing tried to impose a highly publicized extradition law that Patten said would have “removed the firewall between the rule of law in the territory and communist law in mainland China.” The proposed law, which led to violent clashes between police and protesters, was withdrawn last October.
It was the arrival of Xi Jinping as China’s president in 2013 that “changed things,” Patten observed. The Chinese Communist Party is “now in charge of everything,” and Xi has “promoted a cult of personality,” he said, adding that in Hong Kong “people have been abducted,” freedom of speech has been “whittled away,” and elected politicians have been “banned from the legislature.”
No Vatican Statements
Despite these concerns, neither the Vatican nor Pope Francis has made any public statements about Hong Kong.
“The Vatican keeps silent, as it wishes to avoid saying anything that could be offensive to the Beijing government, and that includes the situation in Hong Kong,” said Father Ticozzi. He pointed out that “generally” the Hong Kong people “appreciate the Vatican,” but he said “some people,” especially on the justice and peace commission, “are a bit unhappy” about the Vatican “not clearly speaking up for justice and the treatment of citizens in Hong Kong and China.”
That silence, he said, is because of a controversial 2018 provisional agreement signed by China and the Holy See on the appointment of bishops — an agreement whose contents remain secret but which comes up for possible renewal in September.
One of the agreement’s chief negotiators, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, said this week the Vatican “should probably reconfirm it for one or two years.” But the secrecy of the agreement is allowing the Chinese government and others to “take advantage of this,” Father Ticozzi said.
On the Vatican’s silence, Cardinal Zen had stronger words. “It’s shameful what they are doing, shameful,” he told the Register. “They’ve issued no words of reproach over all these years, but instead are always praising the Chinese government.”
Recalling the recent protests in Hong Kong and the “brutality of the police,” Cardinal Zen said “the whole world can see what’s happening,” but “there’s no word from the Vatican. It’s simply incredible.”
Asked if the reason might be to avoid state retaliation against the faithful, Cardinal Zen replied: “What more can they do to retaliate against the Chinese faithful? The Vatican has given them everything … and they got nothing in return. Nothing. So it’s horrible.”
Asked if the Vatican’s approach might have influenced Beijing’s approach to Hong Kong, Cardinal Zen said that although China does not “adjust its policy to the Vatican,” he believes that “surely what the Vatican is doing is encouraging them to go their own way, because they are sure the Vatican won’t dare say anything against them, as they haven’t said anything up until now.”
What’s at Stake
Father Ticozzi said Beijing’s policy of “sinicization” (bringing people who are not of Chinese descent under the influence of Chinese culture) is likely to continue, and that means “control of the Church.”
Unless there is a “major change in leadership,” he predicted “even greater restrictions than now are likely because their policy is to control everything, all communities and religious groups.”
“They consider the Church a state institution,” he explained, “and so consider bishops and priests as civil servants who have to obey fully and totally the orders of the government.”
For Patten, a Catholic who in February publicly criticized the Vatican’s policy toward China, not only is Hong Kong’s freedom and prosperity at stake, but “so are the values and interests of open societies around the world.”
“The world simply cannot trust this Chinese regime,” he said. “Liberal democracies and friends of Hong Kong everywhere must make it clear that they will stand up for this great, free and dynamic city.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.