Why is 90-year-old Cardinal Zen standing trial in Hong Kong?

The retired leader of the territory’s Catholic Church – and staunch critic of Beijing – is accused of failing to register a support fund.

Cardinal Zen, dressed in golden robes and flanked by two others, leads a mass in Hong Kong in May, a few days after his arrest
Retired Cardinal Joseph Zen was at mass in Hong Kong hours after being charged over a fund that helped pay the legal costs of those arrested in the 2019 protests [File: Peter Parks/AFP]

Political activist Alex Chow has not forgotten the kindness of Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the retired head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong, who came to visit him when he was behind bars five years ago.

Cardinal Zen has long been known for his work as a prison chaplain. On the day Chow met him at the Pik Uk correctional centre, a maximum security jail in Hong Kong’s New Territories, the elderly priest had taken a public minibus to the prison, some 40 minutes ride into the hills from the densely-packed city.

The two talked for 45 minutes, “maybe an hour”, with the prison officer giving up his seat so Zen, then in his mid-80s, could sit down.  For Chow, jailed for his role in the peaceful 2014 Occupy Hong Kong protests, the cardinal was a source of comfort and reassurance and a much-needed connection to the outside world.

“It meant a lot to me,” Chow, who was later released on bail ahead of the appeal he eventually won, told Al Jazeera. “I could see his genuine concern for others and staunch opposition to injustice. I felt like I was genuinely in his prayers and one of the people he cared about.”

The 90-year-old former head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong now faces a trial of his own.

On Monday he will face court with five others, including popular Cantopop singer and LGBTQ activist Denise Ho and lawyer Margaret Ng, over a now-defunct fund they set up to help pay the legal fees of people facing trial in relation to the 2019 protests.

They were arrested in early May under the National Security Law and accused of “colluding with foreign forces”.

Released on bail, they were charged on May 24 with failing to register the fund.

From left, Hong Kong scholar Hui Po-keung, Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen, barrister Margaret Ng and singer Denise Ho arrive for an appearance at a court in Hong Kong
Cardinal Zen was leaning on a walking stick for support as he arrived in court with fellow defendants – scholar Hui Po-keung, left, lawyer Margaret Ng and singer Denise Ho – in May [File: Kin Cheung/AP Photo]

All have pleaded not guilty and, in the five days allocated for proceedings, their defence is expected to argue that the group had a right to associate under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the mini-constitution that has been in place since the British handed the territory over to China in 1997.

Beijing imposed the security law in June 2020.

“The Chinese government wants to cut off all forms of organizing and solidarity that run outside of the Communist Party’s control in Hong Kong,” William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said in an emailed response to questions. “The fact that Cardinal Zen is compassionate, caring, and well-respected in Hong Kong actually makes him a threat to the ruling authorities.”

Vatican criticised

Zen was ordained in 1996 and named Bishop of Hong Kong in 2002, becoming the leader of the territory’s Catholics, now numbering more than 400,000. In a 2006 ceremony in Rome, he was made a cardinal by Pope Benedict.

Throughout his career, Zen has shown support for democratic reform and giving the people of Hong Kong more say in their government. He held a “walkathon” for universal suffrage, masses in remembrance of the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square and visited the Occupy Hong Kong site to provide moral support to the thousands who had gathered there.

After his retirement in 2009, Zen became more critical of Beijing, which broke off relations with the Vatican in 1951 and created its own Communist Party-led Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. He has been especially critical of a 2018 deal under which Pope Francis recognised seven bishops appointed by Beijing, which was supposed to bring the mainland’s Catholics, thought to number about 12 million, together.

“Cardinal Zen made the ultimate self-sacrifice,” Andreas Fulda, author of The Struggle for Democracy in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera in emailed comments. “Deep down he must have known that the dictatorship in Beijing would never budge. Undeterred he advocated for Christians in mainland China. Firmly committed to the principle of non-violence, he was part of an influential ecumenical alliance of faith leaders advocating for liberal democracy in Hong Kong.”

Pope Benedict XVI (L) gives the ring to new cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun during a Holy Mass in St. Peter Square, Saturday 25 March 2006 i
Zen became the head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong in 2002 and was made a cardinal by Pope Benedict in March 2006 [File: Ettore Ferrari/EPA]

The Catholic Church has been criticised for failing to take a firmer stand over Zen’s arrest and trial.

After he was charged on May 24, pictured walking into court leaning heavily on a stick, the church released a short statement noting that he had pleaded not guilty and that it would “closely monitor” events.

“Cardinal Zen is always in our prayers and we invite all to pray for the Church,” it concluded.

On Thursday, when the pope was asked about religious freedom in China and Zen’s looming trial, he said that while it was “not easy to understand the Chinese mentality”, it had to be “respected”, according to a report in Catholic News.

On Zen, he said: “He says what he feels and we see that there are limitations [in Hong Kong]”.

The pope, who spoke as he flew home from the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Kazakhstan, added that he preferred to “choose the path of dialogue”.

Reports said China’s President Xi Jinping, who was also at the meeting, refused an invitation for talks with the pope because his schedule was full.

‘Purpose of life’

Zen’s trial is the latest in connection with the 2019 protests, which began with mass marches against a proposed bill that would allow extradition to the mainland and, amid a perceived lack of action from the government and heavy-handed police tactics, evolved into sometimes violent protests demanding more democracy in the Chinese-ruled territory.

The group set up the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund in July 2019, naming it after the first serious confrontation between protesters and police the previous month outside the barricaded building of the Legislative Council where politicians had been due to debate the contentious bill. Police used rubber-coated bullets and tear gas against protesters, and dozens were arrested.

They wound up the fund in October last year after police announced it was under investigation.

The fund’s closure, and the trial of those who founded it, will also have repercussions for the thousands facing charges from the 2019 protests whose legal costs could run into the hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong dollars.

CHRD’s Nee said the lack of funding options could undermine those defendants’ right to a fair trial.

“It was possible before to crowdsource some of these costs but by cutting off the ability to do so, Beijing will make it much more difficult for people to afford the legal resources to mount a solid defence,” he noted.

Zen has been out on bail pending trial.

At his first public appearance after his arrest, he addressed the Salesian Vocations Office (China Province) about his motivations in life and why he had entered the priesthood.

He noted that the world was “chaotic” and that some were driven by the need to pursue “money, wealth, and power” but, the retired bishop said, “the purpose of life” is learning what it means to be a person of integrity, filled with a sense of justice and kindness.

Despite his longstanding support for democratic reform, Zen had largely avoided any backlash from the authorities.

After the bishop’s arrest, newly-installed Hong Kong leader John Lee, a former police officer and security chief, said the arrest was not related to Zen’s background or beliefs, but that people who broke the law needed to be held to account.

For Chow, now living in the United States, the decision to arrest and prosecute a man many in Hong Kong regard as the territory’s “moral conscience” is further evidence of how much the territory has changed.

“Him being prosecuted is telling,” he said. “It really shows how the Hong Kong government has shifted its mentality [and] the future trajectory of how it might approach religious freedom or political speech; whether Hong Kong will remain a free society or whether that’s long gone.”

Source: Al Jazeera