News of the arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen by the Chinese authorities came on Wednesday, May 11th. The cardinal was arrested, along with three trustees of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, launched to help those who were prosecuted following the pro-democracy protests in 2019 and 2020. The fund was intended to help arrested protesters with their legal and medical costs. It ceased to exist in October 2021, following an investigation by the Chinese government. Another administrator of the fund had previously been detained.
Cardinal Zen has been Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong since 2009. He is 90 years old and has distinguished himself on several occasions by his pro-democracy stance. He took a stand opposing the agreements between the Catholic Church and the authorities in Beijing, considering them a betrayal of the members of the underground Chinese Church. The Vatican and China have not had diplomatic relations since 1951, but a landmark “provisional” agreement was signed in September 2018 with Beijing on the appointment of certain bishops.
400,000 Catholics live in Hong Kong.
Prominent among those taken into custody is Hui Po-keung, one of the 612 fund trustees and a former professor of cultural studies at Lingnan University. He was arrested as he was about to fly to Germany, where a new academic post awaited him. According to the South China Morning Post, he was on a list of people who would be arrested if they tried to leave Hong Kong.
“The individuals are suspected of conspiring to collude with foreign countries or foreign forces to endanger national security—an act of a serious nature,” the Commissioner’s Office, which represents Beijing’s foreign ministry in Hong Kong, said in a statement.
The arrests were made under the security law enacted by the Chinese government in June 2020. According to the police, as of March 31st, 175 Hong Kongers had been arrested under this national security law, and 110 of them have already been charged.
A wave of international protests followed the announcement of these arrests. The Vatican immediately expressed its extreme concern about the situation and is closely monitoring events. The White House called for the immediate release of the “unjustly detained and indicted” figures.
Cardinal Zen was released on bail later the same day as his arrest, and appeared in a video posted on Twitter leaving the police station where he had been taken. The other defendants arrested along with him—lawyer Margaret Ng, singer and LGBT activist Denise Ho, and academic Hui Po-keung—were also released on bail shortly afterwards.
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).