“Jimmy Lai is obviously the one who runs the only newspaper which is still completely free. You know many other papers are bought by people on the side of government, there may still be some respectable reporters working for them but at the right moment they can suppress everything,” said Zen.
“So, there is a clear policy direction: suppress the freedom of expression.”
In Hong Kong, the diocese Zen led until 2009, the mainland government has imposed a sweeping new National Security Law, which criminalizes previously protected civil liberties under the headings of “sedition” and “foreign collusion.”
Before the law’s implementation, many Catholics, including Zen, warned that it could be used to silence the Church in Hong Kong, though the law was defended by Cardinal John Tong Hon, Zen’s successor in the diocese, who is currently serving as apostolic administrator.
“It was not even a criminal case,” said Zen of the recent re-arrest of Lai, but “they arrested Jimmy Lai and transferred the case to the hands of the National Security Department, which meant that the case has been classified to be much more serious. “
The cardinal called the decision to deny Lai bail “ridiculous.”
“Jimmy has been charged with many other criminal offenses [related to his pro-democracy activism] and still the bails were granted for these cases, but now for such trivial thing he is not even allowed bail?”
“This is evidently all about political persecution,” Zen told CNA, explaining that, since the National Security Law came into force on July 1, authorities in Hong Kong had launched a systematic crackdown on civil liberties.
“It seems that now they are attacking the resistance mainly on three fronts,” said Zen.
“One is the court, they are intimidating the judges now; the second, as I said during the previous interview [with CNA], is the education; the third one is the press, many cases so far go against the free press.”
In November, three pro-democracy activists, including Catholic university student Agnes Chow, pled guilty on charges related to their roles in an “illegal assembly” in 2019. Last week, they were each sentenced to months in prison, with the possibility that they will face further charges.
Cardinal Zen told CNA that attacks on basic freedoms in Hong Kong extended beyond political repression and represented a growing threat to the Church.
(Story continues below)
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“I have often said that there would not be any religious freedom when there is no freedom,” Cardinal Zen told CNA this week.
“So, with this National Security Law, the leader of our diocese has been forced to declare his position, and unfortunately we can tell that our diocese is very obedient to these new instructions on both the preaching of the priests and the teaching in our schools.”
“The authorities of our diocese make every effort to comply with the government’s new instructions,” said Zen.
In recent months, the Diocese of Hong Kong has issued directives to Catholic schools on “fostering the correct values on national identity” and respecting Chinese national symbols including the flag and national anthem. It has also blocked a Catholic pro-democracy ad campaign and prayer that was set to run in local newspapers.
In September, Cardinal Tong wrote the priests of the diocese, warning them against addressing political issues in their homilies or instigating “social disorder.”
Cardinal Zen called the measures “very sad,” adding that “we can no more freely announce the gospel values” in Hong Kong, and said that “obviously” diocesan leaders had been told to comply with the government “by Vatican authorities.”