At that time, the protestors successfully rebuffed the Hong Kong legislature’s efforts last year to pass a bill that would have allowed mainland China to extradite alleged criminals from Hong Kong.
However, with the passage of the new security laws, the Chinese government seized more power to suppress the protests in Hong Kong, which it sees as a direct challenge to its power.
Similar security rules have been proposed before; in 2003, the communist government attempted to use Hong Kong’s own legislative and executive councils to pass the anti-sedition measures, but massive protests led lawmakers to abandon the proposal.
Cardinal John Tong Hon, apostolic administrator of Hong Kong, previously downplayed religious freedom concerns about the law.
In June 2020, Cardinal Tong told a diocesan publication that he “personally believe that the National Security Law will have no effect on religious freedom, because Article 32 of the Basic Law guarantees that we have freedom of religion, and we can also openly preach and hold religious ceremonies, and participate in religious activities.”
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.
The last large crackdown in Hong Kong occurred in August 2020, when several prominent democracy activists were arrested and charged, including Agnes Chow, a 23-year-old Catholic democracy activist. Chow has been outspoken in her support for civil rights in the former British colony.
In November, three of the pro-democracy activists, including Joshua Wong and Chow, pled guilty on charges related to their roles in an “illegal assembly” in 2019. The next month, they were each sentenced to months in prison, with the possibility that they will face further charges.
Also among those arrested in August was Jimmy Lai, a Catholic media executive who has supported the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement for the past 30 years. A band of nearly 200 police officers arrested Lai Aug. 10, along with at least nine others connected to Apple Daily, the newspaper Lai founded in 1995.
Following those arrests, Cardinal Tong wrote to local clergy, warning them against mentioning politics in their homilies, according to Apple Daily.
Lai was free on bail for a time, but in early December was charged with foreign collusion. If convicted, he could receive a life sentence. Lai was also charged in early December 2020 with breaching the terms of a lease for his company, Next Digital Media.
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After another brief period out on bail, Lai was ordered back to jail on Dec. 31, where he is set to remain until a hearing in February. His trial is expected to begin in April.
Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, has warned that Lai’s arrest shows a rise in “political intimidation” against journalists in Hong Kong, part of a systematic erosion of basic freedoms, including religious freedom, by the Chinese government in recent months.
Zen has been an outspoken critic of the Holy See’s accord with the Chinese government, first agreed in 2018 and recently renewed for another two years. Zen has explained to CNA that, in past decades, the Church has had a key role to play in promoting the values of human dignity and freedom in Hong Kong – a role that is now being steadily eroded.