Hong Kong’s New Leader Shows Iron Fist With Cardinal’s Arrest
Cardinal Zen’s arrest suggests incoming chief executive John Lee will be harsh on security
Throughout Hong Kong are posters of its next chief executive John Lee smiling benevolently, to convey a benign image to offset his past as Security Secretary who oversaw the arrest of a tide of human rights protesters in the past few years. However, the recent detentions of Cardinal Joseph Zen and three others indicate the former policeman is likely to continue his draconian ways after he becomes chief executive on July 1, stirring deep consternation in the territory.
On May 8, Lee was appointed chief executive after winning over 99 percent of the votes from 1,400-plus electors who were mostly vetted by him. His election as the sole candidate drew sarcastic comments on social media and condemnation from the G7 nations. Chinese President Xi Jinping will fly to Hong Kong from Beijing to swear in John Lee on July 1, when Xi is expected to give a speech lauding the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China.
“Having secured his unopposed “election” with minimum public outcry, John Lee has already begun to implement the even tighter dictatorship that his administration promises,” tweeted Jerome Cohen, professor emeritus at New York University Law School and founder and faculty director emeritus of the university’s US-Asia Law Institute, on May 11.
“Nothing could be better calculated than these arrests to offend the various constituencies represented by the four ‘612 Fund’ leaders, so this action was delayed until after Lee’s future was secured,” Cohen said. . “Cutting legal defense funds is a logical step in a systematic attack on the criminal justice system that has been underway since imposition of the National Security regime on HK. We should also recall measures have been taken to curb the availability of Legal Aid assistance. How many of the highly-paid HK barristers will be courageous and concerned enough to offer their services on a ‘pro bono’ basis?”
“Arresting a 90-year-old cardinal for his peaceful activities has to be a shocking new low for Hong Kong, illustrating the city’s free fall in human rights in the past two years,” tweeted Maya Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, on May 11. “The arrest, which comes days after the Chinese government’s anointment of former security chief John Lee as the city’s chief executive, is an ominous sign that its crackdown on Hong Kong is only going to escalate.”
On May 11, Hong Kong’s National Security police arrested the retired Cardinal Zen and three other trustees of the defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, including barrister Margaret Ng, singer Denise Ho and scholar Hui Po-keung, for alleged collusion with foreign forces, Hong Kong police said in a statement. The four were released on bail at night on May 11.
The 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which funded legal aid to protestors who demonstrated in Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020, announced its closure last August, after National Security police demanded it hand over its records including information on its funding sources. The fifth and last trustee of the fund, Cyd Ho, was arrested on May 12, even though the former lawmaker was already in prison, according to local media reports.
The National Security police alleged the four had asked foreign governments to impose sanctions on Hong Kong which threatened national security and hence violated the National Security Law. This legislation, which took effect in the middle of 2020, gave Hong Kong police sweeping powers to detain suspects. While John Lee was Security Secretary from 1 July 2017 to 25 June 2021, over 100 people were detained under this law. Beijing’s fears for instability in Hong Kong drove its decision to pick the former Security Secretary as the semi-autonomous territory’s next leader, Asia Sentinel reported on April 9.
For years, Cardinal Zen has publicly expressed strong views against the Chinese Communist government. A Catholic Hong Kong resident told Asia Sentinel, “He is supposed to be a shepherd to his entire flock, not just those who share his specific political views.”
“The Holy See has learned with concern the news of Cardinal Zen's arrest and is following the evolution of the situation with extreme attention,” said the Director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni, in response to journalists’ questions.
“Concern sounds such a tepid phrase. And yet, the Vatican has set such a low bar on expectations on speaking out or doing the right thing on China Human Rights that the fact that they said something, and expressed concern, is surprisingly welcome,” tweeted Benedict Rogers, a co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, a UK-based organization which monitors Hong Kong, on May 11.
John Lee is Catholic, as are Hong Kong’s outgoing chief executive Carrie Lam and former chief executive Donald Tsang. It is doubtful that John Lee and Carrie Lam will do penance over the arrest of this Hong Kong cardinal.
“I wonder how our former and outgoing chief executives and all the Catholic senior civil service bureaucrats feel about this?” a Hong Kong-based ex-banker told Asia Sentinel. The arrest of Hong Kong’s most senior Catholic cleric is a surprise, since many Catholics thought Beijing and the Vatican have a good enough relationship so that Cardinal Zen would not be arrested, said the ex-banker who declined to be named.
On September 22, 2018, China and the Vatican signed an agreement over the appointment of bishops in mainland China, under which the Chinese government would recommend bishops for appointment to the Pope, who has the right to veto any recommendation.
The arrest of the Hong Kong cardinal may hurt relations between Beijing and the Holy See and affect the appointments, the ex-banker added. “The Vatican struck a deal with China thinking they would be left alone. It’s another example of how appeasing or complying with authoritarian governments doesn’t lead to peace.”
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a Catholic, said, “The arrest of Cardinal Zen, one of the most important figures in the Catholic Church in Asia and in the Catholic Church’s advocacy for human rights in China and elsewhere, is yet another outrageous example of how the Chinese Communist Party is hellbent on turning Hong Kong into a police state.”
The Hong Kong authorities’ arrest of Cardinal Zen “was stupid, as their legitimate investigation into the 612 foundation is now completely irrelevant, as the entire focus of the world is on a 90-year-old cardinal arrested under the National Security Law. PR is not their forte,” a pro-Beijing analyst told Asia Sentinel.