On June 30, China’s draconian “security law” went into effect in Hong Kong. The law represents a dramatic escalation of Beijing’s assault on the island’s autonomy and its freedoms, including those of Catholics.
Once again, Vatican diplomacy is on trial, especially the 2018 Sino-Vatican accord. China’s actions in Hong Kong and the mainland have raised the question of the Church’s proper role in defending religious freedom for Catholics and for others. This is increasingly true as the Church’s partner in diplomacy — Chinese communism — attacks the very ground of Catholic witness.
The Hong Kong law criminalizes “secession, subversion, organization and perpetration of terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” Those arrested can be sent to China for trial, where legal protections are virtually non-existent. Scarcely a week after the law’s imposition, hundreds of dissidents have already been arrested.
Under the Sino-British agreement of 1997, Hong Kong was to retain a substantial degree of autonomy under Chinese sovereignty until 2047. That agreement, and the Basic Law that guaranteed civil liberties on the island, are now in grave peril.
The evidence suggests that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ultimate goal is to diminish, if not eliminate, the threat posed by Hong Kong’s democratic system to his consolidation and expansion of Chinese power. That goal cannot be achieved without removing one of Hong Kong’s pillars of self-governance: religion and its protector, religious freedom.
Unfortunately, Xi has amply demonstrated on the Chinese mainland that he knows how to do that, with terrifying efficiency. Thus far, the Vatican has given him no reason to believe the Church will object.
At this writing, the Holy See has said nothing. The only “official” word has come from Cardinal John Tong, the administrator of Hong Kong, who has implausibly declared that the new law does not threaten religious freedom or the Church in Hong Kong.
How did we get here? A little context is in order.
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