“I don’t know for how long you can still hear my voice. So please pray for us.”
This is the sobering and alarming message shared by Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, which highlights the true severity Hong Kong faces as it battles for the survival of its democracy and fundamental basic human freedoms.
These freedoms remain under serious threat of extinction and the new year has brought no promise of hope for them; in fact it has only confirmed that they are becoming victims of an all-out massacre.
A sense of fear and uncertainty gripped Hong Kong last year, as Beijing imposed its draconian National Security Law on the region, which many warned would see rights and freedoms, including religious ones, quashed.
The controversial law was rushed through the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress on 30th June, the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to Beijing.
The law targets secession, subversion and terrorism with punishments up to life in prison. However, many have voiced their concerns that it could be used as a vehicle to end Hong Kong’s freedoms and target peaceful activism and democracy in the Chinese-ruled city.
These fears became a reality just hours after the law was implemented, as 10 people were held accused of violating the law, including a man with a pro-independence flag.
The law has since resulted in an onslaught of arrests, including that of Catholic pro-democracy media entrepreneur Jimmy Lai and Catholic activist Agnes Chow.
However, the biggest single mass arrest of recent times occurred earlier this year, as some 53 political activists, academics, former legislators, current district councillors and lawyers were detained under the National Security Law on 6th January.
Liz Throssell, of the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), said the arrests were the latest in a series of detentions related to the exercise of fundamental freedoms, including the right to peaceful assembly in Hong Kong.
“These latest arrests indicate that – as had been feared – the offence of subversion under the National Security Law is indeed being used to detain individuals for exercising legitimate rights to participate in political and public life,” she said.
Ms Throssell stressed that exercise of the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly and through freely chosen representatives, is a fundamental right protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is incorporated into Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
“We call on the authorities to uphold their obligations under the ICCPR, and to refrain from using the National Security Law to suppress the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association,” she added.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the arrests were a “grievous attack” on rights applied under the joint declaration signed with Britain when the territory was handed over in 1997. He also reiterated the UK’s offer to holders of British national (overseas) passports in the city to come and live in Britain.
“These arrests demonstrate that the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities deliberately misled the world about the true purpose of the national security law, which is being used to crush dissent and opposing political views,” he said.
“The UK will not turn our backs on the people of Hong Kong and will continue to offer British nationals the right to live and work in the UK.”
Lord David Alton of Liverpool said the mass arrest of the pro-democracy politicians and activists for the simple act of holding a primary election to choose their candidates represented “another mortal blow” to Hong Kong’s fundamental freedoms.
“This is the biggest single attack on any remaining vestiges of freedom in Hong Kong, and takes the city even further into the darkness of draconian repression by the Chinese Communist Party,” he told The Catholic Universe.
“This is everything which China’s most senior Catholic, Cardinal Joseph Zen, prophesied would happen – grave warnings which have been shockingly ignored.
“Not only has the cause of democracy been dismantled in Hong Kong, and the rule of law trampled on, but all basic human rights are now threatened, including religious freedom. This should be a matter of urgent concern for the international community, including the Church. Cardinal Zen has been right throughout in insisting that it cannot be justified or in anyone’s interests to stay silent in the face of such brazen repression,” the Catholic peer added.
Last year, Cardinal Zen warned that the National Security Law could lead to a clamp down on religious freedom and said he was prepared to suffer arrest and trials under it. His comments came as International Christian Concern warned that under the law, ‘vocal Hong Kong clergy who have been supportive of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, such as Cardinal Joseph Zen and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, could be extradited to mainland China to be tried, since Beijing considers them to be threats to the regime’.
Hong Kong Diocese’s Justice and Peace Commission also signed an open letter with 85 other social justice organisations, decrying the law ahead of its implementation.
However, last August, just two months after the implementation of the law, Cardinal John Tong Hon worryingly told priests not to resort to using “slanderous and offensive statements” in their sermons. Some priests believe his instruction was influenced by the Beijing-controlled city administration and the diocese did not want to see itself confronting the government.
The cardinal also refused to oppose the rollout of so-called “patriotic” education in Catholic schools in Hong Kong and stopped a public prayer campaign in support of the pro-democracy movement.
Another troubling incident also recently came to light concerning Beijing’s views on religious freedom, as two Chinese nuns, who work at the Vatican’s unofficial diplomatic mission in Hong Kong, were arrested by mainland authorities during a visit home to Hebei province last May, according to Reuters.
Three clerics with knowledge on the matter told Reuters that the nuns, in their 40s, were detained for three weeks before being released into house arrest without being charged. The nuns are forbidden to leave the mainland.
Western diplomats say that Chinese security agents have stepped up surveillance of the Hong Kong mission in recent months, while top clerics in China and in the Vatican view the arrests of the nuns as a sign that Beijing wants the mission shut.
Meanwhile, since the mass arrest of the pro-democracy politicians and activists on 6th January, Hong Kong has already seen further arrests under the National Security Law, including 11 people for allegedly helping 12 young pro-democracy activists accused of attempting to flee the city by boat for Taiwan last year.
Benedict Rogers, Hong Kong Watch’s Chief Executive, branded the arrests, which occurred on 14th January, “a mockery” of previous claims that the National Security Law would be used sparingly and applied only to cases with a direct and imminent threat to security.
“The case of the 12 Hong Kong youths who languish in a jail in Shenzhen has never had anything to do with national security,” he said.
Picture: A man holding a banner reading ‘Chinese communist party is shameless, break the promises’, shouts during a protest against the new National Security Law in Hong Kong on 1stJuly 2020. (CNS photo/Tyrone Siu, Reuters).