Yet a generation later, Beijing is fighting harder than ever to quench that flame. Indeed, over the past 30 years, the Chinese Communist Party’s appalling human rights record and suppression of political liberties have only worsened.
On Wednesday, Beijing launched its latest attack: ordering the arrest of 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong. Zen was charged with “collaborating with foreign forces” after serving as trustee of a now-defunct relief fund that criminally defended defendants in free speech and expression cases. Four colleagues – lawyer Margaret Ng and singer and activist Denise Ho, scholar Hui Po-keung and former Legislative Council member Cyd Ho – were also arrested on the same pretext.
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An outspoken advocate for democracy in the Catholic community, Zen has championed religious freedom in Hong Kong, and in 2016 urged the Vatican to reject a deal that would give the People’s Republic of China a say in episcopal ordinations. But he is not just a leader of Hong Kong Catholics and other Chinese Catholics. To a wider audience, he is a critical voice of conscience: an embodiment of moral strength that has been ever-present as Hong Kong led a decades-long quest for the freedoms promised with the handover of British rule.
These arrests are part of a crackdown made possible by the so-called National Security Law of 2020, designed to eradicate all dissent in Hong Kong. Beijing has used this law to suppress freedom of the press, assembly and speech, arresting activists such as Joshua Wong, Benny Tai, Jimmy Lai, Lee Cheuk Yan, Gwyneth Ho and Carol Ng. Now the Chinese Communist Party, empowered by the installation of another staunchly pro-Beijing leader in Hong Kong, has targeted Zen and his colleagues.
Ahead of the transfer of sovereignty from the UK in 1997, the Chinese government promised “a high degree of autonomy” for the territory: with an independent executive, legislature, and judiciary; freedom of speech, press, assembly and religion; a road to universal suffrage; and an assurance that China would not interfere in the affairs Hong Kong administers under the Basic Law. But nearly 25 years later, China’s pledges have been completely abandoned. Any pretense that Hong Kong’s rights were being respected was met with violence and intimidation.
Zen’s arrest is one of the clearest signs of Beijing’s tightening crackdown as Hong Kong fights for its freedoms — and Beijing’s growing desperation and fear of losing that fight. In fact, this act of persecution is a sign of weakness, not a sign of strength.
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As Speaker of the House of Representatives, I have been blessed to witness firsthand the courage and commitment of Cardinal Zen. When I met him in Hong Kong in 2015, he warned that “one country, two systems” were in grave danger. And when we last met – 2020 in the US Capitol, where I presented him with the Wei Jingsheng Chinese Democracy Champion Prize – he spoke again powerfully about China’s broken promises.
Zen and three of his colleagues have been released on bail, but the charges remain and each faces life imprisonment. We must all condemn their arrests, which are an attack on freedom of religion, political liberties and human rights. As I said before, if we don’t engage in human rights advocacy in China for commercial reasons, we lose any moral authority to defend human rights anywhere in the world.
Congress has always supported Hong Kong in its fight for its freedoms on a bicameral, bipartisan basis. In 2019, a bipartisan Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which is now law. We have held Beijing accountable for its human rights abuses and passed legislation to counter horrific campaigns against Uyghurs, Tibetans, mainland activists and many others – and we will continue to do so until these human rights abuses stop.
For the people of Hong Kong – and for all those yearning for freedom around the world – the entire international community has a responsibility to speak out strongly against these arrests and to demand that the CCP end its abuses. The world is watching.