It says a lot about Communist China that Beijing feels the need to arrest and prosecute a frail ninety-year-old Catholic leader. It says even more that Cardinal Zen is accepting his plight with such grace and courage. With his trial on trumped-up national security charges set to resume on October 26, Zen appears fully prepared to continue his Christian ministry from behind bars. The regime may think it’s punishing him, but in fact, it is making him into the martyr that Beijing should fear most.
My measure of Cardinal Zen was formed over many years, but I was especially struck by our face-to-face meeting in November 2019. We gathered in the house of Jimmy Lai, a fellow Hong Kong Catholic convert. (He has also been arrested and sentenced to 14 months in jail, and is now enduring another rigged jury-free trial.) Outside the windows, we could hear the massive protests over Hong Kong’s extradition law, which at that time marked China’s most aggressive attempt to eradicate freedom in the city-state.
The protests were so boisterous, they nearly prevented me and my wife from making our meeting with Cardinal Zen. But when we arrived, the Catholic leader, who was elevated to his current position by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, was peaceful and quiet. While advanced in years, he deflected questions about his health, humbly redirecting attention to anyone but him. The man oozed concern for others, especially as the conversation shifted to the future of Hong Kong.
The Cardinal didn’t mince words. He predicted that Communist China would swallow Hong Kong whole, with all the oppression and grief that defines life on the Chinese mainland. He figured the city’s many Catholics—including himself and Jimmy Lai—would endure persecution for their faith, especially since it requires a resolute defense of the human freedom and dignity that Beijing denies. The next day, the communist press published our photos, and called Zen and Lai traitors.
Zen was prescient: His arrest came two and a half years later, in spring 2022. Communist authorities charged him in his capacity as a trustee of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which provided financial support to the very protesters we heard outside at our 2019 meeting. The way Beijing’s mouthpieces tell it, the cardinal is guilty of “colluding with foreign forces,” a crime under a 2020 Hong Kong national security law.
The outcome of the trial is in no serious doubt. Communist China effectively controls Hong Kong’s courts, so Zen will almost certainly be convicted, after which point he will likely be sent to one of Hong Kong’s prisons. There’s a slim chance his fate could be different, so long as there’s sufficient global pushback. Alas, the Vatican has yet to make a major issue of the arrest of one of its cardinals, who are often called the “princes of the Church.” Hopefully that changes before the trial ends and a possible prison sentence begins.
Yet I’m not convinced Cardinal Zen wants to go free. As we talked in 2019, he seemed at ease with the coming suffering. It makes sense. This is a man who pledged to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. He has also seen how Christianity has grown in Hong Kong—and indeed, all of China—even amid a communist crackdown on authentic faith. For someone so steeped in the Christian concept of self-sacrifice, and in the idea that God can bring great good from great evil, Cardinal Zen may want nothing more than conviction in a pre-determined trial.
That doesn’t make Communist China’s persecution of a ninety-year-old man any less unjust. Cardinal Zen deserves freedom, as does Jimmy Lai and everyone Beijing is punishing for their defense of Hong Kong’s autonomy. So, too, do they deserve the full-throated support of every Catholic and person of goodwill, whether in the Vatican, the United States, or anywhere else. Even so, if Zen is imprisoned, we should castigate Communist China with one breath—then ask what Beijing is thinking with the next.
After all, if Cardinal Zen truly poses a danger to the regime, that threat won’t end with a fake court’s judgment. Behind bars, he will continue to spread the subversive message of freedom and religious faith. Meanwhile, the countless Chinese citizens who hear of his fate will wonder why that message, from a wizened old man, terrified the supposedly all-powerful apparatchiks in Beijing. The seeds that Cardinal Zen plants in the days ahead will always produce poison for Communist China.
Tim Busch is founder of the Napa Institute.
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