However, a generation later, Beijing is fighting more than ever to extinguish this flame. Indeed, over the past 30 years, the Chinese Communist Party’s appalling human rights record and repression of political freedoms have only worsened.
On Wednesday, Beijing launched its latest assault: ordering the arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen, 90, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong. Zen was charged with “collusion with foreign forces” after serving as a trustee of a now-disbanded relief fund providing criminal defense for those accused in cases involving freedom of speech and expression. Four colleagues – lawyer Margaret Ng and singer-activist Denise Ho, academic Hui Po-keung and former Legislative Council member Cyd Ho – were also arrested on the same pretext.
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Zen is a strong advocate for democracy in the Catholic community, advocating for religious freedom in Hong Kong and, in 2016, urging the Vatican to reject a deal that would give the People’s Republic of China a say in the ordination of bishops. But he is not just a leader of Hong Kong Catholics and other Chinese Catholics. For a wider audience, he is a critical voice of conscience: an embodiment of moral fortitude, who has been a constant presence as Hong Kong has for decades led the pursuit of the freedoms promised with the transfer of British rule.
The arrests are part of a harsh crackdown made possible by the so-called National Security Law of 2020, designed to eliminate all dissent in Hong Kong. Beijing has used this law to crush freedom of the press, assembly and expression, arresting activists such as Joshua Wong, Benny Tai, Jimmy Lai, Lee Cheuk Yan, Gwyneth Ho and Carol Ng. Now, bolstered by the installation of another staunchly pro-Beijing leader in Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party has turned its gaze to Zen and its colleagues.
In view of the transfer of sovereignty from the United Kingdom in 1997, the Chinese government promised “a high degree of autonomy” for the territory: with an independent executive, legislature and judiciary; freedom of expression, of the press, of assembly and of religion; a path to universal suffrage; and assurances that China would not interfere in matters administered by Hong Kong under the Basic Law. But nearly 25 years later, China’s commitments have been completely abandoned. Any pretense that Hong Kong’s rights would be upheld has been crushed by violence and intimidation.
Zen’s arrest is one of the clearest signs yet of Beijing’s deepening crackdown as Hong Kong fights for its freedoms – and of Beijing’s growing desperation and fear of losing that fight. . Indeed, this act of persecution is a sign of weakness, not a show of strength.
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As President of the Chamber, I had the good fortune 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” was in grave peril. And when we last met – in 2020, at the United States Capitol, where I awarded him the Wei Jingsheng Chinese Democracy Champion award – he again spoke forcefully about China’s broken promises.
Zen and three of his colleagues have been released on bail, but the charges remain in force, each facing the prospect of life in prison. We must all condemn their arrests, which are an attack on religious freedom, political freedoms and human rights. As I said before, if we don’t stand up for human rights in China because of business interests, we lose all moral authority to talk about human rights anywhere in the world.
The Congress, on a bipartisan and bicameral basis, has always supported Hong Kong in its fight for its freedoms. 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, passing legislation to counter horrific campaigns against Uyghurs, Tibetans, mainland activists and many others – and we will continue to do so until to stop these abuses.
For the people of Hong Kong – and for all who yearn for freedom around the world – the entire international community has a responsibility to strongly denounce these arrests and demand that the CCP end its abuses. The world is watching.