Hong Kong: Wiping Out Both Memory and Speech

Why one retired 90 year-old Catholic bishop has become a prime target for China's attempt to erase its own history

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Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired archbishop of Hong Kong, attends a news conference in Hong Kong in January 2018. In May 2022 the 90-year-old cleric was arrested together with other individuals and charged by Chinese authorities with ‘collusion with foreign forces.’ Photo: CNS, Bobby Yip, Reuters

Individual and collective memory is an essential – though notoriously unstable – human element.

For those who have lived and suffered under injustice and totalitarianism – memory is often more precious than weapons or political strategy.

Oppressive regimes and monolithic ideologies also recognise this fact.

That is why events in Hong Kong this year, culminating in the arrest in early May of 90 year old, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun, along with several other protestors, on charges of ‘collusion with foreign forces’ should disturb not only Catholics but all who value humanity and human dignity in the region.

Symbol of living memory

There could be no more potent representative of living memory of Chinese Catholics and other Christians both in Hong Kong and on the mainland than Cardinal Zen.   Cardinal Zen was also one of the most active pastoral agents for Hong Kong’s religious and political dissidents – even at his advanced age, regularly visiting those (whether Catholic or other) held for “sedition” or “civic disturbance” in Hong Kong jails.

Although the Cardinal was released on 12 May on bail, his passport has been confiscated and he faces trial in the near future. Those who follow events in Hong Kong say it is entirely possible he may be detained again.

June 3-4 marks the anniversary in 1989 of the notorious and violent suppression of a huge pro-democracy protest of nearly 1 million people who had been drawn to Tiananmen Square and the neighbouring streets throughout the May and June of that year.

Erasing the memory of Tiananmen Square

To this day, it is very difficult to estimate how many of the protestors were killed or disappeared at that event.   The Chinese Government reports, 200 killed– the Red Cross using hospital data, reports some 4,000, others estimate it may be 10,000 (as it is rumoured that bodies were removed and never appeared at morgues or hospitals for reporting.)

Those in mainland China under 25 years of age- have never “officially” learned about the government calls blandly “the June 4th incident.”

This was very different in Hong Kong- where university students, citizens; groups large and small and notably the Anglican and Catholic churches in Hong Kong had long held memorials, religious ceremonies and Masses in order to remember and pray for those who died at Tiananmen.

A silent church

The present bishops in Hong Kong have pursued an ostensible policy of public “health safety” and “détente” towards mainland China; the Catholic diocese of Hong Kong- has cancelled and silenced all mention of Memorial masses.

And the civic scene is changing dramatically.

In 2021, using the Covid-19 restrictions as a justification, the Hong Kong authorities arrested the Catholic pro-democracy leader and media owner, Jimmy Lai for being part of an “un-authorised” memorial event in Victoria Park Hong Kong. He along with others was sentenced to jail (in his case for 20 months)

Cardinal Zen said in December 2021:

“Jimmy Lai is obviously the one who runs the only newspaper which is still completely free … There is a clear policy direction: suppress the freedom of expression.”

Charged for recalling past events

The Hong Kong Free Press, released a Twitter image of a moving and hand-scribbled note by Jimmy Lai (in English) denying his orchestration of the Vigil and saying he simply lit a candle at the site. In the note he honours the witness to truth by the victims of 4 June – but deplores violence and ends with a prayer

By the end of December 2021, the statue dubbed the “Goddess of Democracy” was also taken down by Hong Kong authorities.

In January this year, the last visible Tiananmen memorial, in the form of Chinese calligraphy on a lane of road (updated each year by students) was asphalted over at the University of Hong Kong by traffic workers.

In April this year the organisers of the annual Tiananmen vigil in Hong Kong faced court charged with sedition, working with foreign forces and more minor (though false) charges such as disrupting public transport.

The goodness of truth and the power of holiness

Diplomacy and the prudent pursuit of “peaceful co-existence” has always been a tightrope for the Catholic Church. We must humbly acknowledge that along with “successes” there are 2,000 years of deplorable failures to remember and to speak up.

In addition, every tick of the Catholic liturgical year’s clock is about living in the present but looking to the future, with a steady hand upon memorial. We are prompted to bring the goodness of truth and the power of holiness to mind every saint’s day and every Feast.

Surely the present and ominous treatment of Cardinal Zen and the many protestors both Catholic and other forced into fear, silence and detention, will emphasise the importance of acting memorial and speaking truth to unjust power?

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