Cardinal Zen and the arrests of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund trustees
Yet another just-when-you-thought-things-couldn’t-get-any-worse moment in Hong Kong
“As a clergyman, I can visit jails. I have heard many times from our brothers and sisters in jail that they feel safe. One of the reasons they feel safe is because they know somebody cares about them and that they are not fighting this battle alone. We are helping a lot of our brothers and sisters in jail who have sacrificed much more than we have. We want to let them know that our support can be a foundation for their safety and peace of mind.”
— Cardinal Zen in an ad for 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund released on April 21, 2021, referring to the hundreds of political prisoners the fund helped
When the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund trustees were arrested last week, I didn’t realize it would make such a splash.
After all, I thought, hadn’t it just been a matter of time? The regime had already informed the group was under investigation by the national security police, and Hong Kong has now entered a phase in which just about everyone who can be arrested has been, but now that this whole national security bureaucracy has been created, it has to be put to some use, so new enemies and suspects must continually be created. To me, the 612HRF people, who had thus far been among the few not to have been arrested, were obvious targets.
Not only that, but I thought people had become so accustomed to seeing political suspects dragged off to prison that not much could faze them anymore.
The way the arrests came about was quite striking. It all started when Hui Po-keung was arrested at the airport. A professor for decades, he was reportedly leaving HK to take up a teaching position abroad. I suspect that he was on a national security watch list, and so immigration stopped and arrested him. Once he was arrested, the National Security Department felt compelled to swoop, so as to prevent the others from leaving HK. Essentially, Hui’s attempt to depart triggered the operation. Thus, the arrests of the three others not already in prison the following day. The NSD had backed into the arrests.
Even though one of the most prominent and beloved pro-democracy lawyers in Hong Kong, Margaret Ng, and one of the most prominent and beloved pro-democracy pop singers, Denise Ho were among the trustees arrested (both for their second time — Margaret Ng’s also been convicted and given a suspended sentence for a protest offense), the reason the arrests got widespread international attention was, of course, Cardinal Joseph Zen.
After all, it’s not every day that a 90-year-old Cardinal is arrested. In fact, I can’t think of another such arrest of a Catholic cardinal or bishop anywhere in the world in recent years.
Given that fact, the Vatican’s response was understated, to put it mildly. It initially consisted of a single-sentence statement issued by the press office: “La Santa Sede ha appreso con preoccupazione la notizia dell’arresto del Cardinale Zen e segue con estrema attenzione l’evolversi della situazione”. (In English: “The Holy See has learned with concern the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest and is following the evolution of the situation with extreme attention.”) Later, after Cardinal Zen’s release, the Vatican’s Secretary of State Pandolin said, ““I would like to express my closeness to the cardinal, who was freed and treated well.” He went on to say the arrest shouldn’t be seen as a “disavowal” of the 2018 agreement between the Vatican and the Communist Party on the appointment of bishops.
Cardinal Zen had lobbied hard against that agreement. This is a man who fought for decades for the rights of co-religionists and others in China, who constantly stood up for them and the many persecuted others. He believed he knew something about the nature of the Communist Party that the Vatican either didn’t or was cynically pretending it didn’t. You don’t do deals with a regime like that. Essentially, the agreement was that the Party would recognize the Pope’s authority in church affairs while the Vatican would recognize the bishops appointed by the Party. From the point of view of many Christians and those of other religions such as Tibetan Buddhism in which the Party appointed key figures different from those whom religious authorities preferred or had chosen, the agreement was a catastrophic appeasement of an officially atheist regime which over decades had shown great antagonism toward religion.
Because Cardinal Zen was a voice of these relatively voiceless people, the Vatican had recently avoided him like the plague.
Cardinal Zen had twice travelled to the Vatican in the last five years, once in 2018 to warn it against cutting that deal with the Party, and a second time in 2020, at the age of 88, to ask it to appoint a bishop of Hong Kong who would truly do well by his flock. On neither occasion would the Pope meet him.
I still have the image of my mind of the stooped, white-haired Cardinal dressed in his black clergyman’s outfit and wearing a backpack like a school boy standing in the vast, empty St Peter’s Square facing the Vatican, now an outsider in every sense of the word.
On both matters, the Vatican ignored Cardinal Zen, despite the fact that he was probably the figure most knowledgable about China in the church hierarchy. It did the deal with the CCP and it passed over the candidate who was rumored to be next in line as bishop of Hong Kong, reportedly because he had attended pro-democracy protests.
Meanwhile, the interim bishop, himself a Cardinal whom the Vatican asked step in until it could find an appropriately “apolitical” figure, went on to warn priests to ‘“watch their language” during homilies and to avoid “offensive” and “provocative” political statements.’ And when the regime imposed the national security law in June 2020, the Diocese sent a letter to Catholic in Hong Kong urging them to promote national security education.
And now just when the Vatican thought it had this old man out of the way for good, here he was being an inconvenience again, going and getting himself arrested by the regime. Did the Vatican condemn the arrest? No. Did the Vatican speak up for religious freedom? No. Did the Vatican speak up for basic human rights? No. It said it was saddened but the arrest shouldn’t get in the way of improved relations between the Vatican and the Party.
(By the way, that 2018 Vatican agreement with the Party was for two years, and was extended in 2020 for another two years, which means it’s up for renewal again this year. Maybe people should speak out against it, and against the Vatican’s cynical and secretive dealings with the Party — the agreement’s never been made public, especially after Cardinal Zen’s arrest.)
Cardinal Zen’s arrest didn’t just make waves internationally, with many governments condemning it and US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi publishing a statement in the Washington Post, it had a strong impact on people in Hong Kong.
An older friend of mine, a devout Catholic, said the word among fellow believers was they weren’t sure how much longer they’d be able to practice their religion freely in Hong Kong.
No worries, I said, the regime’s signal is clear: As long as you keep out of politics, it will leave you alone. But if you get involved in politics, sooner or later it will train its sights on you. After all, I reminded her, some of the regime’s own puppets, including the out-going Chief Executive are Catholics. It just depends on what kind of Catholic you are: a Cardinal Zen Catholic or a Carrie Lam Catholic.
My friend converted in her sixties. Most of her life, she was almost entirely apolitical, but events of recent years have turned her sentiments ever more against the regime, not least of all because people in her own family have been persecuted and forced to flee into exile. Like many Hong Kongers who if not persecuted themselves know someone who has been, she’s experienced the repression up close and personal.
I never raise politics with her, but in recent years, she increasingly does herself, as she did in this case. When she first mentioned the arrests, she simply said, “I feel bad,” and when she said, I felt the same pain in my heart that I imagined she was feeling. It’s this deep sorrow at the state of our home under Party oppression that binds Hong Kongers together and helps us persevere. When Cardinal Zen and the others were arrested, it was as if the regime had arrested a piece of us all. Believers and non-believers alike were dismayed at the regime’s treatment of Cardinal Zen. That is because he’s either been out in front leading the way or stood beside us all.
When he was arrested the other day, I thought of when I had last spent any amount of time with him. Of course, I have seen him out and about frequently down through the years, most recently attending the trials of his “brothers and sisters” in the pro-democracy movement, but I had not really been in his presence since 2014.
This is one of those many stories that make up Hong Kong history which has most likely faded from the memories of many, but it’s remained in mine, a special time for me. It was summer. Occupy Central was holding a referendum on universal suffrage. The regime was set to rule on whether or not to allow universal suffrage, which the vast majority of Hong Kongers wanted and as it was legally obliged to do by the Basic Law. The referendum was meant to send a loud and clear signal to the regime of just what Hong Kongers expected it to do and so a large turnout was important.
Cardinal Zen recognized this was a crucial moment. And so, at the ripe old age of 82, he decided he was going to set out on a walking tour of all 18 districts of Hong Kong to get out the word and ask people to go and vote. I followed him on that walk. He covered kilometers day after day. Many times, it was all he could do to put one foot in front of another. In his stooped way, he looked down, holding a walking stick, and sometimes seemed as if he hardly was aware of the world around him, so much effort and concentration did it take to press on. Wherever we went, from street cars and buses and sidewalks and windows, people cheered. It was a marvelous atmosphere, one of those times when the hearts of Hong Kong people revealed themselves.
The most lasting image for me was that at the end of one long day, everyone was congratulating one another and packing up, and I looked around and wondered what had happened to Cardinal Zen. I eventually found him sleeping on the ground in a passageway nearby. He had put his head up against the wall and dozed off. He looked like a little boy having a nap. I kept thinking to myself that I only wished I would have such resilience and fortitude if I ever got to his age. His example showed us what was required of us all, if we ever hoped to change Hong Kong for the better.
Somewhat lost in all of the attention given Cardinal Zen’s arrest was the work of 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, the group he and the others were arrested for being trustees of. 612HRF was the biggest of the funds set up to provide legal, medical and other forms of assistance to protesters in need. It started right after June 12, 2019, when police began to attack and arrest protesters in large numbers, and it was named after that day, which has since come to be widely observed as the anniversary of the protests, a new key date in the Hong Kong freedom calendar.
To rewind: on June 9, 2019, one million people turned out on the streets of Hong Kong in the first mass protest against a bill that would have legalized extradition from Hong Kong to China. Even while the march was still going on, the Hong Kong government put out a statement saying it was full speed ahead with the bill. So on June 12, a crowd of 140,000 mostly young people surrounded the Legislative Council building to prevent any progress on the bill. The police attacked the crowd of overwhelmingly peaceful protesters en masse and made a series of arrests.
The fund was set up afterwards to help those arrested or injured. Just four days later, and a week after a million had marched, on June 16, another protest was called. I got to Causeway Bay, the starting point of the march, early and couldn’t believe how many people were already there. Friends called and said they were having trouble arriving because public transport was so packed with others going there. Could it be possible, I wondered, that even more people will turn out today than last Sunday? The answer was yes. Two million people turned out that day, one of the largest single-day protests in a single location anywhere in the world in modern history.
It was also the first day that 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund was out soliciting donations. Their main booth was set up along the march route, outside the Wan Chai MTR station. The surrounding streets were so crowded, many who wished to give had difficulty getting anywhere near their street station.
Literally millions of dollars were collected on that day alone. Little did anyone know then just what a huge need 612HRF and similar groups would be called on to fill. Over the next two years, more than 10,500 protesters and others would be arrested for their political speech and actions, and nearly 3,000 prosecuted. And over those next two years, the donations continued to pour in. As of the end of May 2021, 612HRF had spent HK$236,383,746 in donations to aid 22,938 protesters.
Then, in August 2021, the fund announced it would stop accepting donations at the end of October. It had been using the bank account of another organization, Alliance for True Democracy, which had itself informed the fund that it would soon be closing. Then on September 6, 2021, the fund announced it would stop accepting donations after ATD said it would stop processing payments. Just a few days before, on September 1, police had served 612HRF with a court order, informing it that it was being investigated for having violated the “national security law.” Finally, on November 18, the fund issued a formal cessation notice. It was a case study in how the regime used a combination of legal tools and the intimidation stemming from the NSL, which hung over everyone like a Damocles sword, to drive out of existence groups that had never been found to have committed a crime of any kind. Over the course of the past year and a half, dozens of civil society organizations have felt compelled to disband under political pressure.
612HRF was the last of its kind to fold. It had been part of a whole infrastructure that had spontaneously emerged to support those in the freedom struggle who found themselves in need. It represented an extraordinary outpouring of solidarity on the part of Hong Kongers. We all knew it could just as easily have been us to get beaten by police or arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned. It was a symbol of the civic outpouring of creativity and spirit that may be hard to imagine for those who have never experienced the deep community and togetherness of a people all fighting for a common cause. Just in the legal sphere, there were the hotlines for arrested protesters run by Civil Human Rights Front, Civil Rights Observer and 612HRF. Before protests, many protesters scribbled those hotlines’ numbers in permanent marker on their forearms “just in case.” There were the many pro-bono lawyers who went to police stations when protesters were arrested, provided legal advice, and represented them in court. There were the many citizens who organized to attend protesters’ trials. Dozens if not hundreds of supporters would attend the trials of well-known cases and figures. The citizens group organized with the objective of ensuring that even the less well-known political defendants would have people in court cheering them on. (This group still exists today, though I hesitate to say so, for who knows how much longer in the current repressive political environment….)
This is the social environment, the political context in which 612HRF arose and operated. Even fairly early on, the regime regarded groups like 612HRF as a threat. In December 2019, members of Spark Alliance, another group that assisted protesters, were arrested for supposed financial irregularities and HK$70 million in donations from ordinary HK people meant to go to protesters in need were frozen by the police. No one was ever prosecuted in relation to the case, though as far as I know, the money is still frozen. In November 2020, radio show host Giggs (Edward Wan Yiu-sing) was arrested, and eventually rearrested in February 2021 and charged with sedition and money-laundering in relation to funds he’d collected to help young HK protesters who’d fled to Hong Kong. Even low-key shoestring operations like Shiu Ka-chun’s Wall-fare, set up to provide very practical assistance to political prisoners, were compelled to close. The message was clear: the regime regarded helping protesters as a crime.
In such an environment, it was no surprise that the 612HRF trustees would eventually be arrested, but nevertheless, it came as a jolt. The five are suspected of “colluding with foreign forces” under the national security law. How exactly they have done that is unclear. The police have not presented any evidence to the public. Perhaps 612HRF accepted some donations from abroad? In this era of repression, that is all it takes.
Interestingly, though, they were released several hours after their arrest. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be brought to court and charged at a later date; indeed, the very point is that that prospect hangs over them indefinitely. The police announced that they are also suspected of having violated the Societies Ordinance and it has presented applications for summons to the court, so it is highly likely they will be prosecuted on related charges. Due to the terms of their bail, their travel documents have been confiscated by the police and they are unable to leave Hong Kong. For so many these days, HK’s become one big open-air prison.
It used to be that when an incident like this occurred, the independent media — Apple Daily, Stand News, Citizen News — would be all over it, reporting from every angle. But those media are now all gone, a thing of the past, and many of their leaders are themselves behind bars. Relatively few reporters were present at the police stations when the four trustees not already in prison were released late in the evening. I only saw a few photos, a few short video clips of the four walking out of the police station.
What wonderful people, I thought. They have done so much for so many. They have “not forgotten the original intention”, as the protest slogan goes (毋忘初心). They are still with us; we are still with them.
My other thought: How far Hong Kong has fallen, and how fast! These days, just when you think the regime can’t go lower, it always finds a way.
But somehow, too, I felt, how pathetic the regime is, to have so lost the hearts and minds of Hong Kong people that the only way it believes it can retain control over Hong Kong is through intimidation, repression, imprisonment, the decimation of civil society, and the indefinite suspension, unreasonable restriction or abolition of basic political and civil rights. What kind of a way is that to govern? How could it ever possibly imagine it could succeed? Of course, that is how the Party has governed for decades in China, so it has reason to believe such methods are tried and true and can be applied equally well in a freer society.
Many noted the fact that the arrests came just days after the appointment of a new puppet to Chief Executive. This one happens to have been a police officer, then the Secretary of Security, and is among those most responsible for the crackdown. It would have been hard to find a more despised, less inspiring figure. It was as if the regime was giving a big middle finger to the whole concept of the will of the people. The appointment was the consecration of Hong Kong as a police state.
And so it is often at these moments of crackdown, when we feel this pain deep in our hearts, and I see Cardinal Zen emerging from the police station and waving to the few reporters there, that I am heartened and think that it is not a sign of our defeat but of the fact that we are winning that the regime is so desperate that it feels it must persecute a 90-year-old man.
After the arrests, my old Catholic friend, perhaps to console herself, took to watching old interviews with Cardinal Zen online. She feels stuck in HK, with so many participants in the freedom struggle — those not already behind bars — having spread out to the four corners of the earth and contributing to an increasingly vibrant diaspora. As she communicated with me on the other side of the world, she reported a memorable moment from one of those interviews. When asked, “Will you leave Hong Kong?” Cardinal Zen responded, “I will never leave Hong Kong, but you should.”