Yet, a generation later, Beijing is fighting harder than ever to extinguish that 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 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong. Zen was charged with “colluding with foreign forces,” after serving as a trustee of a now-disbanded relief fund providing criminal defense to those charged in cases involving freedom of speech and expression. Four colleagues — barrister Margaret Ng and singer-activist Denise Ho, scholar Hui Po-keung and former Legislative Council member Cyd Ho — were also rounded up under the same pretext.
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Zen is an outspoken champion of democracy in the Catholic community, advocating for religious liberty in Hong Kong and, in 2016, urging the Vatican to reject an agreement that would give the People’s Republic of China say over the ordination of bishops. But he is not only a leader of Hong Kong’s and other Chinese Catholics. To a broader audience, he is a critical voice of conscience: an embodiment of moral fortitude, who has been a constant presence as Hong Kong has led a decades-long pursuit of the freedoms promised with the handover from British rule.
These arrests are part of a severe crackdown enabled by the 2020 so-called national security law, designed to eliminate all dissent in Hong Kong. Beijing has used this law to crush freedom of the press, assembly and speech, arresting activists including Joshua Wong, Benny Tai, Jimmy Lai, Lee Cheuk Yan, Gwyneth Ho and Carol Ng. Now, empowered by the installation of another staunchly pro-Beijing leader in Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party has trained its sights on Zen and his colleagues.
In the lead-up to the 1997 transfer of sovereignty from the United Kingdom, the Chinese government promised “a high degree of autonomy” for the territory: with an independent executive, legislature and judiciary; freedom of speech, the press, assembly and religion; a path to universal suffrage; and an assurance that China would not interfere in the affairs that Hong Kong administers under the Basic Law. But nearly 25 years later, China’s pledges have been utterly abandoned. Any pretense that Hong Kong’s rights would be respected has been shattered by violence and intimidation.
Zen’s arrest is one of the clearest signs yet of Beijing’s worsening crackdown as Hong Kong fights for its freedoms — and of Beijing’s growing desperation and fear that it is losing this fight. Indeed, this act of persecution is a sign of weakness, not a show of strength.
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As speaker of the House, I have been blessed to witness Cardinal Zen’s courage and commitment up close. When I met with him in Hong Kong in 2015, he warned that “one country, two systems” was in great peril. And when we met most recently — in 2020, in the U.S. Capitol, where I awarded him the Wei Jingsheng Chinese Democracy Champion Prize — he again spoke powerfully about China’s broken promises.
Zen and three of his colleagues have been released on bail, but the charges remain in force, with each facing the prospect of life in prison. We must all condemn their arrests, which are an affront to religious freedom, political freedoms and human rights. As I have said before, if we do not speak out for human rights in China because of commercial interests, we lose all moral authority to speak out on human rights anywhere in the world.
Congress, on a bipartisan, 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, activists on the mainland and many others — and we will continue to do so, until these abuses cease.
For the people of Hong Kong — and for all yearning for freedom around the world — the entire international community has a responsibility to forcefully speak out against these arrests and demand that the CCP end its abuses. The world is watching.