The Catholic Church in China is seeing "its Christian teachings quietly swapped out for communist ones," says international human rights lawyer Nina Shea.
The arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 90-year-old emeritus Bishop of Hong Kong, has put the spotlight on religious persecution by the Beijing regime. Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, talks to Aleteia about restrictions on religious freedom and human rights abuses in China and in Hong Kong. Shea served seven terms as a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and has been a tireless advocate for persecuted religious minorities around the world.
Aleteia: Was the arrest of Cardinal Zen the sign of an intensifying crackdown on religious freedom in Hong Kong? If so, in what ways has Beijing tightened its grip there?
Shea: Cardinal Zen seems to personify the Catholic Church in Hong Kong and the rest of China. He may be the most internationally known civic society figure within China, whose criticisms of Chinese Community Party repression and the Vatican’s agreement with Beijing made headlines around the globe. Silencing the Cardinal ends the single most authoritative voice of dissent against religious oppression within China. His arrest signals the end of Hong Kong’s religious freedom and sends a message to every Christian that no one is exempt from the requirement of absolute conformity with CCP dictates and values.
Christian schools now must enforce a CCP directive to require a mandatory course in all schools and universities on the broad sweeping National Security Law. To be instructed in this law is itself an exercise in intimidation. It informs the student that virtually any infraction, criticism or protest against any government regulation can result in life imprisonment.
Christian leaders have started self-censoring, and they will have to start preaching communist government sayings and pronouncements and show real fervor for the communist party, as demanded by President Xi and the CCP. Already, all prayer services and Masses to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, which occur every June in Hong Kong, have been called off for the first time by Church leaders. So, they have even begun self-censoring their prayers.
Cardinal Zen’s own Hong Kong diocese is too fearful to speak out on his behalf or to take up his defense. Some 60% of Hong Kong’s schools are Christian-run, and these schools could be confiscated or the churches that run them, shut, if any member of their communities protests the CCP. Hong Kong’s mostly pro-Beijing legislators have begun to discuss how best to control the churches, and a proposal is being floated to impose the mainland model of registration, which entails strict surveillance, indoctrination and ensuring conformity with CCP dogma of leadership and the congregation.
Aleteia: What about mainland China? Can you give our readers an overview of the religious persecution that is taking place there today?
Shea: There is no religious freedom in mainland China. All priests, pastors and bishops are required to register with the government in so-called “Patriotic” associations, after which they are constantly watched by the state’s high tech surveillance cameras and spies, and subjected to ministry long indoctrination of atheistic CCP doctrines and values, including its interpretation of Christianity.
Registration also requires pledging to remain independent, that is, independent of foreign powers, such as the pope. For this reason, Cardinal Zen has denounced the pledge as an act of apostasy. Under President Xi Jinping’s “Sinicization” directive, crosses have been taken down from some church exteriors, Jesus’ image as been replaced with Xi’s own portrait in interiors, all young people, under 18 years of age have been banned from churches and Bible studies, and homilies are required to be focused on Xi’s sayings. Church leaders must ensure conformity of their congregations to CCP thought and rules. Essentially they are being asked to preach Chinese communist doctrine.
Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu, whose excommunication Pope Francis lifted as a precondition for the Vatican’s 2018 agreement with Beijing, seems to exemplify China’s new model of a Christian leader. Upon his appointment to head the Mindong diocese, he promptly led 33 diocesan priests to a “formation course” at the Central Institute of Socialism with the CCP’s local United Front, declaring with palpable fervor, “To carry out the sinicization of religion with determination, we will continue to follow a path that conforms to socialist society.”
Those who resist the CCP are sent to “black” (secret) jails where they are subject to brain washing and humiliating “struggle” sessions, much like those in the Mao period. By my count there are about six Catholic bishops, recognized by the Vatican, in black jails or otherwise confined today. They are also punished by multiple detentions. Some have been beaten, tortured or have had been stripped of government services, like running water, electricity and heat. Bibles and Christian literature are tightly restricted and new cyber laws went into effect censoring them online. What was before 2018 a Church that promised to be soon the largest of any country is seeing its future generation barred from any exposure to the faith, and its Christian teachings quietly swapped out for communist ones. The underground is in disarray as its bishops are rounded up and isolated – who will ordain the next generation of underground priests? Forty episcopal seats remain empty. It’s a dire situation.
Aleteia: In 2018 the Vatican made an agreement with China in order to maintain at least a line of communication. What did Rome concede, what did it gain, and what was the result of this deal for Chinese Catholic clergy and faithful?
Shea: In 2018, the Vatican signed an agreement with the CCP government in Beijing to share power over the appointment of Catholic bishops in the mainland, and it was renewed for another two years in October 2020. Since it’s a secret agreement, we don’t know it’s details. Last year, the CCP issued new regulations that describe the process for Catholic bishops that do not mention a papal role in their selection or appointment. This raises the possibility that the pope’s role is limited to approving what Beijing decides. Over nearly four years, there have been only six bishops appointed while dozens of episcopal seats remain empty. The Vatican has conceded that the agreement is not perfect but its Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, seems intent on renewing it again in the fall. He points to the importance of the Vatican’s dialogue with Beijing and recently expressed concern that the Zen prosecution will interfere with that. Meanwhile, the price of maintaining this collaboration with the CCP in the appointment of bishops is Vatican silence about religious and other CCP repression. This explains why, at some moral cost, it refrains from protesting Cardinal Zen’s arrest, the detention of its own bishops, the practice of forced organ harvesting targeting disfavored religions like the Falun Gong, the ongoing genocide against the Uyghur Muslims, or any other CCP policy or practice. Also, even more risky, is that it must refrain from supporting an underground Catholic Church. The Vatican praised the agreement’s achievement of “unifying” the Patriotic and underground bishops. Unification occurred within the CCP-controlled Patriotic Church. Cardinal Zen has warned that this would “kill” the underground, which is how the Church survived Mao’s oppressive Cultural Resolution. Whether the Chinese Catholic Church can survive the Xi period with its faith intact is in question.
Aleteia: You have done extensive research on human rights violations in China, particularly forced abortions and sterilizations of the Uighur Muslims, and organ harvesting of political prisoners. China denies the charges, saying they are political propaganda. Is there a resource for those looking for documented evidence of these crimes?
What is happening to Falun Gong and the Uyghur Muslims is really horrific. I believe both amount to genocide through the use of advanced medical procedures on an industrial scale. In Falun Gong’s case, whose genocide has not been recognized by the US government, for over 20 years, they have been targeted by the CCP for “elimination.” They have likely been the principal involuntary source of organs for China’s booming organ transplant industry, resulting in an estimated tens of thousands of murders a year for much of that time. The Uyghur genocide has been widely recognized, including by the US government, and has occurred through the mass detention of a million people in camps, forced labor, and forced abortions and sterilizations, causing their population to plummet 25% in one recent year. I refer readers to my Hudson Institute web page, where I have several articles, podcasts, and video interviews with experts that are good summaries of these issues. My articles also include links to extensive expert studies. I recommend two scholarly compilations of research: one on CCP genocide by the Uyghur Tribunal and another on forced organ harvesting on prisoners of conscience in China by the China Tribunal. This month, Rep. Chris Smith held an important hearing in Congress’ Tom Lantos Commission on organ harvesting in China, showing that surgeons in China have executed living persons by excising their beating heart for transplant.
Aleteia: Cardinal Zen’s trial is set for May 24. What can we expect, and what can Catholics do to support him and the cause of religious freedom in China and Hong Kong?
Shea: Since the court system is rigged for trying the vague political offenses in the National Security Law, almost certainly Cardinal Zen will be convicted of charges of colluding with foreign powers based on his being a trustee of a legal defense fund for pro-democracy protesters. He could be sentenced to prison for several years or for life, or the sentence could be suspended. This is a political prosecution for CCP aims and the evidence and arguments in his defense won’t be permitted to get in the way.
Catholics should raise awareness about his case within their church circles and families and pray for him and for the Church in China. The Catholic Church observes the feast of Mary Help of Christians on May 24 and Pope Benedict XVI had asked for prayers for China’s Church on that date. Last year a network of lay persons from various countries formed to promote this through local prayer events and Masses and this effort was also taken up by Pope Francis. Cardinal Bo, a Burmese Catholic Bishop who is president of the Federation of Bishops Conferences, reinforced this prayer for China’s Church and, this year, has made a special plea for prayers for Cardinal Zen. A website with information and resources can be accessed at www.GlobalPrayerforChina.org. I urge priests and lay persons to initiate a Mass or or a special prayer service for Cardinal Zen and the entire Church in China at their local parishes on May 24 or any day.