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Why is the bishop of Hong Kong going to Beijing?

BISHOP-STEPHEN-CHOW-AFP-075_yuen-hongkong210518_np9n5.jpg

VERNON YUEN | NurPhoto via AFP

Hong Kong's Bishop Stephen Chow

I.Media - published on 04/17/23

Bishop Stephen Chow of Hong Kong will spend five days in the Diocese of Beijing, China, starting Monday, April 17. This is an unusual official visit that promises to be particularly scrutinized.

Responding to the invitation of Archbishop Joseph Li Shan of Beijing, Bishop Stephen Chow of Hong Kong will visit the diocese of Beijing starting Monday, April 17, for five days. The announcement, which surprised everyone, was made by the Diocese of Hong Kong on March 9, 2023. This official visit, the first since 1985, is to “promote exchanges and interactions between the two sides,” the diocese said. 

Bishop Stephen Chow, a 63-year-old Jesuit appointed two years ago by Pope Francis, will be accompanied by Bishop Joseph Ha, auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong, and Father Peter Chou, his vicar general.

“This visit underlines the mission of the Hong Kong diocese to be a ‘bridge church,'” says the diocese, which reports that the invitation from Beijing dates back to last year and was accepted in “a spirit of brotherhood in the Lord.” 

Pressure on Hong Kong

The official visit comes as Beijing has been pressing in recent years to speed up Hong Kong’s integration into Communist China. The Hong Kong enclave is theoretically governed – since the United Kingdom handed it over to China in 1997 – by the “one country, two systems” model, and is a democratic island attached to the communist country. The fact that freedom of worship is respected in the enclave has long made it one of the privileged gateways to Mainland China for the Catholic Church.

However, this special status seems to be gradually disappearing and Hong Kong society is moving towards a Chinese perspective. In 2020, a law on national security in Hong Kong symbolized Beijing’s new grip on the archipelago and the peninsula. The Hong Kong bishop’s visit to Beijing could be part of a slow process of harmonizing models. 

Complex ecclesial diplomacy

The Archbishop of Beijing, Joseph Li Shan, was elected in August 2022 to head the Communist Party-controlled “Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics,” which does not exist in Hong Kong. Unlike his predecessor in Beijing, his appointment as bishop in 2007 was approved by Rome. 

“What is interesting is that the invitation comes from the Diocese of Beijing and not from the Chinese bishops’ conference,” notes someone very familiar with the Church in China.

The bishops’ conference is affiliated with the Patriotic Association and is not recognized by the Holy See.

“This is an intelligent choice because it doesn’t embarrass Bishop Chow or Rome,” continues the specialist, who believes that during the five days of the visit, the Hong Kong delegation could visit the headquarters of the Bishops’ Conference. 

Historically, this will not be the first such visit to Beijing. In 1985, Bishop John Baptist Wu, then bishop of Hong Kong (which was still a British colony), visited the Chinese capital and Shanghai. The trip was described as a “success,” except that the bishop was prevented from meeting with Bishop Ignazio Gong Pinmei, who had been in prison for 30 years.

Bishop Wu, known for his work in bringing the underground Church (that is the Church in union with Rome) closer to the official Church, was later created a cardinal by John Paul II in 1988, which seems to indicate that his visit was approved by the Holy See.

Bishop Chow, a “good bishop” according to Cardinal Zen

This new visit comes four years after the signing of an agreement between the Holy See and Beijing concerning the appointment of bishops. Often criticized, this pastoral agreement has so far had few results. Only six bishop appointments have come to fruition since 2018. And differences erupted publicly last November, with the Holy See expressing surprise and regret for the first time over the installation of a bishop not recognized by Rome. Then just this month, a bishop was moved to Shanghai, again without Vatican approval.

Cardinal Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, has been among the most vocal critics of Rome’s strategy toward China. In a January 6 meeting with Pope Francis following the funeral of Benedict XVI, Cardinal Zen reportedly did not discuss sensitive issues with the Pontiff but thanked him for the appointment of Bishop Stephen Chow in Hong Kong, whom he called a “good bishop.” 

Religious freedom is our fundamental right. It must be guaranteed.

“I am not afraid to raise sensitive issues, but I believe in the virtue of prudence,” Bishop Chow said after his appointment was announced in May 2021. “Religious freedom is our fundamental right. It must be guaranteed.”

“I believe that God wants us to be united,” the prelate said, noting that “unity is not the same as uniformity.”

“This visit has certainly been validated by the Vatican and is part of this willingness to dialogue displayed in recent years,” says a source who warns that dialogue with China remains “necessarily a dangerous game” that is similar to a game of chess.

“But in any case, to survive, the Church in Hong Kong cannot remain in autarky and must learn to navigate in troubled waters,” the specialist says.

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