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After another week of threats, freezes and Orwellianization, the appointment of a new Bishop of Hong Kong may offer a little light|Benedict Rogers

In 1946, German pastor Martin Niemoller published what became very famous and oft-quoted reflections. After recent months, it is becoming increasingly apparent that we may begin to adapt Niemoller’s words to Hong Kong’s context, in the following way:

“First they came for the protesters — and I did not speak out, because I was not a protester;

Then they came for the legislators — and I did not speak out, because I was not a legislator;

Then they came for the teachers — and I did not speak out, because I was not a teacher;

Then they came for the media — and I did not speak out, because I was not in the media;

Then they came for the trade unionists — and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist;

Then they came for the judiciary — and I did not speak out, because I was not a judge or a lawyer;

Then they came for the religious — and I did not speak out, because I am not religious;

Then they came for your assets — and I did not speak out, because I am not a millionaire;

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

A week ago, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security, John Lee, abruptly and without any due process at all announced the freezing of Jimmy Lai’s assets. Mr Lai, the proprietor of this great publication, sits in jail charged — but not yet convicted — of violations of the draconian National Security Law imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime in Beijing just under a year ago.

For the government, at the stroke of a pen, without a court order, to freeze the assets of anyone before they have been tried and convicted of a crime is a direct assault on two principles on which Hong Kong’s success as an international financial center has been based: property rights and the rule of law. Property rights are now up for grabs — from now on no one can regard their assets in Hong Kong as secure. And whatever remained of the rule of law is now hanging by a very thin thread.

Weirdly, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam — an ever-zealous proponent of the increasing Orwellianism in the city — turned truth and logic on its head and declared that the freezing of Mr Lai’s assets “will not undermine Hong Kong’s status … but protect our position.” From now on, she added, “no one will be able to make use of our financial systems to threaten national security”. Given how broad, wide and vague the regime’s definitions of national security are, it potentially means no one except the CCP and those who kowtow to it will be able to use Hong Kong’s financial systems full stop.

These outbursts of absurd bad news are now a daily occurrence in Hong Kong. This week began with the Labour Secretary, Dr Law Chi-kwong, warning trade unions that their registration could be cancelled. Under the National Security Law, the government is required to strengthen education, supervision and regulation of social organizations. According to a Labour Department blog post, trade unions will now receive guidance on how to “promote their knowledge of national security”. Watch what happens the next time workers vote to strike for better pay or conditions.

Then came the news that the Hong Kong government is closing its Economic, Trade and Cultural Office in Taiwan, as diplomatic tensions escalated. So in what used to be known as “Asia’s World City”, your assets can be frozen by a government official without any accountability, trade unions can be banned and a trade office with Hong Kong’s second largest trading partner can be suddenly shut. Taiwan is Hong Kong’s third largest market for domestic exports and second largest source of imports. Does Hong Kong want to do business with anyone, besides the corrupt, mendacious CCP regime, anymore?

As if to bring this week’s dose of horrors to a crescendo, freezer man John Lee issued a chilling warning that his regime will pursue Hong Kong democracy campaigners in exile “for the rest of your life”. Elected legislators and courageous activists like my friends Nathan Law and Ted Hui, among others, are now on a lifetime hit list. Mr Lee — like Ms Lam — has learned his CCP script well, and is performing his part as Beijing stooge with remarkable authenticity. His puppet masters must be impressed.

If there is just a little light in yet another otherwise dark week for Hong Kong, it may be in the appointment of Hong Kong’s new Catholic Bishop. For almost two-and-a-half years Hong Kong has been without a bishop following the death of Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung in January 2019. Concern had grown that the Vatican might appoint someone who was pro-CCP, in order to ingratiate itself with Beijing. The wonderful Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, whom many felt was the obvious candidate, was ruled out because of his sympathies with the pro-democracy movement. The challenge of identifying a contender who would have the trust of Catholics who believe in democracy, human rights, human dignity, religious freedom and Catholic Social Teaching, yet not offend Beijing and its proxies in Hong Kong, seemed an arduous one.

It is early days yet, but based on his media performance, background and comments from people who know him, it seems that Rome may have found just the right man in Bishop-elect Stephen Chow Sau-yan. Well-regarded for his pastoral skills, Hong Kong’s new Bishop is not known either as being pro-Beijing nor as being at the forefront of the democracy movement. And that may be a good thing.

His comments this week in defence of religious freedom and plurality, and his prayers for the victims of the Tiananmen massacre, are reassuring enough for democrats without being overly-provocative to Beijing. His background in education may equip him to speak out for academic freedom and his position as a Jesuit may give him closer access to the Pope, which would be very welcome. His emphasis on healing, listening and empathy, seeking unity not uniformity — “unity in plurality” as he put it — bodes well. As a shepherd, his task is to protect his sheep without unnecessarily provoking the wolves, and his early remarks this week suggest he may have the ability to get the balance right. Time will tell, but I congratulate him, wish him well and assure him of my prayers.

The announcement of the new bishop’s appointment is timely, coming as it does just days before the start of the Global Week of Prayer for China, initiated by Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Bo, President of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences. Beginning this Sunday, the Feast of Pentecost, this initiative expands the annual Day of Prayer for China established in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI on May 24 into an octave of prayer for Christians, Uyghurs, Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners, Chinese civil society and Hong Kongers.

Among the supporters of the Global Week of Prayer for China, besides the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales and bishops and clergy around the world, is the last Governor of Hong Kong Lord Patten, who said last week: “I support very strongly Cardinal Bo’s call for special prayer for China and of course for Hong Kong. The Chinese Communist Party has always been and remains an enemy of religious belief. Whether one is talking about Muslims, Buddhists or Christians we should remember in our prayers all those who practice their faith despite tyranny and repression. We should also pray for the day when the clouds part and there is again a Chinese regime in power which recognizes the spiritual dimension of life”.

It begins a week after the Pope celebrated a special Mass for Myanmar in St Peter’s in Rome. Let’s hope Bishop-elect Chow will encourage the faithful in Hong Kong to join in, and request his fellow Jesuit, Pope Francis, to pray for China too. God knows, it needs it.

(Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, Senior Analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), a member of the advisory group of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign, an advisor to the Global Week of Prayer for China and a founding trustee of Hong Kong ARC.)

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