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Hong Kong's freedom fighters pay the price of bravery

Democratic leaders including five Catholics are given prison sentences for their dedication to social justice

Hong Kong's freedom fighters pay the price of bravery

Pro-democracy activist Lee Cheuk-yan arrives at West Kowloon court in Hong Kong on April 16 to receive sentencing after being found guilty of organizing an unauthorised assembly in 2019. (Photo: AFP)

Hong Kong, as we have known it, is no longer. I have been writing this for some time, but April 16 was one of the saddest days, even on a personal emotional level, since freedom died in the former British colony on July 1, 2020.

Nine leaders of the democratic opposition were sentenced after being convicted of illegal assembly. Their sentences varied but some had jail terms suspended, including 82-year-old Martin Lee, perhaps due to his old age. Some dear friends were jailed, including Lee Cheuk-yan, Cyd Ho and Leung Kwok-hung. Catholic media tycoon Jimmy Lai was also imprisoned. Already in prison are the young Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow.

Some may say that the jail sentences, which range from 8-19 months, could have been even more severe. It is true — in these dark times there is no limit to the worst. There is perhaps still some sense of fairness in the Hong Kong judiciary. Yet these sentences were not legitimate in the first place. And while they were not the maximum, they will have an enormous intimidating significance — unimaginable for a city famous for its freedom until 10 months ago.

The activists were not convicted of violent acts. On Aug. 31, 2019, they allegedly organized a march of 1.7 million people, peaceful but unauthorized. At that time there was no national security law. The condemned people actually contained and moderated this major spontaneous demonstration. They did their utmost to maintain calm and order. They are not reckless activists but political leaders and protagonists in public life for decades. The youngest is 64, the oldest 82. They are respected by most of the population.

These condemnations wound the heart of the Church

I would like to underline the ecclesial dimension of this ongoing tragedy. Five of those who have been sentenced are Catholics.

Martin Lee, the father of Hong Kong democracy, is a lawyer and former parliamentarian. He founded the Democratic Party, which has the majority support of the population, and is one of the authors of the Basic Law, the constitutional charter of the city. For Catholics, he is a familiar figure, a believer who every morning attends Mass in the central church of St. Joseph and serves there as a reader.

For decades, he has been one of the diocese's most appreciated advisers, often invited to speak to priests, deacons and laity on important issues of current affairs. I remember him on the front line in the Catholic community’s main events. The last time we spoke was in March 2019 at the farewell reception for Ante Jozic, then the representative of the Holy See in the city, now nuncio to Belarus.

These condemnations wound the heart of the Church. To those who say that Hong Kong Catholics are divided, I reply that they are not when Martin Lee, a much-loved brother, has to suffer for his ideals. For me he is a "good, meek, wise, innocent man, and above all a dear friend" (Pope Paul VI at the funeral of his friend Aldo Moro, killed by Italian Red Brigades). I am relieved that his sentence has been suspended, but I am not less indignant that a meek and valiant man of law and faith is treated like this at the age of 82.

Hong Kong’s Catholic chief executive Carrie Lam had assured citizens that the draconian national security law — enforced by Beijing last July — would only affect troublemaker agitators. How untrue.

Parliamentarian and trade unionist Lee Cheuk-yan, 64, also comes from the Catholic community. He is a very dear friend, associated to the PIME missionaries by family ties. His wife Elizabeth Tang was “adopted” as a little orphan with her two sisters by Father Adelio Lambertoni, a native of Varese in Italy, where the couple go every year to pray at the missionary's tomb. Baptized in the Anglican Church, Lee Cheuk-yan attends the local parish and the PIME house with his Catholic wife and daughter. Elizabeth is a prominent trade unionist known around the world and secretary-general of the International Federation of Domestic Workers.

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The lives of Elizabeth Tang and Lee Cheuk-yan Lee are entirely dedicated to social justice, motivated by the Christian faith. At his trial Lee associated his arrest and condemnation with those of Jesus himself in a truly noble speech, inspired by great civil and religious ideals.

The day after June 4, 1989 (the Tiananmen Square massacre), many mobilized for Lee’s freedom and safe return to Hong Kong. He had gone to Beijing to show the solidarity of a million Hong Kong citizens. I do not think he would ever have contemplated that one day he would be taken into prison in the very same Hong Kong.

On Nov. 29, 2019, Lee spoke at the PIME theater in Milan at the invitation of journal Tempi. On that occasion, I was invited to illustrate the work of PIME missionaries. I can hardly believe that my friend Lee Cheuk-yan, with whom I shared that stage, is now in prison. His sentence is for one year, while he is awaiting the outcome of two other trials.

Also imprisoned are other brothers and sisters who have welcomed Gospel’s message seriously. They believe in freedom, whose author is Jesus himself. They believe in the dignity of free men and women, as we are children of God, created in God’s image, protagonists in building the common good for all of humanity.

Years ago, parliamentarian Cyd Ho, 66, who has been jailed for eight months, told me during a Right of Abode demonstration in Hong Kong’s Chater Garden that a PIME missionary had baptized her when she was a young woman.

Gentle intellectual Margaret Ng, 73, is also a Catholic. On the fateful night of July 1, 1997, when Hong Kong was handed over to China by Britain, she and Martin Lee addressed the people of Hong Kong from the parliament’s balcony. They asked for freedom and democracy as promised by the city's constitution.

On April 16, 2021, before hearing the sentence that condemned her to 12 suspended months, she read a noble statement which ended with an invocation to St. Thomas More: "I have grown old in the service of the rule of law. I know Sir Thomas More is the patron saint of the legal profession. He was tried for treason because he would not bend the law to the king’s will. His famous last words are well known. I beg to slightly adapt and adopt them: ‘I stand the law’s good servant but the people’s first. For the law must serve the people, not the people the law’.”

They are witnesses and prophets for our days and they deserve more recognition

Jimmy Lai, 72, in prison for some time, received another 14 months. Founder of Apple Daily, the most popular newspaper in Hong Kong, he received baptism as an adult thanks to Cardinal Joseph Zen.

Other leaders with whom we have shared moments of common commitment have been condemned. The brave politician Albert Ho, 69, received a suspended 12-month sentence. In November 2019, he was beaten on the eve of a trip to speak in Milan.

Leung Kwok-hung, or Long Hair as he is known, received a heavy sentence of 18 months in prison. A charismatic and determined leader, he is also a familiar figure, appreciated by many for his courage and coherence. Protagonist of a thousand non-violent battles on the streets of Hong Kong, he is a kind of romantic revolutionary, always wearing a T-shirt with the image of Che Guevara.

These are men and women punished for their civic commitment and, for some, for practicing their faith in professional and political life. They are witnesses and prophets for our days and they deserve more recognition. But our time and world do not love freedom, nor those who fight for it while paying a very dear price.

Father Gianni Criveller of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions is dean of studies and a teacher at PIME International Missionary School of Theology in Milan, Italy. He taught in Greater China for 27 years and is a lecturer in mission theology and the history of Christianity in China at the Holy Spirit Seminary College of Philosophy and Theology in Hong Kong. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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