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Benedict Rogers

Vatican should appoint Joseph Ha as Hong Kong's new bishop

The choice may upset Beijing but the city needs someone who holds firm to values of democracy and human dignity
Published: April 19, 2021 04:07 AM GMT

Updated: April 19, 2021 04:40 AM GMT

Vatican should appoint Joseph Ha as Hong Kong's new bishop

Hong Kong’s Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung died on Jan. 3, 2019, and for over two years the city has been without a bishop. Cardinal John Tong Hon, aged nearly 82, has served as apostolic administrator for the past two years despite having retired as bishop in favor of Michael Yeung in 2017. Why is it taking so long to appoint a new bishop?

The short answer: politics. The slightly longer answer: the Vatican’s search for a candidate who will please Beijing without infuriating the faithful in Hong Kong.

The obvious choice would be current Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing. Bishop Ha, a Franciscan, is widely loved and respected in Hong Kong as a pastoral leader who cares for his flock, and a shepherd who combines wisdom and courage, to stand true to his values as a religious leader without being a firebrand. But for the regime in Beijing and its puppets in Hong Kong, this is not good enough. They demand nothing less than absolute, total, unquestioning loyalty, and any hint of dissent is by itself an immediate disqualification.

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Bishop Ha has wisely kept his head down recently, but in 2019 he appeared often at prayer vigils during the protest movement, saying that “no matter how long” the protesters stayed, he would stay with them.

“The shepherd should not just be with the sheep but also guide them,” he added. And he spoke out against police brutality, saying: “They just want to voice their demands. Why do they deserve that [violence]? I can’t understand why Hong Kong has become like this today. We just want to live freely. We don’t deserve it.”

Such statements earned Bishop Ha an immediate black mark in Beijing.

Where China is concerned, the Vatican prefers to play politics and diplomacy rather than exercise its moral leadership

But Hong Kong is not — at least not yet — part of the Vatican’s agreement with Beijing over the appointment of bishops. On paper, Hong Kong maintains its autonomy, at least over ecclesiastical affairs. So again, why is Rome delaying?

Again, the sad answer is that where China is concerned, the Vatican prefers to play politics and diplomacy rather than exercise its moral leadership. In the big scheme of things, the appointment of a bishop of Hong Kong is a small matter by comparison with its continued silence over the genocide of the Uyghurs, the intensifying persecution of Christians in China or the destruction of Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy in total breach of an international treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration. But it is illustrative.

On April 16, nine of Hong Kong’s most prominent, internationally respected, moderate, mainstream, peaceful and senior pro-democracy campaigners were sentenced, having been convicted the day before Good Friday of unauthorized assembly for taking part in protests in 2019.

Six of them — Martin Lee, the father of the democracy movement and one of the city’s most respected barristers, media tycoon Jimmy Lai, solicitor Albert Ho, parliamentarian and trade unionist Lee Cheuk-yan, parliamentarian Cyd Ho and intellectual Margaret Ng — are Catholics. While the Catholic media worldwide has recognized this in its coverage, Rome has stayed silent.

The prosecution, conviction and sentencing of Hong Kong’s most moderate and senior democrats creates yet another chill factor in a city whose freedoms are rapidly being placed in the deep freeze.

If I were in the Vatican, this would be precisely the moment to promote Bishop Ha. To appoint as bishop of Hong Kong someone who is courageous but not reckless, who has the trust of his flock but has proven in the past two years his ability to lie low if required, would be exactly the right exertion of ecclesial and papal authority required. Whether the Vatican will have that courage remains to be seen.

Rome has shown some wisdom in appearing to back down from appointing one rumored candidate, vicar general Peter Choy Wai-man, because it was known that he was regarded as too sympathetic to the Chinese Communist Party regime. Appointing Beijing’s preferred choice would be a stab at the heart of the faithful in Hong Kong, and perhaps the Vatican knows that.

But the decision cannot be delayed indefinitely. Cardinal Tong cannot continue as apostolic administrator aged 82 in perpetuity. A decision must be made soon, and unless another candidate can be found who would inspire the trust of the faithful without infuriating Beijing, it should be Bishop Ha.

If we allow Beijing to get away with trampling all over its promises to Hong Kong with impunity, we can be assured it won’t stop there

In 2022, the Vatican’s agreement with Beijing is up for further renewal. It was extended last year with no apparent scrutiny, transparency or accountability, and without seeming to take into account the fact that in the previous two years since the deal was made the situation for Christians has deteriorated even further. This cannot be repeated. The deal clearly delivers nothing of the presumably expected improvements in religious freedom for the Church, and indeed arguably has made life worse for the faithful in China. Rome needs to rethink urgently.

Hong Kong is a test case for the Church, as it is for the free world. It is the canary in the coalmine. If we allow Beijing to get away with trampling all over its promises to Hong Kong with impunity, we can be assured it won’t stop there.

Taiwan is already its next target, and that ought to concern the Vatican, one of the few remaining states to retain official diplomatic relations with the de facto state.

And our own freedoms will be next. Despite all the Vatican's capitulations and kowtowing of recent years, this is carpe diem time: Rome should appoint a new bishop of Hong Kong, someone who isn’t seen as Beijing’s man, someone trusted by the faithful, someone who holds firm to values of democracy and human dignity and freedom of conscience, justice and peace — and that means Bishop Ha or someone like him.

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 and a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC). He is the author of three major books on Myanmar, including “Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads”. 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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