A 90-year-old former bishop and outspoken critic of China’s ruling Communist Party was convicted Friday of charges related to his role in a relief fund for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019.
Cardinal Joseph Zinn and five others, including Cantopop singer Denise Ho, disobeyed the associations’ ordinance by failing to register the “Humanitarian Relief Fund 612” that had expired in part to pay legal and medical fees for protesters, West Kowloon Magistrates. Courts ruled.
The silver-haired cardinal, who appeared before the court with a cane, and the co-accused all denied the charge.
The case is seen as a sign of political freedom in Hong Kong during the ongoing crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, and comes at a sensitive time for the Vatican, which is preparing to renew a controversial deal with Beijing over the appointment of bishops in China. .
Outside the court, Zain told reporters he hoped people would not associate his conviction with religious freedom.
I saw a lot of people out there worried about Cardinal being arrested. It has nothing to do with religious freedom. I am part of the fund. Zen said that (Hong Kong) had not seen any harm (to its religious freedom).
Zen and four other trustees of the trust — singer Ho, lawyer Margaret Ng, researcher Hwi Bo-keung and politician Sid Ho — were each fined HK$4,000 ($510).
The sixth defendant, Sze Cheng Wei, who was the secretary of the trust, was fined HK$2,500 (US$320).
They were all initially charged under the controversial Beijing-backed collusion with foreign forces national security law, which carries a life sentence. These charges were dropped and instead faced a lesser charge under the Associations Act, a century-old colonial-era law that carries fines of up to HK$10,000 (US$1,274) but not jail time for first-time offenders.
The court heard in September that the statutory fund raised the equivalent of $34.4 million through 100,000 deposits.
In addition to providing financial assistance to protesters, the fund has also been used to sponsor pro-democracy rallies, such as paying for used audio equipment. In 2019 during street protests to resist Beijing’s tightening grip.
Although Zen and the five other defendants were acquitted of charges under the national security law, the legislation that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020 in an effort to quell protests has been used repeatedly to stifle dissent.
Since the law was introduced, most of the city’s leading pro-democracy figures have been arrested or exiled, while many independent media outlets and NGOs have been shut down.
Hong Kong’s government has repeatedly denied criticism that the law – which criminalizes acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces – has stifled freedoms, claiming instead that it has restored order in the city after the 2019 protest movement.
The Hong Kong trial of a senior Asian cleric has shed light on the relationship between Beijing and the Holy See.
Zen strongly opposed a controversial 2018 agreement between the Vatican and China regarding the appointment of bishops. Previously, both sides claimed the final say in the appointments of bishops in mainland China, where religious activities are closely monitored and sometimes banned.
Born to Catholic parents in Shanghai in 1932, Zhen fled with his family to Hong Kong to escape looming communist rule when he was a teenager. He was ordained a priest in 1961 and ordained Bishop of Hong Kong in 2002, before retiring in 2009.
Known as the “Conscience of Hong Kong” among his supporters, Zen has long been a prominent advocate for democracy, human rights and religious freedom. He’s been on the front lines of some of the city’s most significant protests, from the mass march against national security legislation in 2003 to the “umbrella movement” to demand universal suffrage in 2014.