Scheduled for September 19, 2022, the start of the trial of Cardinal Joseph Zen finally began on September 26. Cardinal Zen and five others are on trial in Hong Kong for failing to properly register the 612 Humanitarian Fund intended to provide legal aid to pro-democracy protesters.
According to the site The Pillar, the trial was postponed after the magistrate in charge of the case, Ada Yim, tested positive for Covid-19.
The 90-year-old retired cardinal and bishop of Hong Kong appeared in court in West Kowloon on September 26. He was arrested in May along with others under Hong Kong's national security law, for “collusion with foreign agents,” before being released on bail.
The other defendants are barrister Margaret Ng, singer Denise Ho, cultural studies scholar Hui Po-keung, activist Sze Ching-wee, and former lawmaker Cyd Ho. They are facing charges of allegedly failing to register the humanitarian aid fund through proper channels, between 2019 and 2021. If this administrative irregularity alone were recognized, Cardinal Zen would only risk a fine of around 1,300 euros.
But other charges could be presented by the court: the prosecution said the 612 Humanitarian Fund raised a total of $34.4 million and used part of the fund for “political activities and non-charitable events,” such as donations to protest groups, AFP reports.
The defense argued that this had nothing to do with the charge to determine whether the humanitarian fund had been registered correctly. Lawyers for the defendants have previously said they have the right to associate under Hong Kong's Basic Law - the legal framework created when Britain ceded Hong Kong to China in 1997.
That's not what Tony Kwok, a pro-Beijing academic specializing in the fight against corruption, thinks. In an article published in the Hong Kong press shortly after Cardinal Zen's arrest, he said he was convinced of the high prelate's guilt.
The jurist says the cardinal is currently under investigation for receiving around 3.3 million euros from Jimmy Lai, the Catholic entrepreneur who was convicted in 2021 of organizing illegal protests against Beijing.
According to him, the police would seek to know if this money was “used for subversive purposes” or to corrupt the cardinal, and would not have filed the complaint yet because it would have been rushed by the attempted escape of one of the suspects.
In the same article, the Hong Kong scholar suspects Cardinal Zen of working for the services of the United States – and therefore against China. He points to the fact that the Cardinal has met President George W. Bush in person twice, “against the advice of the Vatican,” according to him, and that he has traveled across the Pacific five times.
If such accusations were to be taken into consideration by the Hong Kong justice system, the prison sentences incurred by the cardinal would put him at risk of a long incarceration.
The Vatican's Response
The Vatican has been virtually silent on Zen's trial, apart from a statement after the cardinal's arrest in May, expressing “concern” and saying it is “following the situation very closely.”
On the plane bringing him back from Kazakhstan, Pope Francis preferred not to answer a question from the press directly about the situation of the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong. He simply claimed that Cardinal Zen was “an old person, who says what he feels.”
He urged not to judge China, pleading for patient dialogue. The Pope also renewed his support for Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, who has full responsibility for diplomacy with Beijing, and whom Cardinal Zen had widely criticized in the past.
A well-placed source within Vatican diplomacy told La Croix that Cardinal Zen had asked the pope in person not to intervene. Since his arrest, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong has been laying low and no longer publicly criticizing Beijing.
The Sino-Vatican Agreement in the Crosshairs
The cardinal's trial comes as the Holy See and Beijing determine the terms of a renewed agreement on the appointment of bishops in China. Cardinal Pietro Parolin said in an Italian television interview on September 2 that a delegation of Vatican diplomats had returned from China and that he believed the agreement would be renewed this fall.
Cardinal Zen has been one of the most vocal critics of the Vatican's deal with China since it was first signed in 2018, calling it an “incredible betrayal.”
Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller said he was disappointed that the College of Cardinals did not express its “full solidarity with Zen” during the meeting of nearly 200 cardinals at the Vatican last month. The prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith told Il Messaggero on September 1: “The silence of this consistory on the case of Cardinal Zen inspires fear in me.”
“Perhaps the Church should be freer and less bound to the worldly logic of power, therefore freer to intervene and, if necessary, to criticize those politicians who end up suppressing human rights. In this case, I wonder why not criticize Beijing,” Cardinal Müller said.
“Zen is a symbol and he was arrested on a pretext, he did nothing. He is authoritative, courageous, and very feared by the government,” he added. “He is 90 years old, and we left him alone.”
It seems hard not to think that the courageous Chinese cardinal was sacrificed on the altar of Vatican diplomacy, and that Rome is keeping silent in order to be able to renew the Sino-Vatican agreement, about which, moreover, the former bishop of Hong Kong is not the only one to criticize and whose fruits remain yet to be seen.