The Vatican Stays Away from the Hong Kong Crisis Due to Fears of Beijing’s Retaliation

Publication: China Brief Volume: 20 Issue: 2

Image: Pope Francis (left) is greeted by Cardinal Charles Maung Bo (right), the Archbishop of Yangon, as the Pope arrived for a visit to Myanmar on November 27, 2017 (Source: Vatican News). Cardinal Maung Bo, who is also head of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, is one of a number of Roman Catholic leaders in Asia who have been more outspoken than the Vatican in expressing concerns over police brutality and other matters surrounding the crisis in Hong Kong.


On January 9, in his annual message to diplomatic envoys accredited to the Holy See, Pope Francis voiced concern for the conflicts ravaging parts of the Middle East, Africa, the Caucasus, and Ukraine, as well as for the increasing number of political crises gripping Latin America. However, not a single word was offered about the situation in Hong Kong (Vatican News, Vatican State Website, January 9). Serious socio-political unrest began in Hong Kong last June over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that, according to protesters, would allow the extradition of political dissidents to mainland China (China Brief, June 26, 2019). The pontiff has so far said nothing about the crisis in the city, much to the chagrin of many local Catholics. It seems that the Vatican has no intention of supporting the anti-government movement in Hong Kong, as such a move would hinder its attempts to improve relations with the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing.

Dissident Voices in the Church Hierarchy

However, things are more complex than they may appear at first glance. Quite in contrast to Pope Francis’ calculated silences, the Christmas message delivered on December 20 by Cardinal John Tong Hon, the apostolic administrator (or acting bishop) of Hong Kong, suggested that the heart of the local diocese is actually beating for the democratic camp (Sunday Examiner, December 20, 2019). Although Tong urged all conflicting sides to stop violence, he was categorical in demanding that the Hong Kong government had to conduct an independent inquiry into violent confrontations between the demonstrators and the police. He also expressed his hope that the city “will always uphold the core values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law.” Tong, who replaced Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung after his death in January last year, made an invitation last November to all parties “in conflict” to solve the situation through dialogue (Vatican News, November 25, 2019). Tong is viewed as a moderate voice, and reportedly has the ear of Hong Kong’s embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, a devout Catholic (Bitter Winter, September 8, 2019).

Tong’s Christmas pastoral letter came after Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the 88 year-old bishop emeritus of the city—and an outspoken critic of the treatment of Catholics on the mainland—lambasted the Holy See for its silence over the city’s turmoil. [1] Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, Archbishop of Yangon (Myanmar) and head of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, has also weighed into the debate. He is one of the 44 signatories, including parliamentarians and dignitaries from 18 countries, of an open letter to Lam expressing “grave concerns at the recent escalation of police brutality over the Christmas period,” urging the chief executive to direct the city’s security forces to “exercise restraint, respect the right to peaceful protest and use only proportionate measures when dealing with any violent conduct” (Hong Kong Watch, December 31, 2019).

The Hong Kong administration immediately rejected the appeal. A spokesperson for Lam said it was based on wrong facts and assumptions, and that foreign actors should not meddle in the city’s internal affairs—which is the standard response of local authorities and the PRC government to those who question their handling of the protests (AsiaNews, January 2).

Image left: Cardinal John Tong, the Apostolic Administrator (acting bishop) of Hong Kong, has called for dialogue between protestors and the city administration, and called for an inquiry into the use of force by police. He has further expressed hope that the city “will always uphold the core values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law.” (Image source: SCMP) Image right: Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kuin, retired bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, has emerged as a harsh critic of the Vatican’s silence on both the Hong Kong crisis and the treatment of Catholics in mainland China. Cardinal Zen has asserted that Pope Francis “does not understand the Chinese Communist Party at all.” (Source: Hong Kong Free Press)

The Importance of the Catholic Community in Hong Kong 

Roman Catholics in Hong Kong number about 400,000 residents (roughly 6 percent of the population), plus an additional 212,000 non-residents (Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, August 31, 2018). Some 4,000 adult Hongkongers are baptized each year, according to missionary sources (Mondo e Missione, December 16, 2019). Despite their relatively small numbers, Catholics are particularly active in the political arena of Hong Kong: some protest leaders are Catholic, and the Hong Kong Federation of Catholic Students is at the forefront of the democratic movement (Angelus News, November 11, 2019).

Hong Kong, a British colony until its retrocession to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997, is a “special administrative region” (特别行政区, tebie xingzheng qu) nominally ruled under the “One Country, Two Systems” (一国两制, Yi Guo Liang Zhi) framework. According to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong will retain a high level of autonomy—including its rule of law, fundamental political rights, and press freedoms—until 2047. The city’s liberal background ensures a relatively high level of religious freedom, which many Catholic Hongkongers fear could be threatened in the future by Beijing’s direct rule.

The Catholic community is divided—with some openly backing pro-democracy demonstrations, while others maintain that the Roman Church should refrain from taking sides. Pope Francis evidently stands with those recommending moderation (or perhaps, silent neutrality). What is striking, however, is that while the pontiff is reticent to speak out publicly over the drama in Hong Kong, he has made his voice heard on recent anti-government protests in Chile and the Middle East (Catholic News Agency, October 27, 2019; Vatican News, October 23, 2019).

Preserving the Sino-Vatican Agreement on Bishops

It is possible that the Holy See believes that any statement would be useless or could even make things worse, given that the leadership in Beijing would view any Vatican commentary as unacceptable interference in its domestic issues. But it is also credible to suppose that the Pope is appeasing the CCP—and a firm condemnation of violence against protesters would indeed put at risk a controversial recent PRC-Vatican deal on the selection of bishops in China.

The Holy See has had no formal diplomatic ties with China since 1951, and has clashed for years with the Communist leadership regarding episcopal appointments. Supporters of the Pope’s opening up to Beijing are persuaded that the interim agreement, signed in September 2018, can improve the condition of the “unofficial” Catholic church on the mainland (China Brief, October 10, 2018). However, there are indications that the Chinese government is actually continuing to crack down on underground Catholic communities (AsiaNews, December 20; AsiaNews September 12, 2019).

The unofficial Roman Catholic Church in China is loyal to the Pope, and does not recognize the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) and the Chinese Catholic Bishops Conference— both of which are independent of the Pope and operate under the supervision of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central United Front Work Department (UFWD). Furthermore, new administrative measures for religious groups will enter into force in China on February 1 (Xinhua, December 30, 2019). These measures mandate that any activity by a religious community must be approved by the government’s State Administration for Religious Affairs—which was itself made directly subordinate to the UFWD in 2018 (China Brief, April 24, 2018).These measures also require religious leaders and personnel to support and promote the policies and principles of the CCP—part of an increasing drive for the “Sinicization” of religion under state control (China Brief, April 9, 2019).

In a recent letter to his fellow cardinals, Cardinal Zen lamented that the Holy See was encouraging the clergy to join the CPCA, which he characterized as a schismatic church. Cardinal Zen insisted that the college of cardinals should not passively witness the “murder” of the Roman Church in China (Life Site, January 8). Evidence is mounting that Zen’s concerns are not misguided: Chinese police reportedly drove a former ordinary bishop and some priests from their parishes this month, after they refused to register with the state-led religious authorities (AsiaNews, January 16).


As far as its Asia policy is concerned, the restoration of diplomatic relations with the PRC appears to be the real priority for the Holy See. This is obviously being followed with bated breath by Catholics on the mainland and in Hong Kong—but also by the government of Taiwan, which sees in the Vatican its most precious remaining diplomatic partner. Pope Francis undoubtedly finds himself walking a fine line between rapprochement with China, and moral support for democracy in the former British territory.

The Holy See appears to be in no rush to appoint the new bishop of Hong Kong; it is taking its time, likely concerned that the decision might be exploited for political purposes amid the city’s ongoing chaos. The choice of Cardinal Tong’s successor will likely reveal more about the Vatican’s future approach to Hong Kong. One of the potential candidates to take over leadership of the diocese is Joseph Ha Chi-shing, the auxiliary bishop of the city—and an icon of the democratic movement. One recent report, however, indicates that the true frontrunner is Reverend Peter Choy Wai-man, who is considered close to the Lam administration and the Chinese government. (For his part, the bishop of Macau, Lee Bun-sang, is aligned with the pro-Beijing establishment in that city.) (South China Morning Post, January 8, 2019; Catholic News Agency, January 17).

The pope has just played a trump card by nominating Luis Antonio Tagle, the archbishop of Manila, to act as the new head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (formerly known as Propaganda Fide), which is responsible for missionary activities—and therefore, for evangelization in China. The Philippine cardinal is a new variable in the China-Vatican equation. Some believe that both his personal qualities and Chinese roots make him an ideal bridge between the Roman Church and Beijing, as well as a credible candidate to succeed Pope Francis. That said, it is also true that his country’s complicated relationship with China—Manila opposes Beijing’s claims to a vast section of the South China Sea—may be a liability when he will have to deal with CCP leaders.

Tagle is expected to maintain a cautious stance on Hong Kong in his new position. Voices critical of the PRC regime have largely been removed from the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples during Pope Francis’s tenure, but backdoor channels can be used to nudge Lam to listen to protesters, which is one of the requests in Tong’s Christmas message. This could help the dialogue in the city between the opposing factions—and at the same time, shield the Holy See from possible retaliation by PRC leaders.

Emanuele Scimia is an independent journalist and geopolitical analyst. He is a contributor to Eurasia Daily Monitor and a guest columnist with the South China Morning Post. His articles have also appeared in The Washington Times, Asia Times, The National Interest and Deutsche Welle, among others.


[1] Cardinal Zen has long been an outspoken critic of Vatican compromises with the Chinese central government. For one example, see: “Pope Francis Does Not Understand the Chinese Communist Party, Says Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen,” Hong Kong Free Press (Oct. 6, 2017), Cardinal Zen’s December 2019 comments were published in the United States in: Joseph Zen, “What’s Behind the Vatican’s Silence on Hong Kong?” Washington Post (Dec. 6, 2019).