Pressure on Hong Kong’s Pro-Democrats Ramps Up. The Pope Backs Down.

A senior official warned that a pro-dem primary this weekend could somehow violate the city's controversial national security law. Meanwhile, Pope Francis appears to have thought better of raising concerns over the situation in the city.
July 9, 2020, 2:54pm
legco flickr
Hong Kong's Central Government Complex, where the city's Legislative Council is located. Photo: Flickr/Bernard Spragg

A high-ranking Hong Kong official on Thursday warned pro-democracy politicians that a primary planned for this weekend could potentially constitute “secession” and “subversion” in the latest example of the staggering breadth of authorities’ interpretation of the city’s widely criticized national security law.

Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Secretary Erick Tsang Kwok-wai made the comments in an interview published in pro-Beijing outlets, musing aloud that the pro-dem primary ahead of this September’s Legislative Council (LegCo) elections could violate elements of the mainland-drafted security law, Hong Kong Free Press reports.

“Those who have organized, planned, or participated in the primary election should be wary and avoid carelessly violating the law,” Tsang was quoted as saying.

Tsang alluded to pro-dems’ purported plans to vote against the city’s budget in the LegCo should they win, suggesting that the very act of vetoing the budget could violate Article 22 of the law, which forbids “seriously interfering in, disrupting, or undermining the performance of [government] duties and functions.”

“Of course, many factors determine whether an incident constitutes a crime, including evidence and the facts of the case,” Tsang conceded.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp has been eagerly anticipating gains in this year’s LegCo poll after delivering an unprecedented crushing defeat to the pro-Beijing crowd in last year’s local district elections.

Pro-democracy figure Benny Tai called Tsang’s assertions “absurd conclusions, that an election organized by members of the public could be seen as violating the national security law.”

Sophie Richardson, of Human Rights Watch, pointed out that Tsang had effectively “declare[d] democracy a threat to national security.”

Despite assurances from Beijing and Hong Kong officials that the national security law would only target a small number of individuals, in the nine days since it passed, many of its critics' worst fears about the law have already come to pass. Pro-democracy groups have disbanded, activists have fled the city, police have been granted broad new powers to conduct surveillance, and people have been arrested for alleged offenses including being in possession of flags bearing pro-independence messages.

Meanwhile, on the same day that Tsang’s controversial comments began making the rounds, the South China Morning Post revealed that Pope Francis had left out a section of his Sunday address expressing “concerns” about the state of affairs in Hong Kong.

An embargoed version of the speech reviewed by the SCMP reportedly contained a paragraph of comments about Hong Kong’s religious freedoms after the controversial national security law was passed last week.

His address, which often features brief remarks on international events, came as the Vatican works to renew a provisional agreement with China on the ordaining of Chinese bishops that is set to expire in September.

In the original embargoed copy of the speech, the Pope was expected to say of Hong Kong: “I would like to express my heartfelt concerns to the people who live there. In this current situation, the issues on hand are undoubtedly very delicate and have been affecting everyone’s life there.”

The omitted paragraph also stated Francis’ hopes that “social life, especially religious life, can be expressed in complete and genuine freedom as prescribed in international laws and regulations.”

According to Italian journalist Marco Tosatti, who posted the missing paragraph on his website, journalists were notified that part of the speech about Hong Kong would not be included in the actual address.

Any content omitted by the pope during the address is “regarded as having never existed,” according to the Catholic news outlet Crux.

The stakes involved in renegotiating the agreement with China are high for the Vatican. The two broke off diplomatic relations in 1951, but relations between the two countries have improved significantly since the 2018 Holy See-China Agreement, which many believe could lead to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations.

Under the provisional agreement, which resolved a decades-old impasse, the Vatican agreed to recognise the seven bishops appointed by the Chinese government as legitimate. The seven bishops had previously been excommunicated. The agreement also stated that new bishops jointly proposed by local Catholic communities and the Chinese authorities would be sent to the Vatican for final approval.

Though the Sino-Vatican deal was widely celebrated as a win for Beijing and the Holy See, it was not popular among many Catholics in Hong Kong, who expressed disapproval of the Beijing-picked “illicit” bishops and voiced concerns about religious persecution in China.

Though Christians represent a small minority of Hong Kongers, they were a visible presence at last year’s pro-democracy protests, which were the impetus for the national security law.

Catholic leaders in the city, such as retired bishop Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun and Cardinal John Tong Hon, had voiced support for the protests, and the influence of Christians on the front lines was such that the hymn “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” became a popular protest anthem. Even as violence at the protests escalated, some churches in the city provided food and shelter for protesters fleeing from the police.