Chinese bishops and religious leaders briefed senior Catholic clergy officials in Hong Kong on President Xi Jinping’s vision for a religion with “Chinese characteristics” at an unprecedented meeting hosted by the mainland’s representative office in the city, according to four religious.
Clerics who attended or were aware of the October 31 meeting described it as Beijing’s most assertive move to date in its attempts to influence the diocese of Hong Kong, which reports to the Vatican and includes high-ranking leaders who have long been defenders of democracy and human rights in the semi-autonomous territory.
While Hong Kong’s Catholic leaders have met individually with their mainland counterparts in the past, this was the first time the two sides have formally met – and the first time that mainland religious leaders have held such a meeting, said the religious.
Despite the symbolism of the meeting, mainland officials and religious leaders generally avoided an overtly political message, they said.
The meeting, which has not been publicly disclosed, also highlights what some religious figures, politicians and diplomats describe as the growing role of the Beijing central government liaison office in Hong Kong, which officially represents the mainland in the process. city ââbut has traditionally kept a low profile.
The Liaison Office and officials from the State Administration of Religious Affairs monitored the Zoom sessions as three prominent bishops and about 15 religious figures from the mainland Chinese state-supported official Catholic Church and about 15 clergy from Hong Kong attended the one-day meeting.
The Vatican considers Hong Kong to be one diocese, so it has only one bishop. The Liaison Office and the State Administration of Religious Affairs did not respond to requests for comment. Susanne Ho, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, told Reuters the diocese “is not disclosing details of private meetings.” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni made no comment.
NO MENTION OF XI
Without mentioning Xi or issuing any instructions or orders, speakers from the mainland described how Xi’s policy of “sinicization” aligned with the Vatican’s long-term policies of inculturation – adapting Christianity to non-traditional cultures. Christians, said two of the religious.
Xi has been an active supporter of Sinicization, establishing policies to favor religions with what he calls “Chinese characteristics” and closer ties to party and state.
This includes linking religions more closely to Chinese culture, patriotism, and the goals of the Communist Party and the ruling state to realize Xi’s “Chinese dream”. dogmatically, âsaid a clergyman. âWe all know the word sinization carries a political agenda behind it, and they didn’t have to spell it.
âXi was the elephant in the room,â said the second clerk. The Hong Kong side has spoken extensively about the long-standing policy of inculturation, avoiding giving any political offense and any subject that could invite interference on the mainland, the two clergymen said.
NEW BISHOP ORDINATION
The meeting came just weeks before the ordination this month of new Hong Kong bishop Stephen Chow, a moderate appointment to the Vatican that followed two failed attempts to fill the post after Beijing sought to influence the decision, amid other pressures.
The Hong Kong party was ruled by a high-ranking priest, Reverend Peter Choy, a figure widely regarded by local Catholics as close to Beijing and, earlier, his preferred choice for bishop.
Chow, a bishop-elect at the time, only attended the event briefly after it opened, which may give it leeway in the future, three of the clergymen said. The acting bishop, Cardinal John Tong, opened and closed the event, they said.
A spokesperson for the diocese said Choy, Chow and Tong had made no comment. While some Hong Kong government and business elites are Catholic and pro-Beijing, including city leader Carrie Lam, other Catholics have long been active in pro-democracy and anti-government militant movements.
Earlier this month, Xi said at a conference in Beijing, described in official reports as the National Religious Affairs Working Meeting, that all religions in China should embrace the Communist Party, developing one of its long-standing policies. (We) We must maintain the essential orientation of the party on religious work, we must continue to lead our country for the sinization of religion, we must continue to take the large number of believers and unite them around the party and government, âXi said.
REMAIN A STRENGTH
Some diplomats and activists say they are closely monitoring developments following Beijing’s imposition of a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong in June 2020. They see Hong Kong’s broad religious freedoms and traditions, such as rule of law, as one of the last bastions of the âone country, two systemsâ model by which Britain returned its former colony to Chinese rule in 1997.
The Basic Law, the mini-constitution that governs âone country, two systems,â explicitly provides for freedom of conscience and broad religious freedom, including the right to preach in public.
The Hong Kong church operates primarily on pre-1997 lines, remaining in close contact with the Vatican and welcoming a large foreign missionary presence.
An agreement reached between China and the Holy See in 2018 to ease long-standing friction by giving the Chinese government meaningful scrutiny over the Vatican’s appointment of bishops does not apply to Hong Kong, officials said. Vatican officials.
Chinese and Hong Kong authorities have repeatedly stated that the city’s extensive freedoms, including that of religious belief and affiliation, remain intact. The October meeting ended with a vague understanding from both sides that future sessions should take place, but no date has been set, three clerics said.
âThe pressure is mounting on us in Hong Kongâ¦ some of us see (sinization) as the code of Xi-nification,â said one of them. âYou’ll have to be smart to resist.