Right now, many Catholics in Hong Kong would like nothing better than to be mourning the loss of their shepherd, Bishop Michael Yeung, who died Jan. 3 at the age of 73 after suffering liver failure due to cirrhosis.

Yeung had only been in office for about six months, but, by all accounts, he was a popular pastor who exuded friendliness and calm.

However, this is China, where the personal is always to some extent political. Mixed with the atmosphere of grief, therefore, is anxiety and tension over the direction of the Church in Hong Kong, and the role it will play in the broader question of Catholicism’s future in China.

Ever since the 1949 Communist takeover in China, the root dilemma for every Catholic in the country has been how to relate to the government, which officially tolerates Catholicism but has long pursued a policy of building an autonomous Chinese church not subordinate to Rome.

For some Catholics, the right choice is to engage the government, providing stability and a public presence for the Faith, while gradually trying to convince the ruling class that one can be both a “Roman” Catholic and a good Chinese citizen. 

Others, however, feel their loyalty to the pope demands a critical attitude toward the state, and have chosen to live to varying degrees in an “underground” or “catacomb” condition.

For decades, the Vatican has pursued a policy of trying to heal that rift, seeking to “regularize” the situation of the Church in China by having all bishops approved both by the government and also by Rome.

That policy reaches back to St. Pope Paul VI, and it was backed vigorously under both St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. It’s reached a new crescendo with the deal recently inked between Beijing and the Vatican over the appointment of bishops that included Pope Francis recognizing eight bishops previously excommunicated or considered illegitimate.

Despite fierce criticism of that deal in some quarters as a capitulation to a repressive government, Francis has shown no signs of backing down. In his annual speech to diplomats on Jan. 7, he strongly defended it.

“It is to be hoped that further contacts regarding the application of the signed Provisional Agreement will help resolve questions that remain open and make needed room for an effective enjoyment of religious freedom,” the pope said.

That diplomatic thaw in Sino-Vatican relations, however, hasn’t yet translated into greater breathing space for religious believers on the ground in China.

On Dec. 9 last year, for instance, authorities reportedly detained more than 100 Protestant worshippers from the Early Rain Covenant Church in the city of Chengdu. The church’s pastor, Wang Yi, was arrested on allegations of “inciting subversion of state power,” with no further explanation given.

The arrests capped a yearlong crackdown, with dozens of predominantly Protestant Christian churches ruled to have been built or run illegally torn down across the country throughout 2018. Elsewhere, in the western region of Xinjiang, a growing campaign of repression against the predominantly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group has provoked international condemnation.

Catholic churches in various parts of the country have been raided and intimidated as well as part of the widening campaign to reassert control, though not, observers say, to the same extent as the country’s Protestants.

For dissenters from the Vatican’s policy of engagement, the coincidence of mounting repression unfolding side-by-side with the deal over bishops is proof that Rome is being duped — cozying up to a government that has no real intention of ever holding up its side of the bargain, especially when it comes to real religious freedom.

All of which bring us back to Hong Kong, because Yeung was perceived as a basically government-friendly prelate in keeping with the Vatican’s policy of reconciliation and detente. His immediate predecessors, Cardinals John Tong Hon and Joseph Zen, are seen as more defiant toward the state, and Zen has been openly critical of the Vatican’s deal with Beijing.

(Tong has been tapped by Francis as interim administrator until a replacement for Yeung is named.)

Cardinal John Tong Hon, the retired bishop of Hong Kong pictured in a 2017 photo, has been appointed to administer the diocese after the Jan. 3 death of Bishop Yeung Ming-cheung, 73. Cardinal Tong will remain in the position until Pope Francis appoints a new bishop. (CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE/FRANCIS WONG)

Hong Kong is a special case in China, a special administrative region with a philosophy of “one country, two systems,” at least theoretically providing greater protection for democracy and human rights. 

Although critics charge that special status is at risk of disappearing among trials of pro-democracy activists and pressures on free speech, Hong Kong nevertheless still represents to many Chinese citizens a symbol of hope for reform.

The Church in Hong Kong also enjoys a unique niche in the Chinese system. It’s run without government interference, and the Diocese of Hong Kong’s bishops are chosen by the Vatican. Catholicism has played a prominent role in the territory since British rule, providing a social safety net through its educational, housing, health care, and other social-service systems.

The pope’s choice of who comes next in Hong Kong, therefore, will be closely watched.

If Francis opts for someone more in the mold of Tong and Zen, it would suggest the Vatican wants local leadership prepared to assert and defend the religious freedom protections that were supposedly part of the equation in inking the deal over bishops.

If, however, the choice goes to a figure more inclined to do business with the state than to confront it, it would be taken to mean that Francis and his team see the long-term goal of normalizing relations with China as more important than whatever short-term headaches may crop up.

Either way, Hong Kong will be among the pontiff’s most important personnel moves anywhere in the world in 2019, setting the tone for the Church’s relationship with a global superpower that encompasses one-fifth of the world’s population.

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