06 January 2022, The Tablet

Hong Kong Bishops discuss 'sinicisation' with mainland counterparts

Last month, president Xi Jinping told a conference that religious believers must be united with the Chinese government.

Hong Kong Bishops discuss 'sinicisation' with mainland counterparts

Clergymen depart following the installation Mass of Bishop Stephen Chow Sau-yan at Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Hong Kong December 4, 2021
CNS photo/Tyrone Siu, Reuters

Catholic leaders in Hong Kong have formally met their mainland counterparts for the first time in what amounted to a briefing on what was expected of them by Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, who envisages “religion with Chinese characteristics”.

Speaking to Greg Torode of Reuters about the meeting, that had not been publicly reported, four unnamed “clerics” said the meeting was at the instigation of mainland religious leaders.

Diplomats said the meeting showed Beijing’s central government liaison office in Hong Kong, which formally represents the mainland in the territory, was starting to come out of the shadows. The office monitored the zoom sessions in which three leading bishops and some 15 religious figures from mainland China's state-backed official Catholic church and about 15 senior clergymen in Hong Kong participated over the course of one day.  

Susanne Ho, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Catholic diocese, told Reuters the diocese “does not disclose details of private meetings”. Matteo Bruni, director of the Holy See press office, declined to comment.

The mainland contingent at the October meeting did not issue any specific instructions, according to two of the clerics, but said Xi's policy of sinicisation was in line with long-term Vatican policies of adapting Christianity in traditional, non-Christian cultures. Critics of the regime fear that Xi’s aim is to align Christianity in China with the goals of the ruling Communist Party.

The meeting came a few weeks ahead of the episcopal ordination on Saturday 4 December of Stephen Chau Sau-yan in Hong Kong’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.

Cardinal John Tong Hon, the apostolic administrator of Hong Kong, presided over the Mass. Cardinal Joseph Zen and auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha were co-celebrants. Chow is seen as a moderate Vatican appointment. The Hong Kong side at the 31 October meeting was led by Fr Peter Choy, widely seen by local Catholics as close to Beijing and, earlier, its preferred choice for bishop.

Chow, Bishop-elect at the time, attended the event only briefly, three of the clerics said. Acting Bishop Cardinal John Tong opened and closed the event. A diocesan spokesperson said Choy, Chow and Tong had no comment to make on the meeting.

Earlier last month, Xi told a conference in Beijing, described in official reports as the National Work Meeting on Religious Affairs, that all religions in China needed to embrace the Communist Party.

“[We] must maintain the party's essential direction on religious work, we must continue our country's direction for the sinicisation of religion, we must continue to take the large numbers of religious believers, and unite them around the party and the government,” Xi said.

A deal struck between China and the Holy See in 2018 giving the Chinese government a significant say in the Vatican's appointment of bishops does not apply to Hong Kong, Vatican officials say. Diplomats are closely watching developments in the territory following Beijing’s imposition of a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020.

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