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Hong Kong bishop appointment on hold during China's political unrest

After two thwarted attempts to appoint a diocesan bishop in Hong Kong, sources in Rome and in China tell The Pillar a third candidate is now under consideration. But because of the escalating political crisis in Hong Kong the appointment of a new bishop is expected to be stalled for several more months. 

The Holy See withdrew its plans for both of the two previously chosen candidates over concerns that each would prompt pushback, either from local Catholics or from the Chinese government in Beijing.

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Hong Kong. Credit: JackieCheu/CC BY-SA 3.0

The Diocese of Hong Kong has been without a permanent leader for more than two years, since the January 2019 death of Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung. While Rome is now considering a third candidate to succeed Yeung, senior clerics in Hong Kong, mainland China, and Rome all told The Pillar this week they see little prospect of a replacement being named in the near future.

“It is not a matter for immediate decision,” a senior official close to the Secretariat of State told The Pillar. The secretariat, along with the Congregations for Bishops and the Evangelization of Peoples, participates in the Vatican’s process for the selection of bishops in China. 

“Every attempt to select a candidate has been a problem,” said the official, who asked not to be named, citing the confidentiality of the process. “The decision for now is to hope there will be a better time to make a decision.”

The political situation in Hong Kong has deteriorated steadily over the last two years. 

In 2019, the government of the “special administrative region” attempted to bring in legislation that would have allowed Hong Kongers accused of certain crimes to be extradited to the mainland for trial. After nearly a year of wide-spread demonstrations by pro-democracy activists, which brought parts of the city to a standstill and triggered a massive police backlash, the legislation was withdrawn. 

In 2020, the mainland government imposed a new National Security Law on Hong Kong. The law effectively criminalized political opposition to the Communist government as “secessionist activity,” and triggered further public demonstrations and a sweeping crackdown on free speech, including the arrest and imprisonment of several pro-democracy activists and journalists, many of them Catholics.

The political situation in Hong Kong is the main reason for the delay in appointing a new bishop. After the death of Bishop Yeung in January 2019, sources close to both the Holy See and the Diocese of Hong Kong confirmed that auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing had been chosen to replace Yeung, and his appointment had been approved by Pope Francis, but was rescinded before it could be publicly announced. 

The decision to reverse Ha’s appointment came after he publicly associated himself with the 2019 protests and was photographed attending public demonstrations. Vatican officials reportedly decided that Ha’s nomination would have provoked opposition from the Beijing government. 

After the withdrawal of Ha’s name, officials in Rome then settled on a local priest and vicar general of the diocese, Fr. Peter Choy Wai-man, to become the next bishop. 

Choy was considered in Rome more likely to be acceptable to Beijing than was Ha, and was known to be sympathetic to the mainland government amid the civil unrest in Hong Kong. But like Ha, his name was withdrawn after it received papal approval, this time over fears of a backlash among Catholics in the diocese. 

A senior cleric in the diocese told The Pillar that while the Holy See was right to conclude Choy would be a more palatable choice for Beijing, he is considered a divisive figure in the diocese.

“The Holy See - including the Secretariat of State - supported Choy’s appointment, but did not dare to announce it,” said the cleric, who asked not to be named, citing concerns over the political situation in Hong Kong.

“In the meantime,” he told The Pillar, “Choi acted as if he was already the Bishop of Hong Kong, planting ‘his people’ in different power positions in the diocese.”

Choy’s name was withdrawn in the run up to the imposition of the National Security Law in July last year, and a third round of consultations has been underway since then. 

Senior sources in China and Rome independently confirmed to The Pillar that a new candidate for the diocese had been tentatively identified: a priest from a religious order with experience in the Church both in China and the West, but that no final decision was likely until the political situation stabilized.

“The view here is that nothing will be announced until all the pandemic measures are properly relaxed and the Hong Kong legislative council elections [due in 2021] are over,” said a senior cleric in China, who asked not to be named, citing the possibility of state repercussions. 

The cleric also told The Pillar that another factor in Rome and Beijing agreeing on a new bishop would be the level of international interest in Hong Kong, especially by the incoming U.S. administration, and that both Beijing and Rome will want to “see whether the Biden administration continues to fund the democracy movement [in Hong Kong].”

The official close to the Secretariat of State told The Pillar that Rome wants “a new bishop to help bring stability to Hong Kong, not make matters more insecure.” “Patience is very important at this moment,” he said.

On the other hand, the senior cleric in Hong Kong told The Pillar that the continuing delays would only strengthen Chinese influence over the decision, noting that under the 2018 Vatican-China deal, the Communist mainland government has had effective right of proposal or refusal for episcopal candidates in mainland Chinese dioceses. The provisional agreement was extended in 2020 for a further two years, and its impact on the vacancy in Hong Kong remains unresolved.

“You can understand that going on like that, the chance of a good choice becomes more and more improbable,” he said.

While officials in Rome and clerics in Hong Kong and mainland China all predicted no announcement in the near future, after two years it is unclear how much longer a decision could be delayed.

Since Bishop Yeung’s unexpected death two years ago, the diocese has been led by Cardinal John Tong Hon, Yeung’s predecessor as Bishop of Hong Kong. 

But sources in Hong Kong, China, and Rome all agreed that, at 81 years old, Cardinal Tong cannot continue in the role indefinitely. 

A senior source in the Church in China suggested to The Pillar that, in the event Cardinal Tong could not carry on, the mainland could make a renewed push for Fr. Choy’s candidacy out of fear Cardinal Joseph Zen might be seen as a candidate for the interim leadership. 

“Far fetched though it would seem to [people in the Church], Zen becoming de facto leader of the diocese is a nightmare scenario for Beijing,” he said.

Zen is also a bishop emeritus of Hong Kong. He retired in 2002 and was succeeded by Cardinal Tong. Zen turned 89 on Sunday, but remains an active figure in Hong Kong and a strident critic of Chinese persecution of the Church.

Sources in Rome and Hong Kong, however, dismissed the idea of a return for Zen, but accepted Choy could yet become bishop. 

The official close to the Secretariat of State told The Pillar that the idea of Zen ever being asked to take over administration of the diocese, even on an emergency interim basis, was “remote - extremely, extremely remote,” and said there were “several other options that would be considered first.”

The senior cleric in Hong Kong also suggested that, in the event Tong had to step down suddenly, there could be a return to the choice of Choy under pressure from Beijing.

“I don’t expect the [Chinese Communist] Party to intervene openly in the affair,” he said, “but with the state security law, they may think they can apply [the Vatican-China deal] to Hong Kong. I suspect that the Secretariat of State has not yet abandoned the Choy choice to please Beijing.”