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Joseph Zen, One of Asia’s Most Senior Catholics, Arrested in Hong Kong on National Security Charges

Alina Wang
A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights, politics, tech, and society.
Published: May 11, 2022
Newly appointed cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong is pictured during a courtesy visit on March 27, 2006 in Vatican City, after the consistory. (Image: ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images)

On May 11, Hong Kong police revealed that they had arrested a prominent cardinal and four aid workers for allegedly “colluding with foreign forces,” and claimed the group was in violation of the city’s national security law. 

Cardinal Joseph Zen and the four staffers were picked up by Hong Kong police near his church residence on Wednesday morning. The arrest took place after an eight-month investigation into the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which helped activists pay for legal and medical fees during the pro-democracy protests that took place in 2019. The fund dissolved in August 2021.


Zen, 90, is a former bishop of Hong Kong and is widely regarded as one of the most senior Roman Catholic clerics in Asia.

All five were later released on bail, Hong Kong police confirmed, though neither the police department, nor the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese gave any comment on the matter. 

Vocal critics 

Zen has previously spoken out several times against Chinese leader Xi Jinping and what he believes to be a growing authoritarianism that Hong Kong has experienced under his rule. 

Pop singer and activist Denise Ho, former lawyer Margaret Ng, ex-lawmaker Cyd Ho and academic Hui Po-keung were also arrested in connection to the case and may face life imprisonment if convicted on collusion charges. 

Hui was arrested at the airport as he was about to board a flight to Germany on May 10, local media reported. Meanwhile, Cyd Ho is already under custody for alleged charges of “involvement in illegal assemblies,” in a separate case. 

Denise Ho, a well-known cantopop star and Canadian citizen, was previously arrested late last year, along with six others, for allegedly “publishing seditious materials” during her time as a director of the independent pro-democracy news outlet Stand News. 

Stand News was then ordered to shut down on Dec. 29 after its office was raided by police and its assets frozen over repeated offenses of “seditious publication” in a sweeping round of crackdowns against the city’s independent media outlets. 

Vatican concerned

Following Zen’s arrest, the Vatican voiced concern over China’s crackdown against Hong Kong’s civil liberties. 

“The Holy See has learnt the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest with concern and is following the development of the situation very closely,” the Vatican said in a statement.

In 2020, Cardinal Zen made a personal appeal to the Vatican in a letter, urging Pope Francis to leave politics out of the selection of Catholic bishops in the Chinese territory. According to local media however, Zen did not meet the pope in person because the Holy See was at the time engaged in discussions with Beijing on the “renewal of a power-sharing agreement on the ordination of bishops in the Chinese mainland.”

White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre also called on China and Hong Kong authorities to cease targeting Hong Kong advocates and to immediately release those “unjustly detained and charged.”

Draconian national security law

This week’s arrests were the authorities’ latest move in enforcing the controversial national security law (NSL), which was imposed on the city in June 2020. The legislation bars “secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces,” and mandates a maximum of life imprisonment for speaking out against the Chinese regime or other expressions “deemed dangerous.”

The arrests also came less than a week after the incoming chief executive, John Lee, was selected by a panel of pro-Beijing elite voters over the weekend. 

Although Beijing and Hong Kong authorities insisted that the NSL will bring “peace and stability” to Hong Kong after the 2019 mass demonstrations, many have pointed out that since the enactment of the legislation, at least 175 activists and journalists have been arrested and more than 110 have been charged in connection to the law.