China on Thursday defended the arrest of a 90-year-old Catholic cardinal under Hong Kong’s national security law, a move that triggered international outrage and deepened concerns over Beijing’s crackdown on freedoms in the financial hub.
Retired Cardinal Joseph Zen, one of the most senior Catholic clerics in Asia, was among a group of veteran democracy advocates arrested Wednesday for “colluding with foreign forces.”
Pop singer Denise Ho, veteran barrister Margaret Ng and prominent cultural studies scholar Hui Po-keung were also arrested, the latter as he attempted to fly to Europe to take up an academic post.
Cyd Ho, a democracy activist currently in jail over a previous protest conviction, was arrested on Thursday.
“The persons concerned are suspected of conspiracy to collude with foreign countries or foreign forces to endanger national security -– an act of severe nature,” Beijing’s foreign ministry office in Hong Kong said.
Hong Kong’s government said the religious background of those arrested was “completely irrelevant” and that “no one can enjoy a privilege above the law.”
The five were detained for being trustees of a now-disbanded defense fund that helped pay legal and medical costs for those arrested during the huge and sometimes violent democracy protests three years ago.
China responded with a broad campaign to crush the movement and transform the city so that it more closely resembles the authoritarian mainland.
Zen and his colleagues, who were released on bail late Wednesday, join more than 180 Hong Kongers arrested to date under the security law imposed to stop the protests.
Criticism came from Western nations who have accused China of eviscerating the freedoms it once promised Hong Kong.
The United States, which has sanctioned key Chinese officials over the crackdown, called on Beijing to “cease targeting Hong Kong’s advocates.”
British foreign office minister James Cleverly told parliament on Thursday the arrests were “unacceptable.”
Canadian foreign minister Melanie Joly called the arrests “deeply troubling.”
Cantonese singer and LGBTQ campaigner Denise Ho is also a Canadian national.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he was following the arrests with “great concern,” while Human Rights Watch called it a “shocking new low for Hong Kong.”
The Vatican said it was concerned by Zen’s arrest and “following the development of the situation very closely.”
Cardinal Zen fled Shanghai for Hong Kong after the communists took power in China in 1949, and rose to become bishop of the city.
A long-term advocate for Hong Kong’s democracy movement, he has accused the Vatican of “selling out” China’s underground Catholic church by reaching a compromise with Beijing over the appointment of bishops on the mainland.
Hong Kong’s Catholic hierarchy, including Zen’s successors, has become far less outspoken about Beijing in recent years.
The Hong Kong diocese said Thursday it was “extremely concerned about the condition and safety of Cardinal Joseph Zen.”
“We trust that in the future we will continue enjoying religious freedom in Hong Kong under the Basic Law,” it said in a statement, referencing the city’s mini-constitution that is meant to guarantee key freedoms.
Cardinal Zen’s arrest sent shockwaves through the city’s Catholic community.
“The arrest of Cardinal Zen is a blow for the entire church in Hong Kong, China and the world,” Hong Kong-based Italian missionary Franco Mella, 73, told AFP.
“It has become obvious that there is a Damocles sword above Cardinal Zen and other church people.”
A church visitor on Thursday who gave her name as Laura said congregants feared mainland-style suppression of religion could be coming to Hong Kong.
“The space for religious freedom has apparently shrunk because even a Catholic cardinal is now under arrest,” she said.
Ta Kung Pao, a nationalist newspaper that answers to Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, published an article Thursday accusing those arrested of “six crimes.”
They included funding lobbying trips and activist meetings with British lawmakers, providing financial aid to Hong Kong “rioters” who had fled to Canada and Taiwan, and accepting donations from overseas and the now-shuttered Apple Daily newspaper.
But most of the alleged actions cited by Ta Kung Pao took place before the enactment of the law, which is not supposed to be retroactive.
The fund disbanded last year after national security police demanded it hand over operational details including information about its donors and beneficiaries.