Published November 15, 2023
As chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, John Lee is the principal enforcer of the Chinese communist regime’s ever-tightening chokehold on his city’s liberties. Earlier this month, he hosted a “Global Financial Leaders’ Investment Summit,” in a rather obvious attempt to get around the fact that the United States had banned him from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit now meeting in San Francisco. To what ought to be, but probably isn’t, their shame, Lee’s faux summit, aimed at convincing American financial leaders that Hong Kong is open for business, was attended by the CEOs of Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Blackstone, Citigroup, Franklin Resources, and others.
Hong Kong may be open for business, but it isn’t open for freedom. For before the American CEOs arrived, Lee pledged to “pay particular attention to those anti-China and destabilizing activities camouflaged in the name of human rights, freedom, democracy and livelihood.” Dr. Goebbels couldn’t have said it better.
Like others at the higher elevations of the Hong Kong civil service, John Lee attended a Catholic secondary school and considers himself a Catholic, as does his predecessor, Carrie Lam. But what kind of Catholics cooperate with a regime that aims to “sinicize” all religion in China, privileging “Xi Jinping Thought” over the gospel of Jesus Christ? What kind of Catholics jail peaceful protesters who ask that Beijing and the Hong Kong government it controls honor the pledge they made to protect civil liberties when Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control in 1997? What kind of Catholics manage a corrupt justice system that delivers pre-packaged verdicts against human rights activists?
And to personalize all this: What kind of Catholics keep a fellow Catholic, Jimmy Lai, in solitary confinement for over a thousand days, after destroying his business, shutting down his newspaper, and arresting him on bogus charges of violating “national security”? What kind of Catholics prevent a man whose only crime is living the Church’s social doctrine from seeing his children for three years? What did John Lee and Carrie Lam learn in those Catholic schools, anyway?
On All Saints Day, ten bishops from around the world petitioned John Lee for the unconditional release of Jimmy Lai from his unjust imprisonment. Their statement was brief and to the point:
We, the undersigned, bishops of the Catholic Church, call on the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to immediately and unconditionally release Jimmy Lai. Mr. Lai’s persecution for supporting pro-democracy causes through his newspaper and in other forums has gone on long enough.
There is no place for such cruelty and oppression in a territory that claims to uphold the rule of law and respect the right to freedom of expression. In standing up for his beliefs and committing himself through his faith to challenge autocracy and repression, Jimmy Lai has lost his business, been cut off from his family, and has just surpassed 1,000 days in prison, while facing the prospect of many more years of incarceration to come. He is 75 years old. He must be freed now.
Full marks, then, to the prelates who stood up for Jimmy Lai and his family: Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Archbishop of New York; Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal, Major-Archbishop of Trivandrum, India; Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the Military Services, U.S.A.; Archbishop Anthony Fisher, O.P., of Sydney, Australia; Archbishop Gintaras Grušas of Vilnius, Lithuania; Archbishop J. Michael Miller, C.S.B., of Vancouver; Archbishop John Wilson of Southwark, England; Bishop Robert E. Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota; Bishop Alan A. McGuckian, S.J., of Raphoe, Ireland; and Bishop Lucius Ugorji of Umuahia, Nigeria.
Given the lack of support Catholicism’s most famous contemporary political prisoner has received from the Vatican and from the current bishop of Hong Kong, these bishops’ evangelical concern for a suffering son of the Church must be a comfort to the Lai family. It should also encourage Catholics who care about the basic human rights of religious freedom, free speech, and freedom of the press to pray for John Lee, that he might find the courage to embrace and live the cardinal virtue of justice, whatever the cost to his career.
The Acton Institute has produced a marvelous documentary on the life and trials of Jimmy Lai, The Hong Konger. I hope those American financial titans who kowtowed to John Lee watch it and learn something about courage in the process. And come to think of it, The Hong Konger would also be appropriate Advent meditation material at the Vatican Secretariat of State.
George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Catholic theologian and one of America’s leading public intellectuals. He holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.