Featured Image
Cdl. Stephen Chow (L) and Archbishop Joseph Li Shan (R) during Chow’s April 2023 visit to Beijing.Video screenshot

HONG KONG (LifeSiteNews) — The communist state-approved Archbishop of Beijing has accepted an invitation to visit Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, marking the increasing links between Hong Kong and the Chinese Communist Party authorities. 

In a very brief statement issued November 3, the Diocese of Hong Kong announced that “Bishop Joseph Li Shan of Beijing” would begin a five day visit to the diocese on November 14.

“During this reciprocal visit, Bishop Li will meet with the Bishop of the Diocese of Hong Kong and different diocesan offices to promote exchanges and interactions between the two dioceses,” the Diocese of Hong Kong stated, regarding Li Shan’s upcoming visit. 

Background to the visit

In April, Hong Kong’s Cardinal Stephen Chow S.J. accepted an invitation from Li Shan to visit the Diocese of Beijing, and following this event extended his own, return invitation to Li Shan.

READ: Hong Kong bishop looks to strengthen ties with Chinese Communists following historic Beijing visit

Chow’s April visit to Beijing was described by China watchers as having the potential to lead to the Diocese of Hong Kong gradually falling under the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) influence or control.

Indeed, Beijing’s Li Shan is the president of the Communist-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), the state-controlled so-called “Catholic” Church in China that runs parallel to the underground Roman Catholic Church. 

The prelate is also a vice president of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which, according to AsiaNews, “is called to rubber-stamp decisions taken by President Xi Jinping and other Communist Party leaders.”

Not surprisingly, therefore, Li Shan has repeatedly voiced support for the Communist Party on a number of instances, stating on occasion in 2019 that “supporting the leadership of the Communist Party and fervently loving our socialist motherland is the basic premise for upholding our country’s direction to Sinicize religion.”

Announcing Chow’s visit to Beijing event in March, the Diocese of Hong Kong stated it “underscores the mission of the Diocese of Hong Kong to be a bridge Church and promote exchanges and interactions between the two sides.”

Chow – provincial superior of the Chinese Province of the Jesuits from 2018-2021, before being appointed to lead the Hong Kong diocese in 2021, and made cardinal in September 2023 – appeared to have made a positive impression on the CCP authorities during his time in Beijing. 

He echoed a number of regular CCP talking points, particularly regarding patriotism — a theme which is used by the Communist state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) to promote the state church over Rome.

Chow has regularly highlighted his role as being one of deepening relationships and building bridges between the Diocese of Hong Kong, and the CCP-run church in China. These sentiments he re-iterated to LifeSiteNews in an exclusive interview conducted two days before being made a cardinal. 

EXCLUSIVE: Incoming Hong Kong cardinal highlights ‘dialogue’ between Vatican and Communist China  

“In a way, I’m trying to, if I can, inform each other [the Vatican and Beijing] what they are thinking. Because we need to establish empathy. When we are lacking empathy we cannot have real dialogue,” he told LifeSite in Rome. 

Why does Li Shan’s visitation matter?

Archbishop Li Chan’s visit to Hong Kong is one of key significance. It comes shortly after two Chinese bishops participated in the October meeting of the Synod on Synodality, although they left early. The Vatican’s press office said at the time that their departure was due to “pastoral reasons,” but media reports cited Chinese church officials who stated that the two bishops’ early departure was always a condition.

The Vatican’s secretive and controversial deal with Beijing is due for another term of renewal in the fall of 2024, and even though relations have been strained throughout this year – with Beijing appointing two bishops without involving the Vatican – Pope Francis has argued “the relationship with China is very respectful, very respectful.”

READ: Pope Francis’ deal with Communist China has led to greater persecution of Catholics

With Chow now serving as Pope Francis’ point man in the practical application of the deal, Li Shan’s visit to Chow’s diocese will be an event which proponents of the Sino-Vatican deal will be particularly focussed on.

However, the visit will also be seen as yet another sign of Hong Kong surrender to the CCP authorities in Beijing. Chow’s predecessor in the diocese, Cardinal Joseph Zen, has styled the deal as an “incredible betrayal” and accused the Vatican of “selling out” Chinese Catholics – even accusing Francis of “encouraging a schism” via the deal.

Commenting on Chow’s visit to Beijing earlier in the year, China expert Steven Mosher told LifeSite that “of course, the United Front Department of the CCP, which is responsible for directing the activities of the Patriotic Catholic Church, will also try the same tactics on the Church in Hong Kong.”

Mosher added that: 

“Sinicization means that all religious communities should be led by the Party, controlled by the Party, and support the Party.” The CCP only allows religious organizations to exist if they agree to serve, in effect, as extensions of the Party.  That’s what ‘united front’ means in the Chinese Communist context.

Cardinal Chow, the bridge building Jesuit

Since his appointment to the Diocese of Hong Kong in 2021, Chow has practiced a carefully political and increasingly pro-CCP stance. Speaking in 2021, he distanced himself from the underground Chinese Church and also warned not to expect future statements from him combating the CCP:

I don’t think it’s wise for me to comment on China without enough information and knowledge. It’s not that I’m afraid but prudence is also a virtue.

Speaking to Jesuit-run America Magazine in October, Chow continued this policy and praised the CCP Archdiocese of Beijing – both for the manner in which Li Shan was running the see as well as for the number of seminarians.

Chow also argued that CCP officials “really appreciate [Pope] Francis.” “They see him as someone with whom you can have dialogue, someone who is really interested in China. I say that because it came through in my conversations,” Chow told America. 

READ: Chinese Communists blindside Vatican by appointing new bishop without its involvement

Such approval from the CCP for Pope Francis was due to his statements and “what he represents,” said the newly created cardinal. “He doesn’t criticize; he wants to know about China, he wants to be fair.” 

Chow added that the CCP authorities felt aggrieved and that “they have been misunderstood,” whilst adding that he was “not saying who’s right, who’s wrong.” Francis’ tone towards the CPP authorities had won him support, argued Chow:

It has become clear to me that the Chinese, the government, and the people feel they have been misunderstood by the West. Some people deliberately twist things and make them look bad. They appreciate anyone who says something fair. I’m not saying who’s right [and] who’s wrong. But I think people who feel they have been misunderstood always feel better when someone has a more positive light on them. They appreciate that Pope Francis appreciates them.

Notably, Chow’s shortest answers in his America Magazine interview were on the topic of freedom in Hong Kong, even arguing that “religious freedom is intact.”

READ: TikTok forced to reverse censorship of Jimmy Lai video critical of Chinese gov’t after public outcry

He attempted to downplay issues of free speech, stating that only “if you come out with something that violates the national security law, then that’s a problem.” Chow did not comment on the internationally condemned May 2022 arrest of Cardinal Zen (91), nor on the fate of 75-year-old Catholic journalist and vocal China critic Jimmy Lai, who is currently serving a six-year jail term in China for a court sentence of “fraud” and “collusion with foreign forces.”