7/17/2020 Hong Kong (International Christian Concern) – A phishing campaign that targeted the leaders of the Hong Kong Catholic Church in May was recently traced to hackers employed by the Chinese government. According to a malware analyst, the campaign involved a malware sample “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” The malware files made use of a “lure document,” associated with the Catholic church, including communications from Vatican officials and news articles from the Union of Catholic Asian News. As the legitimate documents load, malware is installed, allowing the attacker remote access and full control of the victim’s computer.
Amidst increasing tension surrounding the new National Security Law allowing authorities to crack down on the widespread pro-democracy protests, it is unsurprising that the Chinese government would target the Catholic Church in Hong Kong. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been at odds with the Catholic Church since the two broke diplomatic ties in 1951 and the CCP began appointing Catholic bishops in mainland China. Because the leadership structure of the Roman Catholic Church derives authority from the Pope in Rome, the Catholic Church was seen as a threat to the “fledgling” communist party. Though relations between the CCP and the Vatican were resumed in the early 2000s, the two are still “on thin ice.”
In September of 2018, the CCP and the Vatican signed an “agreement of collaboration” that included the Catholic Church of Hong Kong. Under this agreement the Pope regained his traditional power to appoint bishops, though these appointments were still subject to CCP approval. This arrangement is up for renewal this September, and is alleged to be the reason that many Hong Kong Holy See officials have refrained from showing public support of protestors. In recent months, several leaders within the Catholic Church have taken stances favorable to, or at least permissive of, the CCP, including the Archbishop of Hong Kong, Paul Kwong.
Despite the threat posed to religious liberty by the National Security Law and widespread international criticism, Archbishop Kwong has defended the legislation, stating that it is not an “expression of Christian charity but of anti-China sentiment.” In a letter to the Church Times, Kwong stated that he welcomed the new law as “necessary for our wellbeing” as a result of “wider violence” and acts by protestors that “cannot be tolerated in any country.” He has insisted that the law poses no threat to religious freedom, though many of his colleagues in Catholic leadership have disagreed, including the former bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha.
Yet, Kwong is not the only leader in the Catholic Church in Hong Kong who has begun to publicly express such increasingly pro-CCP opinions. Following a summoning to the Liaison Office in June, the apostolic administrator of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong, began making public statements in support of the law, stressing the need for unity. These comments stand in stark contrast to the statements he made in 2019, pleading for the government to “listen to the voices of the people” during the protests. Other Christian leaders have been forced to withdraw statements against the law. A previous article from ICC has discussed the Pope’s own omission of planned comments calling for the protection of religious freedom in Hong Kong from a public address.
An increase of support for Beijing by the Catholic clergy makes sense in light of the threat posed by the CCP. The Catholic Church in Hong Kong, by merit of its ties to Rome, is fundamentally at risk of being considered as a participant in collusion with a “foreign institution.” This fact, as one Catholic lawyer in Hong Kong explained, “can easily be used to target and penalize…the Catholic diocese which receives instruction and directions from the Vatican… The churches can be ordered to disband and their assets confiscated if they breach the law.” With the agreement between the CCP and the Vatican set to expire in September, Catholics in Hong Kong are at risk. As a result, religious freedom in Hong Kong should continue to be a concern of US policymakers in communications with China.