Why China feels threatened by the moral authority of a 90-year-old Catholic bishop

Cardinal Joseph Zen will stand trial on Sept. 19, 2022, in Hong Kong for his role as a trustee of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund. This organization paid legal fees and medical bills for Hong Kongers protesting the Extradition Law Amendment Bill. This 2019 legislation would have allowed extradition to the People’s Republic of China. Many residents viewed this as a subversion of Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous political system, leading to large-scale protests, political unrest and a police crackdown. It also prompted Beijing’s further direct intervention in Hong Kong’s governance.

For the Chinese Communist Party, this organization’s support of protesters and alleged collusion with foreign forces violated the party-mandated national security law. This law has since been applied retroactively.

A retired bishop of the Hong Kong Diocese, Cardinal Zen has long supported Hong Kong protesters, critiqued Beijing and criticized the Vatican’s rapprochement with the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese Catholics see the arrest as an attempt to intimidate and prevent activism among Hong Kong’s Catholic community.

To understand why the Chinese Communist Party would feel intimidated by a 90-year-old man and threaten him with life in prison, it is important to go beyond narrow, concrete effects – such as a cowed Catholic community – and identify the principles held by the leadership. As a former military diplomat currently researching the link between philosophy and foreign policy, I argue that Cardinal Zen’s threat to the Chinese Communist Party lies not in his support for democratic reform, but as a competing source of political authority.

The party’s morality of hierarchy

The Chinese Communist Party leadership continues to be shaped by the principles of classical Chinese philosophy. Despite official condemnation during the Mao years, the party has more recently tried to bolster the foundations of classical Chinese thought to legitimize its own rule.

During a 1997 speech at Harvard University, Jiang Zemin – then the general secretary of the party – praised classical Chinese thought and tied it to contemporary values and the state’s development. Today, General Secretary Xi Jinping routinely mentions classical philosophy in his speeches and noted at the 19th National Congress that the development of socialism with Chinese characteristics will build upon Chinese culture’s traditional vision, concepts, values and moral norms.

Classical Chinese ethics begin with the existential centrality of the family. Fan Ruiping, a researcher in Confucian ethics at the City University of Hong Kong, notes Confucianism sees the family as the basic structure of human existence, not simply a social institution. Thus, the family becomes the standard against which behavior is judged. For example, to protect the family, Confucius argues it is moral for a son to hide the misconduct of his father.

According to the Yongle Emperor, an emperor who ruled in the 15th century, the entire world is a single family. Within this system, one’s position is defined by one’s role, grounded in the five Confucian relationships: ruler to subject, father to son, husband to wife, elder brother to younger brother, and friend to friend. Each of these is both reciprocal and hierarchical. The moral individual conforms to the role one fills in society and treats others according to theirs.