On November 24 2019, after months of protests, three million Hong Kongers handed a historic victory to democratic candidates in council elections. As part of an international team of election observers, we were there to witness the 326-seat landslide, with only 62 seats taken by pro-Beijing candidates.
This was always going to bring a response from the Central Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party.
On April 18 that response came. Under the cover of a global pandemic, the CCP delivered its reply, rounding up and arresting 15 leaders of the pro-democracy movement. Among them was a Catholic barrister called Martin Lee.
Lee is a former member of the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament, and the founding chairman of the Democratic Party, the region’s biggest pro-democracy party. Born in 1938, his formative years were spent looking over the bamboo wall dividing Hong Kong from China.
The young Lee grew up hearing extraordinary stories of faith from the lips of Christians who had fled from Communist oppression to the oases of Macao and Hong Kong. Martin was a schoolboy when, in 1949, Ignatius Kung was created bishop of Shanghai, just days before the Communists seized power. In 1956, Kung was arrested, along with more than 300 Catholic priests, religious and lay people. They refused to capitulate and were taken to Shanghai greyhound stadium, where show trials and executions were a daily occurrence.
Told to renounce his faith: Kung spoke into the microphone: “Long live Christ the King, long live the Pope.” Many shouted back: “Long live Christ the King, long live Bishop Kung.” Kung spent 30 years in Communist jails for refusing to let them control the Catholic Church. His arrest and imprisonment did not break him, and his witness inspired courage in others.
During the Cultural Revolution, Mao hunted down and murdered millions of his countrymen, many on account of their faith. Churches were desecrated, looted, and turned into storerooms and factories. Priests and religious were incarcerated, tortured, some burnt alive, some sent to labour camps, with Christians publicly paraded through cities and towns and forced to wear cylindrical hats announcing their crime of belief.
Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” led to the deaths of at least 30 million Chinese people. His “re-education” programmes , the depredations of the Red Guards, and the infamies of the Cultural Revolution claimed an estimated 20 million lives. Mao rests in a colossal mausoleum in the centre of Tiananmen Square, where, in 1989, thousands seeking democracy would be mown down.
Lee was shaped and formed by these events. He has been a witness to the ideology that makes the Party a god, and knows how effortlessly it discards humanity to achieve its objectives.
Lee also has a close friendship with Cardinal Joseph Zen. Their relationship has echoes of the bond between Pope John Paul II and Lech Walesa – two other figures forged in scalding fire. Like Lee, Zen is persecuted by the CCP. We sampled something of this last year in Fatima, where we were with Lee and Zen. Chinese government officials pursued them to the tiny Portuguese village, attempted to shut down the meeting they were attending, and hired out a floor of one of the pilgrims’ hotels to spy on them.
It reminds us that, in every generation, the Church raises up prophetic witnesses who stand against tyranny. And in every generation, there will be an authoritarian regime to which the Church must answer.
Giving that answer is not always easy. Prophets tend to walk a narrow and lonely path. They may make us uncomfortable – and may not always be right. The institutional Church, on the other hand, is bound to consider the wider permutations of its political decisions, which so often requires weighing evils against each other.
In this sense there has always a tension between the institutional and the prophetic Church. The temptation to humour a dictator for fear of something worse has been a perennial feature of our ecclesial history. Ostpolitik can often seem so reasonable. But there is always a tipping point where “dialogue” and “engagement” becomes betrayal and dereliction of duty. If the tortured Falun Gong practitioners, imprisoned Christian pastors, or the one million Uyghur Muslims currently in camps in East Turkistan, were able to speak to us, they would tell is that the tipping point passed long ago in China. Lee would say the same.
But declaring that tipping point takes courage. Recall that in the 1930s Munster’s courageous Bishop von Galen, the “Lion of Munster”, condemned Nazism while others accommodated the Reich, insisting that reasoning with the beast was the wiser approach. Lee and Zen stand with von Galen. They stand alongside Poland’s Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, murdered by Communists in 1984, who declared that “Truth which does not cost is a lie”; with St Maximilian Kolbe’s “No one in the world can change Truth”; with Blessed Titus Brandsma’s “He who wants to win the world for Christ must have the courage to come in conflict with it.” They stand alongside Ignatius Kung; with China’s tortured and murdered Christians; with the imprisoned underground priests and bishops, like Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo, who languished in jail for 20 years.
As so often, it’s the prophetic voice of the Church that is called to temporal suffering – and is so often proven right.
On being arrested, Lee – a lifelong proponent of peaceful resistance – reiterated his belief in democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. With candour and characteristic humility, with no self-pity, he said: “I feel relieved. After months of witnessing youths being arrested and prosecuted while I stayed out of it, I eventually felt guilty. I have been eventually prosecuted and I have no regrets, I am proud to walk the road of democracy.” His words bring to mind his patron St Thomas More – both were called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn. In Utopia, More reminds us that the political leader is called “to feed his sheep, not himself” and also reminds us that even in Utopia “There is never any shortage of horrible creatures who prey upon human beings, snatch away their food, or devour whole populations.” These words could have been written for the Chinese Communist Party.
Martin Lee’s arrest marks a threshold. A prominent lawyer – a Queen’s Counsel and recipient of prestigious international awards – he was one of the drafters of Hong Kong’s constitutional settlement, Two Systems One Country. Apprehending him on trumped-up charges is a symbolic incarceration of the rule of law itself. In words prayed by so many of the Church’s resistance, Isaiah prophesied: “For Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet”. Neither must we.