Cardinal Joseph Zen, one of Asia’s highest-ranking Catholic clerics, arrives at a court for his trial in Hong Kong on Sept. 26, 2022. / Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images
St. Louis, Mo., Feb 3, 2023 / 14:15 pm (CNA).
A bipartisan congressional commission chaired by Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, announced Thursday the nomination of six Hong Kongers, including Cardinal Joseph Zen and jailed Catholic media mogul Jimmy Lai, for the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in the cause of human rights.
“Jimmy Lai, Cardinal Joseph Zen, Tonyee Chow Hang-tung, Gwyneth Ho, Lee Cheuk-Yan, and Joshua Wong were nominated because they are ardent champions of Hong Kong’s autonomy, human rights, and the rule of law as guaranteed under the Sino-British Declaration and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” the announcement from the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China reads.
“The nominees are representative of millions of Hong Kongers who peacefully opposed the steady erosion of the city’s democratic freedoms by the Hong Kong government and the government of the People’s Republic of China. Through the nomination, the members of Congress seek to honor all those in Hong Kong whose bravery and determination in the face of repression has inspired the world.”
All of those nominated have been involved in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, especially since 2019, when large-scale protests against authoritarian Chinese rule erupted on the territory, which is a special administrative region of China.
Hong Kongers have historically enjoyed greater freedom of religion than on the Chinese mainland, where religious believers of all stripes are routinely surveilled and restricted by the communist government. But in recent years, Beijing has sought to tighten control over religious practices in Hong Kong under the guise of protecting national security.
Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, 91, is the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, having led the territory’s Catholics from 2002 to 2009. An outspoken advocate for religious freedom and democracy, Zen also is a sharp critic of the Vatican’s 2018 agreement with Beijing on the appointment of bishops, which was renewed in October 2022 for another two-year term.
Zen was arrested last May by Hong Kong authorities and put on trial for allegedly failing to civilly register a pro-democracy fund. He was convicted and ordered to pay a fine, which he has appealed.
The cardinal wrote on his blog on Jan. 31 that, following his return from Rome for Pope Benedict XVI’s funeral, he was receiving treatment in the hospital after experiencing difficulty breathing.
Jimmy Lai Chee-ying is an entrepreneur and billionaire media mogul who converted to Catholicism in 1997. Lai has supported the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement for more than 30 years and has said that his Catholic faith is a major motivating factor in his pro-democracy advocacy. The newspaper he founded, Apple Daily, had distinguished itself over the years as a strongly pro-democracy publication critical of the Chinese government in Beijing before it was forced to shut down.
Lai has been jailed since December 2020 for his involvement in pro-democracy protests and faces the possibility of being sentenced to life in prison under national security charges. On Dec. 13, 2022, a Hong Kong court delayed Lai’s national security trial, initially scheduled for that month, until September 2023.
Two of the other nominees were initially sentenced to jail time alongside Lai. One is Tonyee Chow Hang-tung, a lawyer and vice-chair of a now-shuttered civil society group, who was arrested in connection with a 2020 vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Gwyneth Ho Kwai-lam, a journalist, was detained on a national security charge for peacefully participating in an opinion poll ahead of an election.
Also nominated is Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran labor rights advocate and former legislator sentenced for joining unauthorized assemblies, who is facing additional criminal allegations on national security grounds.
Finally, Joshua Wong Chi-fung had been previously imprisoned for his role in organizing protests in Hong Kong in 2014. In the summer of 2019, he participated in large-scale pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. In November 2021, three pro-democracy activists, including Wong, pleaded guilty to charges related to their roles in an “illegal assembly” in 2019. The next month, they were each sentenced to months in prison, with the possibility that they will face further charges.
Other Catholic pro-democracy organizers in Hong Kong have been recognized for their work in recent years. In 2021, Martin Lee Chu-ming, a Catholic lawyer who helped found the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, was nominated for the prize.