Joseph Zen Ze-kiun SDB (Shanghainese[zəɲ zəʔ tɕyəɲ], born 13 January 1932) is a Chinese cardinal of the Catholic Church, who served as the sixth Bishop of Hong Kong. He was made a cardinal in 2006, and has been outspoken on issues regarding human rights, political freedom, and religious liberty, often attracting criticism from the Communist Party of China. He retired on 15 April 2009.

Early life and career

Joseph Zen was born in Shanghai to Catholic parents, Vincent Zen and Margaret Tseu. He studied in a church school during the Second Sino-Japanese War, but was sent to an abbey after his father suffered a stroke.

Zen fled to Hong Kong from Shanghai to escape Communist rule at the end of the Chinese Civil War. After entering the Salesians at the Hong Kong novitiate, he was ordained to the priesthood on 11 February 1961 by Cardinal Maurilio Fossati. Zen obtained a licentiate in theology (1961) and a doctorate in philosophy (1964) from the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome. After 1973, he taught in the Holy Spirit Seminary College of Hong Kong – 1976 to 1978 of Macao Salesian School (Instituto Salesiano) (澳門慈幼中學) as principal; In 1978 he became the Provincial Superior of Salesians (which includes mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan), then resigned in 1983. He was a lecturer in the seminaries in China, centres of studies acknowledged by the Communist party, between 1989 and 1996. He was appointed the coadjutor Bishop of Hong Kong in 1996 by Pope John Paul II.

Advocacy for democracy

After he succeeded as Bishop of Hong Kong on 23 September 2002, he led the Diocese in voicing reservations about the proposed anti-subversion laws, required under Article 23 of the Basic Law. He was worried that these laws, if enacted without a thorough consultation process including a white paper, could easily lead to future violations of basic civil rights.

On 1 July 2003, he took part in a prayer gathering at Victoria Park before the 1 July March began. Many Christians, including Catholics and those of other denominations, attended the demonstration.

On 3 June 2004, the diocese held a praying activity called Democratize China (民主中國). Zen said that Hong Kong was suffering from a bloodless June Fourth Massacre without guns and tanks. He was criticized by the Financial Minister of PRC.

On 1 July 2004, Zen attended a prayer gathering at Victoria Park before the second 1 July March, but did not take part in the demonstration. Still, many Catholics joined thousands of other citizens in the anti-government march.

On 3 November 2005, after returning from Vatican City, he said that the people of Hong Kong should be allowed to decide whether or not they wanted proposed constitutional reforms; he also said that the Government should conduct a "territory-wide public opinion survey" to allow the people to decide whether or not they wanted the constitutional reform package it was proposing. He was then known as the 'Voice' of Hong Kong because he successfully made six pan-democrats that tried to support the motion of the Government to announce opposition to the motion. He was openly criticized by Chief Secretary Rafael Hui after the defeat of the political reform package.

Cardinal Zen attended the 4 June 2006 Prayer gathering in memory of the victims of the 1989 massacre. He asked the Chinese government to let the Chinese people freely discuss the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.[2]

Zen also led the 1 July Protest in 2007.

"New Conscience"

Zen has been described as the "new conscience of Hong Kong" for his defence of human rights, political freedom, and religious liberty in the face of criticism from China's communist government. He has called the Chinese crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square "a big mistake," and called on the government to "tell the truth" about those events. He was also an opponent of Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23, a since-shelved national security bill, which in 2003 prompted an anti-government protest by half a million people. Zen is a vocal proponent of a push for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, telling his flock in a 2005 homily that "a path will appear when enough people walk on it." He has publicly called on officials in Hong Kong to support the aspirations of the people, rather than functioning as spokespersons for the central government in Beijing. At a personal level, he is described by John L. Allen Jr., a Vatican watcher, as "a gracious, humble man, a moderate on most issues".

Zen was named the "Person of the Year 2002" by Apple Daily.


Bishop Joseph Zen prayed with Catholics before the protest against Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23 legislation

On 18 September 2005, he told Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily reporters that he was willing to retire in January 2007.[3] He also said that he wanted to be a teacher in either mainland China or in Africa, as there are teachers shortage in Africa. Democratic Party ex-chairman Martin Lee, also a Roman Catholic, stated that because Zen was still healthy for his age, the Pope may request him to stay in his position. Legislative Council member Audrey Eu praised Zen for being braver than other religious leaders in Hong Kong in sharing his political views and also because "he carried out his ideas of fairness, equitableness, and philanthropy via actual efforts". On the other hand, some conservatives inside the church speculated that the strained relationship between Beijing and the Holy See will become more relaxed if Zen retires. Nonetheless, Zen wrote a letter to the Pope on 13 January 2006 and stated that he did want to retire from his position, though not because of his age. On 15 April 2009 Pope Benedict accepted Cardinal Zen's resignation and John Tong Hon became the Bishop of the diocese.[4]

From 22 October 2011 for three days Cardinal Zen went on hunger strike which was undertaken as an act of protest against losing a long-standing legal battle with the Hong Kong government over how aided schools should be run.[5] He later wrote about his experiences in an open letter.[6]


Coat of Arms of Cardinal Zen. The motto is Ipsi cura est is from 1 Peter 5:7. In English it says: "He cares about you."

On 22 February 2006, the Vatican announced that Zen would be elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope Benedict XVI in the consistory on 24 March 2006. Zen, who was created Cardinal-Priest of Santa Maria Madre del Redentore a Tor Bella Monaca, saw his elevation as indication of how much the Pope values the Church in China. He was named a member of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

Bishop Zen's elevation was welcomed by Catholics in Hong Kong as it was seen as a recognition of the bishop's stance on social justice and as an honour for the church in Hong Kong. Vicar General Rev. Dominic Chan Chi-ming said that it would be an honour to have a cardinal to once again head the diocese. Rev. Louis Ha Ke-loon said it shows that the Pope feels that Bishop Zen should speak out. Democrat legislator Martin Lee added that it was good news because no matter whether he is a bishop or a cardinal, as a religious leader Zen speaks as moral voice of the people.

At the time of his elevation, Zen was the only Chinese cardinal eligible to participate in papal conclaves. His elevation can be seen as giving hope to the underground Catholic Church in China.

Cardinal Zen offered a Pontifical High Mass in the Tridentine Rite in May 2006, for which he was thanked by traditionalist Catholics around the world.

Pope Benedict XVI named Cardinal Zen to write the meditations for the Stations of the Cross led by the Pope at the Roman Colisseum on Good Friday, 21 March 2008.

Relations with the People's Republic of China

After the pope canonized several priests who died during the Boxer Rebellion, Zen (as coadjutor bishop at the time) said that the priests were innocent and the Boxers guilty[citation needed] angering the Central People's Government, who banned him from visiting mainland China for six years.[citation needed] On 3 May 2004, he visited mainland China for the first time since 1998 and was the first bishop of Hong Kong to visit China since the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997.

He has also been especially critical of Beijing's response to the Falun Gong spiritualist movement, which China's leaders have outlawed for "trying to overthrow" the Communist Party. He also criticized the mainland government when it requested the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress to re-interpret the Basic Law.[citation needed]

In April and May 2006, Cardinal Zen opposed the episcopal consecration of two bishops in China who belonged to the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association. The elevations were without the permission of the Holy See, causing a controversy. In a February 2007 interview, Cardinal Zen referred the appointments without Vatican permission as a "declaration of war".

In October 2011, Zen admitted that, without the knowledge of the Holy See, he had received HK$20 million from Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai since 2005, part of which went to helping the underground Church on the mainland.[7]

In 2014 Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun asked Pope Francis not to visit China, saying the pontiff would be “manipulated”. In an interview he told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera: “I would tell him now, ‘Don’t come, you would be manipulated'. ...The few courageous [Catholics] could not meet [the Pope], and the Communist Party would show him the illegitimate bishops, including the three excommunicated ones.” The comments came as ties between the Vatican and China improved in the early days of the pontificate of Francis, with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs congratulating Francis on his election".[8] Cardinal Zen said he did not see signs of dialogue happening between the Catholic Church and China. “Even if under these conditions Beijing was to extend a hand, it would be a trick under these circumstances,” he said. “Our poor bishops are slaves, the Communist Party denies them respect, tries to take away their dignity.”[8]

In September 2014 as part of the 2014 Hong Kong protests, Cardinal Zen addressed the protesters saying "It's high time we really showed that we want to be free and not to be slaves. ... We must unite together". During his speech protesters were fired on with tear gas and he asked them to disperse.[9]

In a 2018 interview Cardinal Zen, on Sino-Holy See relations, said “Pope Francis does not know the real Communist Party in China, but Parolin should know. He was there [in the Secretariat of State] so many years, so he must know. He may be happy to encourage the pope to be optimistic about the negotiations … but that’s dangerous. Pope Francis needs someone to calm him down from his enthusiasm.” Zen added that “It seems the Secretary of State wants to have a solution anyway. He is so optimistic. That’s dangerous. I told the pope that he [Parolin] has a poisoned mind. He is very sweet, but I have no trust in this person. He believes in diplomacy, not in our faith.”[10][11]

Controversy and criticism

A bill critical of Cardinal Zen.

Education reform controversies

On 5 June 2005, Zen announced that if the Legislative Council passed a proposal to support the schools to create incorporated management committees on 8 July 2005, he would appeal against the decision to the court. The Education (Amendment) Bill 2002, once enacted, would likely play down the role of the Church in running Catholic schools and in promoting Catholic education.

However, after the Government gave up some argued points in the motion, the Diocese decided to support the motion, though the Diocese later announced plans to prosecute the Government on 28 September 2005.

After two teachers committed suicide in early January 2006, Zen said that these acts must be due to the educational reforms and he asked the government to halt new reforms. Then Permanent Secretary for Education and Manpower Fanny Law rejected causal connections, but provoked furor among teachers and the public when she questioned why only two teachers committed suicide because of the reforms.[12] She apologised for her "inappropriate" remarks on 10 January.[13]

WTO affairs

On 18 December 2005, Zen visited protesters at the 2005 WTO Ministerial Conference and tried to visit the detained South Korean Catholics, including two priests and a nun. He criticised the Hong Kong police for their treatment of the protesters.[14] He also called the government a "child" for "doing something nonsensical.'" About one month later, several unions in Hong Kong Police Force decided to write a letter to the Pope to complain about Zen's speech. Zen replied that some policemen were "sycophantic to the senior officers inside the police force".

Criticisms within the diocese

Several local priests tried to persuade Zen not to participate in any protests before he led the 1 July Protest in 2007. Zen was only allowed to attend the prayer gathering before the protests against the educational reforms. Some Catholics criticized Zen for making the church like a "political party" and posted anti-Zen advertisements in newspapers and on the internet.[citation needed]

In January 2006, Rev. Joseph Lee, Parish Priest of St. Anthony's Church, who, similar to Zen, was born and educated in Shanghai and is a Salesian, said in a television programme that "99% of Catholics disagree with the Bishop," while according to a survey more than 60% of Catholics agree with the Bishop.[citation needed] He also said that Zen seriously harmed the relationship between China and the Holy See.

In 2006 the Catholic official newspaper Kung Kao Po contained criticism and opinions by Rev. John B. Kwan Kit Tong against Zen. Four weeks later, Rev. Kwan claimed in the same newspaper that the criticism was not written directly against Zen and that his writing had been misinterpreted by local newspapers.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 1 July 2015. Retrieved 1 July 2015.  Association for Conversation of Hong Kong Indigenous Languages Online Dictionary for Hong Kong Hakka and Hong Kong Punti (Weitou dialect)
  2. ^ 陳日君 : 不能讓六四不了了之 (in Chinese). RTHK. 4 June 2006. Archived from the original on 31 May 2008. 
  3. ^ 香港主教陳日君獲任命為樞機主教 (in Chinese). BBC News. 22 February 2006. 
  4. ^ [1][dead link]
  5. ^ Gheddo, Piero (22 October 2011). "Card. Zen ends hunger strike for freedom of Hong Kong Catholic schools". Asianews.it. 
  6. ^ Gheddo, Piero (25 October 2011). "Card. Zen: My struggle and that of Hong Kong for Catholic schools". Asianews.it. 
  7. ^ Gheddo, Piero (20 October 2011). "I received millions and spent them for the Church and the poor, Card Zen says". Asianews.it. 
  8. ^ a b "Hong Kong's Cardinal Joseph Zen asks Pope Francis not to visit China". South China Morning Post. 2014-07-03. Retrieved 2018-02-13. 
  9. ^ "Cardinal Zen addresses pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong". The Tablet. Retrieved 1 October 2014. 
  10. ^ "Cardinal says pope's top diplomat has 'poisoned mind' on China". Crux. 2017-10-16. Retrieved 2018-02-13. 
  11. ^ "cardinal". Crux. Retrieved 2018-02-13. 
  12. ^ Winnie Chong (10 January 2006). "Work pressure pushing teachers over the edge". The Standard. Archived from the original on 22 May 2011. Retrieved 31 July 2008. 
  13. ^ Winnie Chong (11 January 2006). "Education chief sorry over suicide remarks". The Standard. Archived from the original on 22 May 2011. Retrieved 31 July 2008. 
  14. ^ "... And They Call It Democracy". ohmynews.com. 21 December 2005. Archived from the original on 24 June 2008. 

External links

Catholic Church titles
Title last held by
Lorenzo Bianchi
Coadjutor Bishop of Hong Kong
Title next held by
John Tong Hon
Preceded by
John Wu
Bishop of Hong Kong
Succeeded by
John Tong Hon