Wing Choh Primary school, and Catholic Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Hong Kong. Credit: Claudine Van Massenhove/Shutterstock
Catholic schools in Hong Kong have been told to explain the provisions of the new National Security Law and encourage patriotic values to students, according to the text of a letter sent by the Diocese of Hong Kong to nearly 200 schools.
The letter, signed by Peter Lau Chiu Yin, a layman who serves as the Episcopal Delegate for Education in the diocese, was addressed to principles and leaders of all Catholic primary and secondary schools and was first reported by the Hong Kong news service RTHK last week.
The schools are advised to offer instruction to students on the provisions of the National Security Law which came into force on July 1 of this year.
The new law criminalizes new categories of “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorism” and “collusion with foreign forces.” Anyone convicted under the law will receive a minimum of 10 years in prison, with the possibility of a life sentence. It was imposed on Hong Kong by the mainland legislature, bypassing Hong Kong’s own legislative process.
As part of helping students understand the new law’s provisions, teachers are to “foster the correct values on [students’] national identity” and to respect Chinese national symbols including the flag and national anthem, the letter said.
The letter also called for schools to put in place structures for evaluating “materials, assignments, examination papers and books” used by teachers to prevent “unilateral promotion of political messages, positions or views.”
A spokesman for the Diocese of Hong Kong told AsiaNews on Aug. 7 that the letter was intended as a “suggestion” and not an order, but that “students must be taught a correct understanding of national identity in accordance with the social teaching of the Church”.
The new law has been widely perceived as an effective end to the civil liberties which Hong Kongers have enjoyed relative to the mainland under the “one country, two systems” policy adopted since the handover.
July 1, the first day the law was in force, is traditionally marked by pro-independence demonstrations in Hong Kong to mark the anniversary of the handover from Britain to China in 1997. This year, several demonstrators were arrested under the National Security Law’s provisions against secession and subversion, including for possession of signs that said “Free Hong Kong.”
On Aug. 10, police arrested several prominent democracy activists.
Agnes Chow, a 23-year-old Catholic with a history of student activism which she has credited to her education in Catholic Social Teaching, was arrested and charged under the National Security Law. Chow stood for elected office in Hong Kong but was barred from appearing on the ballot because of her advocacy for self-determination for Hong Kong. She was released on bail Tuesday.
Also arrested on the same day was Jimmy Lai, publisher of Apple Daily, a Chinese-language newspaper in Hong Kong known for its overt criticism of Hong Kong and mainland government action. Lai has reportedly been charged with “foreign collusion” under the new law.
Cardinal Joseph Zen, emeritus Bishop of Hong Kong and a strident critic of China’s infringement on civil and human rights, has said that he has “no confidence” that the new National Security Law will respect the religious freedom of Catholics.
Zen also told CNA in June that while many would find official diocesan support for the implementation of the law “disappointing,” “on the other hand, it will be a lot of trouble if we don’t support the government. We never know what they will do to our Church.”
The full text of the law was only made public the day before it came into force. Prior to that, Cardinal John Tong Hon, apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Hong Kong said that he believed that law would have “no effect on religious freedom.”
Cardinal Hon also rejected concerns that the diocese’s relationship with the Vatican could be termed “collusion with foreign forces” under the new law’s provisions.
The diocese, he said, “has always had a direct relationship with the Vatican; the relationship between the Hong Kong diocese and the Vatican should be regarded as an internal matter.”
In the last few months, multiple reports have emerged that Chinese state-affiliated hackers have targeted the Hong Kong diocese and even the Vatican.
In July, technology publication ZDNet reported that hackers associated with the Chinese government have repeatedly attacked officials with the Diocese of Hong Kong with legitimate-looking documents that actually install malware on the user’s computer.
A second report, released July 28, said that hackers may have used a counterfeit condolence message from Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, to gain access to Vatican communications ahead of talks to renew a “provisional agreement” between the Holy See and China, which was sealed in 2018 and expires in September.