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Home : News : Nation and World
Retired cardinal supports call for democratic reforms in Hong Kong
Catholic News Service photo
Passers-by in Hong Kong's financial district June 23 walk behind a banner urging people to vote between June 22 and 29. Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the retired bishop of Hong Kong, backs the unofficial referendum on the 2017 election process.
Catholic News Service photo
Passers-by in Hong Kong's financial district June 23 walk behind a banner urging people to vote between June 22 and 29. Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the retired bishop of Hong Kong, backs the unofficial referendum on the 2017 election process.
Catholic News Service

MANILA, Philippines  — Voter turnout in an unofficial referendum on democratic reforms swelled June 23 in Hong Kong, where a cardinal vowed to support efforts to keep the Chinese-run special autonomous region independent.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired bishop of Hong Kong, was reported to have spoken out against China after leaders in Beijing issued a white paper reaffirming their authority over semi-autonomous Hong Kong. Cardinal Zen traveled Hong Kong on foot in mid-June to boost the turnout at the unofficial polls.

Requests to interview Cardinal Zen, 82, and Hong Kong diocesan officials went unanswered.

Hong Kong had been under British rule for almost 160 years until 1997, when China regained control of the city-state. Under a "one-state, two systems" form of co-existence the democratic state has maintained wide-ranging autonomy.

However, social tensions have grown as many resident claim civil liberties are being eroded.

Groups of concerned Hong Kong citizens demanded that China allow universal suffrage in the 2017 elections. Since 1997, electing Hong Kong's top leader has meant going through a 1,200-member committee that makes the pick from a list of Beijing-approved candidates.

Many citizens want ordinary people to have a say in which candidates can run in the 2017 election for chief executive and also in the subsequent election for legislators. The issue was put up for an unofficial vote in mid-June.

Voting was extended from June 22 until June 29 after the voting website received billions of hits in an apparent cyberattack. Voting has been conducted online and via smartphones.

One of the pro-democracy leaders, Emily Lau Wai-hing, a Hong Kong Legislative Council member, said as of the afternoon of June 23 more than 700,000 votes had been cast. Hong Kong's population stands at about 7.1 million.

Lau told Catholic News Service by telephone that supporters of universal suffrage are facing "a very authoritarian and repressive state" in China. Still, she said, there is a stipulation in the governing rules that Hong Kong will elect leaders through universal suffrage starting in 2017.

"This is an undertaking given by Beijing, and what we're trying to do is to get Beijing to keep its promise," Lau said. "But I guess most people do not have any illusions, and it will be an uphill battle."

Lau and another pro-democracy leader said they would resort to "civil disobedience" if need be. They are part of a movement called Occupy Central, which is prepared to stop traffic in Hong Kong's business district if their demands go unmet.

Lau said Cardinal Zen's stance has been "very helpful."

"I think he is a very, very well-respected person by the Catholics, of course, and also by people who are not Catholics because he has principles. He has courage. And he is willing to speak out even if it upsets the powers that be," said Lau. She said she has met him on "a number of occasions" and that he is often involved in political and China-related issues.

The Hong Kong Diocese has remained neutral on the referendum.

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