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Hong Kong Catholic Bishop Expresses More Conciliatory Attitude Towards Beijing - 2004-05-05

One of Hong Kong's most outspoken critics of the Beijing government is expressing a more conciliatory attitude, following a visit to his native Shanghai. Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Zen returned at the invitation of the Chinese government, after being banned from the mainland six years ago. Bishop Joseph Zen's visit to mainland China opens what many hope will be a new chapter in the difficult relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the communist Chinese government.

Bishop Zen has been a vocal critic of Beijing's suppression of the Roman Catholic Church. By law, Christians in China can worship only at officially sanctioned state churches, including the so-called Patriotic Catholic Church, which does not follow the teachings of the Vatican in Rome.

However, at least half of China's estimated 12 million Catholics are believed to be part of an underground church network loyal to Rome.

Now, in an interview with VOA, Bishop Zen is expressing optimism about religious contacts between Hong Kong and mainland China.

Bishop Zen says he thinks it will be easier to organize an official church exchange in the future, because China's policy is becoming more relaxed.

Bishop Zen is a highly symbolic figure in Hong Kong's efforts to preserve its civil liberties and autonomy from Beijing. Last year, he helped lead half a million Hong Kong residents in a march protesting a controversial security law backed by China.

Now, he is praising Beijing for sincerity and friendliness. He says he wants more dialogue, but will not rush Beijing.

Bishop Zen emphasizes his visit came at the initiative of Chinese authorities and that he only responded to their display of goodwill.

Professor Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong, says Bishop Zen's rapprochement with China is unexpected.

Professor Cheng says China is becoming proactive to ensure stability, after handing down what many Hong Kong people view as setbacks to the territory's autonomy.

Last month, China's top lawmaking body ruled out the possibility of direct, universal elections for Hong Kong's political leaders in 2007.

Professor Cheng says China's overture to Bishop Zen may be the start of a new charm offensive.

"The Chinese authorities may well switch to a more conciliatory approach to patch up the relations between the community and the Chinese authority," he said.

Bishop Zen says he will keep talking to friends in China's Catholic Church, as well as its government. His role as a critic of Beijing and a democracy activist means that in Hong Kong, his relationship with China has great political meaning and will be closely watched the entire community, not just the city's 250,000 Catholics.