WASHINGTON -- On May 31, President Bush met for 35 minutes in the private living quarters of the White House with Cardinal Joseph Zen, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Hong Kong, in an event that was not announced and did not appear on his official schedule. Their meeting did not please the State Department, elements of the Catholic hierarchy and certainly not the Chinese government. But it signifies what George W. Bush is really about.
In Hong Kong, Zen enjoys more freedom to speak out than do his fellow bishops in China proper and has become known as the spiritual voice of China's beleaguered democracy movement. Increasingly since Hong Kong was handed over to Beijing by the British government in 1997, he has been a voice calling for both religious freedom and democracy in China. Consequently, the China desk at the State Department in Washington and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing contended that, for the sake of Sino-American relations, it would be a bad idea for the president to invite the cardinal. So did some of Zen's fellow cardinals.
So, why did the president invite the cardinal? The fact that no news of the session leaked out for two weeks indicates this was no political stunt to revive Bush's anemic poll ratings. The president got divided counsel from his advisers regarding its impact on China's rulers. As he nears the end of a troubled presidency, Bush as a man of faith places the plight of the religious in unfree countries at the top of his agenda.
Pope Benedict's decision last year to place the red hat of a Cardinal on Joseph Zen Ze-kiun at age 74 was not popular among advocates of a negotiated settlement between the Vatican and the Chinese government. For the past decade, Zen has been an increasingly vigorous and even strident democracy advocate for China.
The suggestion that Zen conclude his three-week visit to 14 North American cities with a meeting in the White House came from presidential speechwriter Bill McGurn. One of the most conservative White House aides, McGurn as editorial page editor of the Hong-Kong based Far Eastern Economic Review had become acquainted with and impressed by Zen.
McGurn's advice did not please the State Department, which contacted the politically well-connected Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (the former archbishop of Washington, D.C.). According to Hong Kong sources, McCarrick advised it might be better if the U.S. government worked through the regular Vatican diplomatic corps.
Clark T. Randt Jr., the U.S. ambassador in Beijing, also weighed in against a Bush-Zen meeting. An old China hand who has spent 30 years in Asia as a lawyer-businessmen and is fluent in Mandarin, he is referred to as "Ambassador Squish" by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. Sandy Randt is also a good friend of the president dating back to their days at Yale.
But more important to Bush than advice from a college chum is what he truly believes, as the difficult days of what has been an unpopular presidency dwindle down. He met in Washington last year with dissident "House Christians" from China. Speaking in Prague, a week after his talk with Zen, Bush affirmed his position on the side of religious dissidents everywhere: "Freedom is the design of our Maker, and the longing of every soul."
In a city abounding in leaks, I first learned on June 13 about the Cardinal's visit to the White House via a circuitous route from an American Catholic layman. On that same day, Raymond Arroyo of EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network), the acclaimed reporter of Catholic news, made public that the meeting took place.
Bush asked Zen whether he was the "bishop of all China." Replying that his diocese was just Hong Kong, Zen told Bush of the plight of Catholics in China, including five imprisoned bishops. The cardinal is reported by sources close to him to have left the White House energized and inspired. George W. Bush is at a low point among his fellow citizens, but he is still a major figure for Catholics in China who look to him as a clarion of freedom.