Hong Kong (AFP) -
The arrest of a 90-year-old Catholic cardinal under Hong Kong's national security law has triggered international outrage and deepened concerns over China's crackdown on freedoms in the financial hub.
Retired cardinal Joseph Zen, one of the most senior Catholic clerics in Asia, was among a group of veteran democracy advocates arrested Wednesday for 'colluding with foreign forces'.
Cantonese pop singer Denise Ho, veteran barrister Margaret Ng and prominent cultural studies scholar Hui Po-keung were also arrested, the latter as he attempted to fly to Europe to take up an academic post.
The four were detained for their involvement in a now-disbanded defence fund that helped pay legal and medical costs for those arrested during the huge and sometimes violent wave of democracy protests three years ago.
China responded with a broad campaign to crush the movement and transform the once-outspoken city into something more closely resembling the authoritarian mainland.
Zen and his colleagues, who were released on bail late Wednesday, join more than 180 Hong Kongers arrested to date under the national security law Beijing imposed to stop the protests.
Those charged are typically denied bail and can face up to life in prison if convicted.
- 'Deeply troubling' -
Criticism came from Western nations who have accused China of eviscerating the freedoms it once promised Hong Kong could maintain.
The United States, which has previously sanctioned key Chinese officials over the ongoing crackdown, called on Beijing to 'cease targeting Hong Kong's advocates'.
Canada said consular officials were trying to access Ho, a popular Hong Kong singer and LGTBQ campaigner who is also a Canadian national.
Foreign minister Melanie Joly called the arrests 'deeply troubling'.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he was following the arrests with 'great concern', while Human Rights Watch called it a 'shocking new low for Hong Kong'.
'Even by Hong Kong's recent standards of worsening repression, these arrests represent a shocking escalation,' added Amnesty International.
The Vatican said it was concerned by Zen's arrest and 'following the development of the situation very closely'.
- 'Damocles sword' -
Cardinal Zen fled Shanghai for Hong Kong after the communists took power in China in 1949 and rose to become bishop of the city.
A long-term advocate for Hong Kong's democracy movement, Zen has also been critical of the Vatican for reaching a compromise with China over the appointment of bishops on the mainland.
Hong Kong's Catholic hierarchy, including Zen's successors, has become far less outspoken about Beijing in recent years.
His arrest has sent shockwaves through the city's Catholic community who, unlike on the mainland, have been free to practice their faith without state control.
'The arrest of cardinal Zen is a blow for the entire church in Hong Kong, China and the world,' Hong Kong-based Italian missionary Franco Mella, 73, told AFP.
'It has become obvious that there is a Damocles sword above Zen and other church people.'
A church visitor on Thursday who gave her name as Laura said congregants feared mainland-style suppression of religion could be coming to Hong Kong.
'The space for religious freedom has apparently shrunk because even a Catholic cardinal is now under arrest,' she said.
Those arrested Wednesday were suspected of endangering national security because they allegedly asked foreign nations or overseas organisations to impose sanctions on Hong Kong, police said.
Ta Kung Pao, a nationalist newspaper that answers to Beijing's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, published an article Thursday accusing the group of 'six crimes'.
They included funding lobbying trips and activist meetings with British lawmakers, providing financial aid to Hong Kong 'rioters' who had fled to Canada and Taiwan, and accepting donations from overseas.
It also listed a HK$1.3 million (US$165,000) donation from Apple Daily, a popular pro-democracy tabloid that collapsed last year after its assets were frozen under the security law.
But most of the alleged actions cited by Ta Kung Pao took place before the enactment of the law, which is not supposed to be retroactive.
The fund disbanded last year after national security police demanded it hand over operational details including information about its donors and beneficiaries.