The popular Bishop of Baoding would have turned 90 earlier this month—but nobody has seen him since 2003.
by Zhang Feng
On July 10, 2022, Catholic Bishop James Su Zhimin turned 90. At least, July 10 is when his birthday has been more often celebrated, although in some official documents his birth date is indicated as July 1, 1932. Catholics in his diocese of Baoding, in Hebei province, started preparing celebrations for his 90th birthday in 2021. There was one problem, though, they didn’t know whether their Bishop was alive or dead. He has been in jail since 1997 and was last seen by his co-religionists in 2003.
Soon, however, a second problem emerged for the Catholics of Baoding. They were told by the CCP that celebrating the birthday of Bishop Su was absolutely forbidden. The context of Baoding is particularly problematic for the Communist Party. Notwithstanding the Vatican-China deal of 2018, it is one of the most important centers in the country for “conscientious objectors,” i.e., priests and lay Catholics who refuse the Vatican suggestion that they join the Patriotic Catholic Church, and continue a precarious existence outside of the official structures.
From January 2022, also in an effort to prevent the celebrations of July, at least ten Catholic priests of the diocese of Baoding who are conscientious objectors have been arrested. Surveillance increased as July approached. Yet it has been reported to Bitter Winter that Masses, where priests were available, or other underground ceremonies to honor Bishop James Su Zhimin on his birthday were celebrated in private homes in Baoding, Ansu, and elsewhere, eluding police surveillance.
One lay conscientious objector from Ansu told Bitter Winter that thousands prayed for the Bishop throughout the diocese, in small “and in some cases not so small” groups. “If Bishop Su is dead, he said, he had a glorious birthday in Heaven.”
Bishop James Su Zhimin is widely regarded as a hero by Chinese Catholics. He was a lay Catholic leader who was arrested three times between 1956 and 1975. Released in 1979, he studied clandestinely to become a priest and was ordained in 1981 at age 49. This led to his fourth arrest in 1982. Released in 1986, in 1988 he was chosen as Auxiliary Bishop of Baoding, and promptly arrested again, for the fifth time.
Upon his release, he was consecrated a Bishop in the underground church in 1993, and promoted by the Holy See to Bishop of Baoding in 1995, which led to his sixth arrest. His case started to become known abroad, and under a specific request by the United States he was released, then placed under house arrest (that he regarded as his seventh arrest). As he continued to be popular among Catholics, he was taken to jail again in 1997.
This eighth arrest was the final one. The CCP managed to keep the name of the jail where he was detained undisclosed. He was “discovered” by chance by relatives in a Baoding hospital where he had been taken for eye problems in 2003. But as soon as he had been recognized, police took him away from the hospital. This is the last time relatives or friends saw him, although in 2015 his family was told that he was alive and would be released if the Vatican would “improve” his relations with China.
This happened with the Vatican-China deal of 2018, and Catholics in Baoding fully expected that with the signature of that agreement Bishop Su would be released. But this did not happen—perhaps because he was no longer alive.
“Agreements and dialogue cannot be based on lies,” the Catholic conscientious objector from Ansu who spoke to Bitter Winter told us. “If Bishop Su is alive, they should release him. After his last arrest, they would have kept him in jail for twenty-five years. If he is dead, they should tell the Vatican and us what happened to him. Before signing for the renewal of the agreement, the Vatican should resolutely ask the CCP to tell the truth about Bishop Su.”