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China’s war with Christianity

A participant at the vigil service in Hong Kong for those who lost their lives during the 1989 Tiananmen square massacre (Photo by Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A participant at the vigil service in Hong Kong for those who lost their lives during the 1989 Tiananmen square massacre (Photo by Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

July 8, 2019   8 mins

There has been a curious development amid the anti-China protests in Hong Kong: many of those on the street have taken up an obscure American Christian hymn, “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord”, as one of their signature protest songs.

As far as political protests go, that’s not necessarily so unusual.

Christian organisations have often been at the centre of protests and demands for citizens’ rights. From the Black Church’s central role in the Civil Rights Movement to Catholic backing of Solidarity against Communist rule in Poland, as well as various Church-led pro-democracy campaigns throughout Latin America and Africa, hymns and prayers are often deployed in political confrontations.

These examples are all taken from areas where the populations are predominantly Christian. Whereas, even though Christianity has been present there since the 1840s, few citizens in Hong Kong claim it as their religion – about 10-12%. And the make-up of the protesters is no different: most of them have likely never stepped foot in a church.

So why the hymns, then?

Some have suggested they are simply easy-to-sing-in-unison songs. Others argue that it is strategic, since the law police use to regulate or disperse public gatherings does not cover religious events.

But beyond these convenient reasons, the song is just one particularly noticeable sign of a much larger reality in the territory: the Church in Hong Kong wields power beyond its numbers, and its power has brought it into conflict with Beijing.

Even though most protesters have probably never gone to a church service, most of them have been pupils in church-founded schools. As was usually the case for many former British colonies, much of the education system in Hong Kong was established by churches during the UK’s long rule, such that today church-founded schools educate over half of all primary and secondary students in Hong Kong.

Many of these schools incorporate religion into their curriculum as a subject of study. With such dominance over education, and other social services as well, the Christian churches of Hong Kong have established their influence among the population, shaping the culture and people. Many Hong Kong residents are therefore familiar with church songs and with weightier aspects of Christianity as well, such as the churches’ outlook on social justice and rights.

And while the protesters, past and present, have not generally been Christians, their leaders have been. Two of the three founders of Occupy Central, one of the main groups leading the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, are Protestant Christians (one of them is a Reverend). Leading student activist Joshua Wong, who cofounded Scholarism – the predominant student group of the 2014 protests – is a fervent Evangelical whose father heads one of the leading Christian anti-LGBT groups in Hong Kong (the younger Wong has publicly split with his dad’s stance on gay rights but obviously inherited the knack for political activism).

The Church’s influence extends to the government. Two of the four individuals to occupy the role of Chief Executive of Hong Kong, the highest political office in the territory since the handover to China, have been devout Catholics. This includes the current Executive, Carrie Lam – a Beijing approved politician who has become a target of the protests after she tried to push through the extradition law.

Despite generally being seen as carrying Beijing’s water, Lam has refused to join the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), essentially placing a ceiling on her own career within the Chinese government, because she would be required to renounce her faith in order to do so.

Lam’s story of competing loyalties embodies the conflict between the Church and the CCP that is being played out across China, and now in Hong Kong.

The CCP has the opportunity to extend its reach into Hong Kong through officials like Lam and policies like the extradition law. But the freedoms of speech, religion and travel afforded to the churches of Hong Kong during the time of British rule – and maintained under the current “one country, two systems” policy – have long allowed the Hong Kong churches to extend their influence into China by both criticising the CCP and supporting illegal underground churches in mainland China. Such actions represent a threat to the Chinese government.

Catholics in mainland China can legally practice their faith only through the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, a government body that regulates them into a tightly managed and Communist-friendly version of Catholicism. But in Hong Kong, the Catholics are free to practise as they wish – as well as having the freedom to freely criticise the Chinese government.

Much criticism has come from the outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen (now retired). He rose up the ranks to eventually lead the Church in Hong Kong and spent decades as a human rights advocate, speaking out against the Chinese government’s repressions of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the Falun Gong religious movement of the 1990s, and more.

For years, Cardinal Zen and the Hong Kong Catholic hierarchy, backed by the Vatican, also helped support the massive underground Catholic network in China.

Similarly, tens of millions of Chinese Protestants worship in illegal underground “house” churches. This is especially common in the southeast. The illegal congregations in these provinces have been supported by nearby Hong Kong, which supplied these illegal mainland churches with everything from moral and spiritual support to theological training and Bibles.

These Christians are intentionally flouting China’s hardline regulations against religion and consciously challenging the Communist Party’s grip on power with their defiance. No wonder Beijing is irked.

As a result, under Xi, authorities have cracked down on these ‘foreign religions’: they’ve demolished unregistered houses of worship, jailed religious leaders, and even detained entire congregations and communities of religious believers who worship outside of officially-recognised religious organisations.

In a more disturbing move, last year, the Vatican and the CCP concluded years of negotiations with a deal to merge the government-controlled Catholic organization and the underground Catholic Church in China, while allowing Beijing to maintain a substantial role in approving the appointment of new bishops. Many have viewed this deal as a win for the Chinese government, extending its oversight over all Catholics in the country.

Lately, the CCP’s campaign against Christianity – a combination of repression and co-opting – has reached Hong Kong, coinciding with its more general attempts to chip away at democracy and freedom in the territory.

Beijing has tightened restrictions for mainland Christians travelling to Hong Kong, as many have done in the past years to attend Christian conferences and gatherings. And upon returning, those visitors have been subject to intimidation and detention.

More recently, Christian leaders in Hong Kong have become direct targets of Chinese bullying, with several pastors being questioned, and at least one prosecuted, for work done on the mainland. Several Protestant Christian leaders of the 2014 protests were also among those jailed in Hong Kong for their activism against Chinese repression.

While Catholic leaders in Hong Kong have not been harassed so directly, many worshippers there see the deal between the Vatican and Beijing as a disaster; Cardinal Zen personally confronted Pope Francis in an attempt to scuttle it before it was finalised.

The Pope’s agreement with the CCP is seen a betrayal of their brothers and sisters in the mainland, an erosion of the leverage that the Holy See held against the Chinese state, and a signal that the Vatican is willing to sacrifice its loyal followers  (perhaps even those in Hong Kong) in order to establish better relations with the Chinese government.

Meanwhile, the CCP had also found support within the Hong Kong Christian elite from Paul Kwong, Archbishop of Hong Kong’s Anglican Church. He was appointed, in 2016, to an official advisory position within the Chinese government and subsequently became known for his CCP-friendly stances. He and the Anglican church approached the 2014 and 2019 protests with a combination of pro-Beijing statements and silence concerning police crackdowns on demonstrators.

Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Hong Kong’s Christian minority has been especially outspoken in its attempts to protect the territory’s democracy, and a major part of the resistance movement – the imposition of authoritarian rule in Hong Kong – is at least in part a measure by the CCP to target and control the Church.

Though eclipsed by the 2014 and 2019 protests, there have been two previous instances of significant protest in Hong Kong against Chinese heavy-handedness. The first major demonstration against Chinese rule came in 2003, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets on July 1, the anniversary of the handover to China (the same date as this year’s storming of parliament). Their purpose was to reject a “National Security Bill” that would have given the government added powers to battle “sedition” and “subversion” including restricting links between Hong Kong citizens and “foreign political organisations.”

Hong Kong’s Christians were among the most vocal opponents of this bill; 90% of the territory’s Catholics saw it as designed to limit freedoms in Hong Kong (the Vatican could certainly be considered a “foreign political organisation”, no?) and both Catholic and Protestant congregations mobilised many of their members to march against the proposed law.

Similarly, when the government in 2012 tried to require schools to teach nationalism and pro-Chinese propaganda, churches rejected the proposed curriculum for their schools and helped organise tens of thousands of student protesters (including a young Joshua Wong) to march against the proposed regulation.

Many Christians now fear that this new extradition bill could be used as justification for arresting religious dissidents in Hong Kong and placing them in Chinese cells next to their mainland counterparts. But just as Christianity in mainland China has continued to grow in resistance to government efforts to suppress and control it (a common saying is that there may now be more Christians in China than Communists), the Hong Kong Church has remained defiant of Beijing in the face of new threats.

Leaders such as Joshua Wong and Cardinal Zen are as vocal as ever. Wong was recently released from prison for his leadership in the 2014 protests and immediately took up a major role in the new demonstrations.  Meanwhile, the 87-year-old retired Cardinal Zen has taken to social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to support the current protests.

Even Archbishop Kwong and the usually pro-Beijing Anglican hierarchy have acknowledged the necessity of the latest protests and urged the government to back down.

Even though Beijing has been careful to present its new policies, such as the extradition bill, as responses to secular concerns like maintaining law and order, there is a clear sense that the authorities are becoming more overtly anti-religious.  The first legal complaint over police handling of the protests to reach Hong Kong’s High Court concerned perceived anti-religious bias. During a particularly violent crackdown by police against protesters on June 12 – which saw many demonstrators taken in by local churches as they fled police batons and tear gas – one police officer allegedly demanded that a clergy member marching alongside the protestors “ask your Jesus to come down and see us”. The High Court dismissed the blasphemy complaint against the police as outside of the Court’s purview.

The churches are not in charge of the protests in Hong Kong, which have endured for weeks without central leadership. But the Church’s influence over the current protests goes far beyond a single Christian hymn. From criticising the Chinese Communist Party and supporting underground churches both before and after the handover, to calling upon the population to defy repressive Chinese-proposed laws in the early years of the “one country, two systems” era, the churches of Hong Kong have actively mobilized opposition to Beijing and created an atmosphere of defiance against the CCP.

And so the current round of protests in Hong Kong reflect the larger ongoing battle between the CCP and the Church.  So far, the protesters have stuck to singing the eponymous chorus of “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.” The full version of the song, however, goes on to make several declarations and a promise:

Jesus is risen from the dead
Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth
Jesus is living in His church
Jesus is coming for His own

Was the police officer who challenged protesters to call Jesus down familiar with this latter verse, I wonder?

Regardless, his comment reflects not just the derision that Beijing has towards Christianity and other religions, but also fear: not that Jesus himself is on his way, but that his followers are coming to challenge the Party, unless the Party comes for them first.

In the end, as Christians in both mainland China and Hong Kong have responded to repression with solidified resolve and greater levels of defiance, the Communist Party’s fears may become a self-fulfilling prophecy in Hong Kong and throughout the country.

Dr Christopher Rhodes is a Lecturer at Boston University’s College of General Studies.

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