It has been noted in international headlines that many of Hong Kong’s protest leaders are practising Christians, and that ‘Sing Hallelujah to The Lord’ has been an unofficial anthem for the protestors. Yet Ann Gillian Chu reminds us that Hong Kong’s Christian community is no monolith. In protest eras, Christian theology has inspired both political engagement in the pursuit of social justice and withdrawal from such earthly confrontations.
As a millennial from Hong Kong, the Anti-China Extradition Protest seems larger than life. But, in fact, this movement follows decades of protest culture founded on concepts of democracy and human rights, which have fundamentally shaped the Hong Kong identity.
Likewise, the Hong Kong Christian community has been deeply engaged in dialogues regarding their faith-based responses to these protests. St Augustine famously created the theological metaphor of two cities: a ‘city of God’ which is marked by people who forego earthly pleasures to dedicate themselves to the eternal truths of God; and an ‘earthly city’ that consists of people who have immersed themselves in the pleasures of the present, passing world. For Hong Kong Christians, the theological debate over the Anti-China Extradition Bill demonstrations can be framed in these terms: does the earthly protest reflect a care for the heavenly realm, since it strives for social justice, or is it merely a part of the present, passing world?
A selected chronology of Hong Kong protests will illustrate the varied reactions from the Christian community over recent decades.
1967 – Leftist Riot
‘Church social services expansion’
In the wake of the 1966 Cultural Revolution in China, riots by local leftist groups led to violent confrontations between protestors and British colonial police forces, resulting in the deaths of approximately 50 people, including both civilians and members of the police force. The 1967 Leftist Riot was an assertion of Chinese identity and the desire to assimilate with China. Protestors rioted against the pervasive oppression of the colonial government, triggered by the Star Ferry price hike and salary disputes between the workers and the employers at the Hong Kong Artificial Flower Works. The Christian church responded rapidly by establishing more social services and labour unions to improve living and working conditions. The colonial government’s failure to provide enough social services in Hong Kong is widely seen as one of the factors that led to the riot.
‘Evangelisation in China’
In 1989, the Chinese government declared martial law in Beijing, and there have been claims that more than one million people in Hong Kong protested in solidarity with Chinese students against the Tiananmen Square massacre. In addition, Hong Kong protestors were also reacting to the uncertainty surrounding the impending 1997 Handover. The Handover would mark the end of over 155 years of British colonial rule following the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, and the beginning of Chinese communist control. The United Nations delisted Hong Kong from the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories in 1972, which led to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Agreement, mandating the terms of Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997. Much like the reactions to the 1967 Leftist Riot, the Christian response to the 1989 protests was quite proactive. While there were many who migrated to Western countries, those who stayed mostly agreed that the proper response was to evangelise more earnestly in China, as seen in the increased outreach efforts in the 1990s. These efforts were a way for Hong Kong Christians to reconcile their faith, national identity, and mission in the midst of a political crisis. The colonial Hong Kong Christians were hopeful for China to become a Christian nation, and hence a democratic one, in the face of the impending Handover.
2013-14 – Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement
‘Varied responses – prophetic protest, quiet defiance and dutiful obedience’
The ‘Occupy Central Movement’ is shorthand for the Occupy Central with Love and Peace Movement, a campaign for universal suffrage in Hong Kong through acts of civil disobedience, including the occupation of the central business district of Hong Kong. The movement emerged from its campaigners’ belief that a genuinely harmonious society can only be built upon a just political system. The Occupy Central Movement soon led to the Umbrella Movement, which was a series of independently organised illegal demonstrations in several major districts of Hong Kong. These acts of civil disobedience were intended to achieve universal suffrage in Hong Kong, among other goals such as anti-national education. Both movements are seen by some in the Hong Kong Christian community as serving a Christian agenda, since the Occupy Central Movement was initiated by several leaders who happen to be Christians, including Benny Tai, a Christian law professor, and Yiu-ming Chu, a Baptist minister. The face of the Umbrella Movement, Joshua Wong, is also a confessing Christian. Nonetheless, the Christian community’s response varied: some supported the cause, and believed that Christians should be a prophetic voice in society. Others opposed the cause and argue that Christians should submit to authorities who God has put in the position of authority. Yet others argued that, rather than engage in mass protest, Christians should live their daily lives as a form of protest.
‘Initial support for movement but increasing dispute over the use of violence’
On 17 February 2018, a Hong Kong man allegedly murdered his pregnant girlfriend during their holiday in Taiwan and then returned to Hong Kong alone. Because Hong Kong and Taiwan do not have mutual extradition policies since the Chinese government does not recognise Taiwan as an independent state, the Hong Kong government proposed the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019 regarding extradition to amend the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance (Cap. 503) after an uncharacteristically short consultation period. However, this bill would also be mutually applicable to other countries that currently do not have extradition agreements with Hong Kong, including China, which leads to the possible extradition of Hong Kong dissenters to mainland China. This Bill sparked fear among the Hong Kong people, because China’s legal system is vastly different from Hong Kong’s, with the former sanctioning capital punishment and lacking rights to open and fair trials. At first, the protest began as a legal and peaceful civil action with allegedly over two million people participating, but it quickly descended into decentralised violent protests with significantly fewer participants. These violent actions led to a severe division of opinion in the city regarding the protests. As of today, the protests have already lasted around half a year, with no apparent signs of reaching a conclusion.
While there were relatively few churches that openly expressed their stance toward the Umbrella Movement, many, at the beginning of the current campaign, issued statements condemning the Extradition Bill and the police brutality exercised during protests, with relatively few condemning the protestors. This difference in response is due to the context of the protests. While the Umbrella Movement strived for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, a right that Hong Kongers had never enjoyed, the Anti-China Extradition Bill protests are perceived to be protecting existing freedoms, such as freedom of speech and religion. Even so, as the initially peaceful protest descended into constant violent protests, the Christian voice has changed from full-throated support to a more ambiguous position.
Change and continuity
The major difference between the pre- and post-Handover protests is this: prior to 1997, the people of Hong Kong had a sense that there was still potential for self-determination and idealisation once the Handover arrived. However, after the Handover, many became disillusioned with the process of Hong Kong’s Chinese assimilation due to the reversal of power between Hong Kong and mainland China. Accordingly, protests became a desperate cry rather than a look forward toward a hopeful future. Despite the differences in response pre- and post-Handover, there has always been a part of the Christian community that consider social justice to be a core concern of Christians, while there are those who consider social issues to be earthly concerns and urged the church to focus on evangelism alone.
Where do Hong Kong Christians go from here? There are those who aim to leave the Earthly City and look inward to the church community—withdrawn pietists—and there are those who think being Christian means having to engage with social justice and who are trying to fix the existing political system. But why should you care? The situation in Hong Kong presents important considerations on the nature of religious freedom for the rest of the world. Hong Kong has taken an unusual trajectory, having moved from a more free society to a more autocratic one. However, the shift toward autocratic political orders is becoming more and more common in the twenty-first century. Hong Kong’s political situation will provide a much-needed analysis of how Christians in a non-democratic, non-Christian society frame civic engagement. Watch Hong Kong and its prophetic existence.
Note: For more from Gillian on this topic, see ‘A Perspective of Christianity on Civil Disobedience: A Study of Hong Kong’s Occupy Central and the Umbrella Movement‘.
Note: This piece gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.