A Cry for Understanding
The day started like any other. As I reviewed about a dozen messages sent me overnight, one message stood out, it was from Hong Kong. My friend wrote, If Jesus is good, why does he not just come and help Hong Kong right now?
The private message, sent me through a China-based social media app known as Wechat, was from someone I know well. While living in China, I had worked with this person. I consider this person a friend, who I trust. I know this person to be a Christian.
Upon reading the message, I knew my friend, who is normally cool under pressure, was reacting to the unfolding internal drama that was sweeping all of Hong Kong into conflict. Months earlier, what had started as a small series of peaceful protests, had since grown into a freedom focused wave enveloping all of Hong Kong society.
As I write these words, today, 800,000 people marched again in the streets of Hong Kong in support of freedom. In doing, so they marked the beginning of the sixth month of ongoing protests.
Flashback to the Hong Kong I Knew
Hong Kong is where islands, ocean, mountains and skyscrapers comfortably co-exist. Hong Kong people are friendly, many speak English, the food is amazing, and the culture historically rich. There is also a vibrant Christian community of various expressions practicing there. While I lived in Beijing, the political capital of China, Hong Kong was a short three hour flight away and a place I enjoyed escaping too for R&R.
While visiting Hong Kong, I recall meaningful diverse experiences which included activities like hiking to see the spectacular 110 ft tall bronze Tian Tan Buddha. In 2016, I was privileged to attend a small gathering of pastors in Hong Kong who met with Oz Guinness and Ravi Zacharias. On another trip, dining above the clouds in Hong Kong’s 103-story Ritz Carlton felt like a scene straight out of Star Wars Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City. Along the way, my family, friends and I also enjoyed more than a few days of fun at Hong Kong Disney. Through all my collective experience, Hong Kong has been a wonderful place of peace and rest.
But as the Bob Dylan song goes, “The Times They Are a Changin’”, and so it is now for Hong Kong. Life for ordinary citizens in Hong Kong has been turned upside down. People like my friend are facing a new reality with lots of questions and no easy way forward.
The Church in Hong Kong
As a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, Hong Kong enjoys many freedoms, including religious freedom. In Hong Kong, there are many active vibrant Christ-exalting churches, and Christians in those churches are today struggling with some tough questions. Pastors are being confronted with questions from members, who like my friend, are looking for spiritual counsel during days of societal unrest and turmoil. No doubt, the church in Hong Kong holds a special place of ministry. This article and others to follow will explore the ongoing Hong Kong dilemma and the role of the church in it.
Hong Kong, originally an island of China, was given to Britain 1842 as part of the Opium War’s Treaty of Nanking. Britain maintained sovereignty over Hong Kong until 1997, when the United Kingdom handed over Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. The transfer agreement between Britain and China included a provision whereby China agreed to grant Hong Kong a Special Administrative Region (SAR) status. Under an arrangement known as “one country, two-systems”, the people of Hong Kong were promised, for a period of 50 years after the 1997 transfer to China, they would continue to enjoy the same freedoms they had known under British control. However, Hong Kong has since learned what is in writing is not necessarily a certain reality.
Clash of Political Cultures and Law
While working in Beijing, I was involved in a number of activities, including the drafting and execution of many contracts and legal agreements. Employment contracts, property leases, banking and financial contracts, publishing and intellectual property agreements and more. As an American working in China, it was always viewed as an advantage to have a Chinese contract written under the jurisdiction of Hong Kong Law and not the People’s Republic of China Law. This is because the People’s Republic of China, or Mainland China as it’s also known, is a land where the Rule of Law has not yet fully matured. However, Hong Kong, as a Special Administrative Region outside of mainland China’s legal system, has enjoyed the ethical influence of more than 150 years of British Common Law. Therefore, like Great Britain, Hong Kong has a very mature legal system and excellent trustworthy judiciary.
However, Mainland China operates its domestic and international concerns as a nation not yet fully practicing the principles and ethic of the Rule of Law as it is understood in the West. Practically, inside China it is said, ‘that which is allowed is permitted’. Therefore, not all laws are equitability enforced inside the Chinese mainland. Sometimes relationship or guanxi as it is called is more important in China than the law itself. In China, some laws, not all laws, are practically more permissive and less prescriptive. Therein lays part of the reason for the current crisis enveloping Hong Kong.
It has now been more than twenty years since Hong Kong completed its transfer from Britain to China. By the 1997 transfer agreement, China remains three decades shy of being able to directly make significant changes to Hong Kong society. However, the protests now ongoing in Hong Kong are a rejection of the perceived attempt by the People’s Republic of China to accelerate the previously agreed upon timeline. By the transfer agreement, in 2047, China will have full legal rights and control over all of Hong Kong society. But Hong Kongers are today attempting to keep China to their agreement and not prematurely erode the freedoms Hong Kong people now enjoy.
What is at Stake?
The basic governing laws now in force in Hong Kong allow for some of the same freedoms enjoyed in the West. Among current freedoms in Hong Kong are freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion. Those freedoms are now deemed at risk by Hong Kong’s protestors. The concern is not without merit, as there have been a number of recent events viewed as attempts to erode the legal freedoms now known in Hong Kong. Most notably, was the 2019 quiet introduction of a Hong Kong bill, that had it been passed, would have allowed anyone in Hong Kong to be arrested and extradited to mainland China for trail.
In Mainland China, being charged with a crime is viewed as tantamount to being convicted. That is not presently true in Hong Kong. Hong Kongers fear members of the Hong Kong press, pro-democracy activists and perhaps even members of the clergy could be secretly removed from Hong Kong in the middle of the night and placed under Chinese law on the mainland. Such practices are common on the mainland and Hong Kong people have historical knowledge of events on the mainland, like Tiananmen Square, the closing of churches, and the detention of pro-democracy proponents. Thus, they fear those are precursors for what may be in store for Hong Kong.
My Friend’s Dilemma
Day to day life has been disrupted in many places within Hong Kong. Subway lines have been vandalized and rendered inoperable. Public streets have been destroyed. Protesters have built barricades and lit them on fire in public places. People have been unable to get to work. Police operations have included mass arrests, the release of teargas, and the firing of both non-lethal and lethal rounds. There have been riots and calls from the protesters for Western governments to send help.
The churches of Hong Kong have not gone unaffected. There have been peaceful protests, where protesters sang worship songs and even picked up trash after the event was over. “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” was an early anthem of the protests in Hong Kong. Nightly prayer vigils are held at churches, and some churches along the protest routes have opened their doors to protesters as places of rest.
My friend also shared with me that the underlying causes of the protests have split families in Hong Kong. This is an especially difficult dynamic given the high societal value family plays in Hong Kong life. Some say protests will yield nothing, while others passionately fight against the threat to the quality of life they now know.
In late November 2019, Hong Kongers turned out in large numbers to vote for their elected officials. In doing so the pro-Beijing party lost significant representation in Hong Kong, while pro-Democracy politicians gained significant seats.
The leader of Hong Kong has since withdrawn the bill which initially sparked the protesters, however the protests continue and so does the stressful dilemma of many Christians like my friend.
The Role of a Pastor in Hong Kong
Imagine for a moment you’re a pastor or church leader in Hong Kong. Perhaps you are part of a Baptist church near Hong Kong’s famous Baptist University. You have a mix of members in your church. Some are expats, or foreign nationals, who work in Hong Kong, but most are Hong Kong natives. In fact, many in your church are first generation Christians. As the protests begin to grow, many people are coming to you for spiritual advice. How would you respond to their questions?
Some ask, is it against God’s will if they join the protesters?
One church member shares with you his wife and children strongly disagree with his belief about the protests. He asks you, how does he lead his family through this time of turmoil?
Many adult members say their aging parents have forbidden their participation in the protests, but they worry for their own children’s future, what should they do?
Still others tell you their dear friends in the church have begun to form factions representing the opposite sides of this struggle, and they fear the church could split.
Some even ask, what should church members do if police ask them for the names of protesters they know in the church?
Government, Citizenship, Law, the Church, Family, Freedom, and more make this topic and all its questions, complicated.
In the next two parts of this series, we will examine the role of the church in Hong Kong today, with a specific eye to the question, given the disruption in civil society and the important voice the church plays in that society, How Now Shall We Live?
Shawn Powers is the CEO of Baptist Community Health Services, a network of health clinics in the New Orleans area started by the New Orleans Baptist Association of Churches (NOBA) and the only ministry of its kind in the SBC. He is holds degrees in both Business and Theology and served in Beijing, China until his call to New Orleans in 2016. He and his wife Christy have three children. You can see more about Shawn’s ministry at the BCHS website.