Moments before law enforcement officers violently cleared protesters in Lafayette Park so President Donald Trump could walk from the White House to St. John’s Church and have his picture taken holding a Bible, a journalist who had recently spent months on the streets of Hong Kong confidently donned a gas mask while nearby colleagues looked on confusedly as they became engulfed in the ensuing melee.
Chemical irritants and flash-bang grenades are not the only similarities between the clashes taking place in Washington DC and those that have consumed Hong Kong for the past year. As in the United States, Christians in Hong Kong struggle to define their role in a society marred by institutionalized injustice and sharp division.
An open letter drafted by a group of evangelical pastors, theologians, and parachurch leaders and signed by more than 3,500 [as of June 15] Christians in Hong Kong echoed sentiments shared by many believers in the US and elsewhere in the world: commitment to the fullness of the gospel; refusal to submit to an authoritarian regime; dedication to walk with the people of their community; and the church’s need to repent of apathy and inaction.
Whether in Washington or Hong Kong, the current conflicts center around abuse of official power. In Hong Kong’s case, China’s central government has effectively thrown out the “one country, two systems” formula under which the former British colony was to be governed for 50 years after 1997. Smashing through the wall of separation that was meant to protect the city from the vagaries of China’s socialist legal system, China’s leaders are now unilaterally imposing draconian national security measures that would render illegal any opposition in word or action to the regime in Beijing.
While Hong Kong churches and the many Christian organizations that play a vital role in the city’s social infrastructure continue to enjoy freedom as before, many have curtailed their outreach activities in mainland China. (Believers account for about 12 percent of the population in Hong Kong, compared with about 7 percent on the mainland.
Under the new security legislation, the appearance of connections to foreign “anti-China” individuals or groups, or to local political activists, could have possible legal consequences. So could speaking out on sensitive issues, including the treatment of Christians in the mainland.
Declaring God’s sovereignty in the face of this political overreach, the Hong Kong pastors stated in their letter:
“The King of Heaven does not rule by controlling the world. Rather, He rules by showing His love and humble servitude…. Thus, as the King of Heaven, His political blueprint is ‘to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ (Luke 4:18-19)”
Their letter confessed that churches have been “too focused on their internal affairs” and neglected social justice—including speaking up for oppressed minorities in the city—and have been silent in the face of mounting authoritarianism:
“When facing the authority’s strong governance and the persecution and suppression towards the dissidents, churches often chose to protect themselves. They engaged in self-censorship and remained silent towards the evil deeds of the authority, with their only wish being the smooth and uninterrupted operation of church ministries.”
Proclaiming Christ as the highest authority, the pastors offered “sincere repentance” and vowed not to submit to the leadership of any government entity or political party whose demands run counter to biblical teaching.
Similar to those protesting the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, Hong Kong’s protesters are voicing the pent-up frustration of years of seeing personal liberties eroded as the Chinese government has systematically tightened its stranglehold on the city’s media, schools, civic organizations, and the business community, including a vibrant expat population that is key to Hong Kong’s status as an international financial center.
“Everybody understands that Hong Kong is very useful to China for the exchange of currency and many other things,” said Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, in an interview last month. “And now, they are ready to destroy everything, and we can do nothing because Hong Kong is a small thing—[China] can crush it as they like.”
Many local politicians across the US have encouraged their citizens to seek change at the polls, not merely in the streets. In Hong Kong, however, the goalposts for universal suffrage promised under the “one country, two systems” framework continue to move further downfield with every new decision emanating from Beijing.
Hong Kong’s protestors have grown weary of tone-deaf local officials charged with looking out for the city’s interests who have increasingly defined those interests in terms of Beijing’s demands. This includes championing restrictive election reform measures designed to strengthen central government control, as well as white elephant infrastructure projects that enrich mainland companies and local business elites.
On the streets of Hong Kong, living under the watchful eye of what had been considered “Asia’s Finest” brings not reassurance but fear, compounded by the eventuality of China’s own national security agents being introduced into Hong Kong as part of the new national security provisions. In the eyes of those assigned to protect them, the people of Hong Kong have become the enemy, some being labeled as terrorists by officials.
Now that the gloves are off and Beijing has chosen to bypass Hong Kong’s partially elected legislature entirely, the local government has become largely irrelevant. Like many of those seen on American streets this week, Hong Kong’s protesters feel they have reached the end of their rope; there is no legitimate forum in which to air their grievances.
“We have nothing good to hope for,” said Cardinal Zen. “Hong Kong is simply completely under [China’s] control. We depend on China even for our food and water. But we put ourselves in the hands of God.”
The conflicts raging on the streets of Hong Kong and the US did not appear overnight, but are the result of deep-rooted institutional sins.
Hong Kong’s lopsided prosperity and its tenuous political situation are, paradoxically, the twin offspring of colonization, beginning with Britain’s military conquest in the opium wars of the mid-19th century. While in the 1980s, hopes of China’s eventual democratization inspired the optimistic rhetoric of the “one country, two systems” formula, Hong Kong has since gone from being seen as a laboratory for what China could become to an example of what China’s paranoid leaders fear most.
As these leaders become increasingly anti-foreign, Hong Kong becomes a casualty in the unraveling of China’s relationships with the West. How the Trump administration chooses to follow through on its recent determination that Hong Kong is no longer sufficiently autonomous to warrant special treatment will significantly impact the city’s future.
Like a tear gas canister lobbed abruptly into an unsuspecting crowd, the mainland government’s recent moves have left those who sought lasting change for Hong Kong gasping for air.
For many Hong Kong Christians, it is neither a time to retreat nor to take political matters into their own hands, but rather to double down on their commitment to the people of Hong Kong.
As Mimi Lau, a journalist with Hong Kong’s English daily South China Morning Post, urged in a Twitter thread:
“#HKers : now is not the time to desert your home. Rise up to your roles, become a KOL [key opinion leader] in your own fields and stand by your core values and believes. Most importantly, have #Faith. #HongKong is worth fighting for.
What else can I do as a #HK journalist? What can I do as a disciple of Christ? What can I do as a friend, as a collegue [sic], as a member of my community, as a daughter and as a sister? What would I give to #StandWithHongKong ?”
The pastors in their open letter pledged that “no matter how tough it gets, we shall hold onto our duty as the church to walk together with all Hongkongers, and to uphold Hong Kong ceaselessly with prayers and pastoral care, as a living testimony of ‘Emmanuel’ — God is here with those who are suffering.”
Affirming their belief that God will lead Hong Kong people through the dark days ahead, they offered a reminder that seems equally appropriate for Christians in the politically fractured United States:
“The church is neither a political party or a political organization, therefore, political agendas or demands should not become the main focus of the church. However, when facing injustice and evilness in the society, the church should act as the social conscience and fulfil [sic] its prophetic role to denounce injustice, to proclaim the will of God, and to bear witness to truth.”
Brent Fulton is founder and catalyst of ChinaSource.