Over the past few weeks, the world’s eyes have been on Hong Kong, and many stories of people engaging in popular, nonviolent direct action in protest over mainland China’s attempt to control the island city’s 2017 election. There is one aspect of the story that is sometimes getting overlooked by news reports – these protests often have a very strongly Christian flavor.
Christian Protesters In Hong Kong
17 year-old Joshua Wong, the top leader of Scholarism, one of the main student activist groups organizing the protests, is Christian, and explains that his motivation behind his participation comes from a firm belief that everyone “is born equal and loved by Jesus.”
In 2012, when Joshua was 15, his organization got 120,000 students to rally and successfully force Hong Kong schools to drop a proposal to introduce pro-Maoist “National and Moral Education” into the curriculum. Overwhelmed by this success, he has set his sights on total press freedom and universal suffrage for the island city.
82 year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong, is also taking part in the protests, spending the night with the young students. He himself fled Shanghai in 1949 after the Communist takeover, and thus directly benefited from Hong Kong’s higher levels of religious freedom.
He is deeply fearful of a Chinese takeover of his adopted home, saying that Hong Kong has an atmosphere of “a culture of the truth and respect for the dignity of people,” while Beijing’s government creates a world with “immediate interests. No spiritual value.”
Role Of Churches
Joshua Wong and Cardinal Zen are two Christian activists from two different generations, but they represent thousands of people who are both protesting perceived injustice in Hong Kong, and doing so for reasons deeply rooted in Christian faith. Prayer groups, crosses, and Bible reading has all been a highly visible part of the protest activities.
Churches are playing a role in shaping the direction of the protests, even though they are divided. Some have officially opposed the protests or encouraged a neutral stance, such as Anglican Archbishop Paul Kwong has encouraged his parishioners to “remain silent” on democracy issues.
However, others have provided first aid and support to participants. The doors of Methodist, Anglican, and Catholic churches have given refuge and places to sleep, and Catholic and Protestant student groups have worked together to give food to the people camping out outside government buildings.
A Growing Religious Group Showing Its Activist Potential
According to a report by Operation Mobilization, Hong Kong is home to 320,000 Protestants and 243,000 Catholics, in a city with a total population of 7 million.
Many of these Christians feel that as Mainland Chinese control of Hong Kong increases, the level of religious tolerance has decreased. The government has torn a brand new church down, and has demanded others remove crosses from their buildings. Hence, they have a deep interest in helping to maintain the relative independence of Hong Kong from Beijing control.
In 1997, when the Chinese government took over rule of Hong Kong from Great Brittan, it did so with the promise that it would remain an autonomous region, with freedoms unknown to most people under Chinese rule. However, many people in Hong Kong feel that the Chinese government has not kept its agreement, especially with its recent demand that all candidates for the upcoming election be approved by the Communist party.
China has seen phenomenal growth in the Christians, who are able to take a more active role in society, and presenting a real and powerful threat to the country’s avoided Marxist atheism. Both pro-democracy activists, and Chinese government leaders have expressed that these efforts for more freedom to Hong Kong will eventually influence how people on the mainland. Thus, as more people in China convert to Christianity, it could have potentially radical transformations on China’s government.