For many in America, including Christians, America is seen as a repressive force in history and in the world. So too our motherland, Britain, which throttled the globe with its imperialism. And hypocritical Christianity, of course, is portrayed as the spiritual handmaid to Anglo-American imperialism, racism, and greed, along with the whole of Western civilization. We are supposed shamefully to reflect, lament, and apologize.

Except in Hong Kong, thousands of demonstrators against Beijing’s pseudo communist autocrats apparently haven’t read the memo explaining all the evils of the West, America, Britain, and Christianity. American and British flags have appeared. “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been sung. So too have lyrics from Les Misérables, a musical popular in America and Britain based on Victor Hugo’s novel set against the Paris uprising of 1832.

And demonstrators have sung “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,” a 1970s-era American evangelical praise song. Although Christians are only about 12 percent of Hong Kong’s population, they apparently comprise a disproportionate share of the protestors. This praise song and other hymns have been introduced to calm the crowds and discourage police disruption. Many non-Christians have joined the singing. And many churches have offered quiet hospitality to the protests. Interestingly, Hong Kong’s chief magistrate is herself a Catholic.

Why would Chinese people in Hong Kong wave the flag of Britain, their former colonial master? Why would they identify with the United States, which has never had any formal association with Hong Kong? Why sing from a 1980s musical based on nineteenth-century French political discontent? And why would nonChristians sing a Christian hymn extolling the Lord?

As the protestors labor to defend what remains of Hong Kong autonomy and democracy, they recall the former British colonial rulers for a system of equitable laws that protected free speech and conscience. British rule allowed Hong Kong to prosper for decades while communist China was still impoverished and fratricidal. A tradition of liberty that began with Magna Carta halfway around the globe eight hundred years ago protected Hong Kong’s freedoms.

The protestors see America as the world’s most powerful and arguably oldest continuous democracy, where the liberties for which Hong Kong fights are assumed and longestablished. America is also the chief global counterweight to Beijing, which seeks to strangle Hong Kong’s independent spirit and subordinate it to authoritarian rule under the Communist Party. Beijing routinely denounces America and attempts to tar the demonstrators as agents of America. But the protests are indigenous and organic to Hong Kong, where protesters see America as the symbol of freedom and resistance against dictatorship.

As to why protestors would sing from Les Misérables’ “Do You Hear the People Sing,” the answer is in the lyrics:

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again.
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes.
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Then join in the fight
That will give you the right to be free.
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again.

This song embodies the Western spirit of individual rights against despotism. Persons are not slaves but free moral agents who should exercise authority over their government, not vice versa. Victor Hugo might be surprised that his novel became a popular global musical, and more surprised still that it inspired freedom protestors in China. But he would not be displeased.

As to why largely non-Christian Chinese would sing “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,” the answer is only slightly less obvious. Claims for individual rights ultimately assume a transcendent authority above all earthly powers. How else can otherwise powerless, ordinary persons make claims against powerful dictatorships?

Christianity, although always a small minority in China, has nearly always been a force for elevating the rights of individuals against oppressors, whether landlords, warlords, or central governments. Beijing has been repressing Christianity because it understands the faith’s intrinsically subversive nature. Whether communist or imperial, Chinese rulers for millennia have demanded obedience. “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” offers ultimate obedience to a superseding authority that Beijing cannot jail, intimidate, or kill.

May that superseding authority bless and protect the Hong Kong demonstrators. They face their own road to Calvary in the days ahead. It’s almost unimaginable that Beijing will not finally repress them, whether through direct violence or long term attrition and intimidation. When the streets are clear, Beijing will think it has won. It will be wrong.

The rights for which the Hong Kong protesters plead are based on permanent truths that no despot can erase. Their protests may eventually end in seeming failure. But the spirit of defiance—planted by decades of British rule, nourished by Western media and culture, inspired by America’s democratic example, and emboldened by the Christian message that each person carries God’s image—will endure.

It’s not impossible that Beijing may eventually someday regret having reclaimed Hong Kong from the British. The spirit of liberty in Hong Kong may function as a bacillus injected into China, its contagious demands spreading throughout the Chinese bloodstream, subversively informing people who are supposed to be docile that they are not slaves but rightfully free.

We in America can offer our prayers and our moral solidarity. There’s little more we realistically can extend. Hong Kong and China are in God’s patient and just hands. And we can, in watching the protestors’ courage, including  their appropriation of our symbols of liberty, renew our own commitment to, and gratitude for, our own flawed and blessed democratic traditions.