Why do Christians fight for freedom in Hong Kong? Why do many lead the charge?
“There is truth in the Bible. Truth in Christianity … compared to those who support authoritarian governments. They don’t believe there is truth in life. … they consider everything relative. And that you only get your position out of your own interests. They don’t believe there is some absolute in universal values. Those people tend to support the regime. … It is [a] right given by God that we should have free will,” Ted Hui, a former Hong Kong legislator, told me in an interview.
This belief in dignity, equality, and freedom has motivated many Christians to stand up and speak out against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). “Those who have Christian beliefs have a stronger distrust of the [CCP] because they are an atheist party, of course,” Jimmy Lai, founder of Apply Daily, said. Due to belief in Christ, Joshua Wong’s view of others differs starkly from those currently in power. “Without faith, I wouldn’t have realized that we have … to respect every individual as equal,” Mr. Wong said.
Since 1949, the world has witnessed the repression and persecution of Christians and other religious adherents in China by the communist government. Firstly, Christian missionaries were kicked out of the country. Then one year later, Tibetan Buddhists found their country militarily subsumed by the CCP and their religious freedom restricted. Tensin Gyatso, better known as the Dalai Lama, remained political ruler in title only and eventually fled to India along with many Tibetan Buddhists on March 31, 1959. To this day, those who have remained in the Tibetan region continue to suffer. The most severe persecution of the Buddhists and all other religions took place during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) under the direction of Mao Zedong.
After Mao’s death in 1976, China’s leadership changed course and began managing, manipulating, and exploiting religion for the state’s purposes. Along the way, there were some targeted persecutions, but nothing equivalent to the sufferings inflicted during the Revolution. Currently, the CCP and its leader, President Xi Jinping, have increased restrictions on religion and used violence against religious communities. For example, the CCP commits genocidal acts against the Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region. And members of Falun Gong have had their organs harvested for transplant purposes.
Christian Hong Kongers, in and outside of the city, are pushing to keep these mainland atrocities out, so both Christians and non-Christians can live in peace and also maintain the freedom to worship God or seek him if one so pleases.
Despite their numerous efforts to protect freedom, President Xi has stripped the city of its freedom and democratic aspirations. Remarkably, Christians have not only led the fight for freedom, but also demonstrated sacrifice and an effort to make peace between opposing parties. To appreciate the godly reaction of Christians in Hong Kong, the city’s origins and recent history provide helpful context.
Once a part of Great Britain, Hong Kong Island was returned to China on July 1, 1997 after a lease of surrounding areas expired. Proper governance of Hong Kong and land immediately north of the island became impossible without the leased lands. Universal suffrage and the election of the city executive and the legislature by Hong Kongers were to be implemented at some point during the next 50 years. This has yet to become a reality.
Instead, piece by piece, Beijing has begun dismantling the foundation for freedom and potential democracy set up by Great Britain. In 2012, the CCP sought to re-educate the Hong Kong youth by announcing its intent to begin national education. The program was a brainwashing effort meant to extol the rule of the CCP as better than what democracy could offer. The proposal was withdrawn after a 14 year-old young man, Joshua Wong, led an effort against it that eventually led to 100,000 people demonstrating in the streets against the plan. Wong would go on to become a significant figure in the fight for freedom in Hong Kong.
In 2014, freedom butted heads with totalitarianism again: President Xi struck down a measure passed by a significant majority of Hong Kongers. The measure stated city executive candidates should be selected with the input of the people. Two months later, his government declared candidates would be approved only by the regime. This action led to the Occupy Central with Love and Peace demonstrations. At its height, more than 100,000 people regularly occupied the city center (including areas outside government headquarters) and shut down major roads and intersections for three months. Mr. Wong was at the forefront again as well as other student leaders and Benny Tai, a professor and constitutional law expert. Police tactics (tear gas, pepper spray, and assault) caused significant clashes between the protestors and the police with many being arrested including Mr. Wong. He, along with a group of protestors, climbed a barricade to gain access to the plaza in front of government headquarters.
Five years later, the storm clouds of totalitarianism gathered even thicker over the city. The documentary, Do Not Split, provides astonishing images of clashes between protesters and police and pro-China and pro-democracy groups. The clashes were more intense in 2019 and consequences more severe. Police arrested over 10,000 citizens. At least 2,600 people were injured.
It was evident the stakes were higher this time, as the communist regime had proposed an extradition law, which would have sent Hong Kong residents to the mainland to be tried for their alleged crimes. Residents understood the gravity of the situation, especially Christians. They knew their religious freedom was in jeopardy. They began to mobilize by holding outdoor prayer meetings and using social media to promote them. Members of various Christian denominations came together to discuss the protests publicly. And “a campaign consisting of pastoral leaders, laypersons, and academics, also initiated a series of prayer movements and online talks to bridge the gap” between those supporting the police effort and those supporting democratic efforts. The proposed bill was withdrawn in October 2019.
Beijing came back in full force in May 2020 with a proposed national security bill criminalizing acts of sedition, secession, and subversion. Hong Kongers correctly feared that Beijing would broadly define these acts . For instance, Joshua Wong was arrested for simply being involved in a remembrance of the Tianamen Square massacre. The law (passed on June 30) also opened the door to editing school curriculum, removing “controversial” books from public libraries, and prohibiting any democracy related activism.
The national security law has caused many to flee the city. In the first half of 2020, 65,000 left. And the government expects 475,000 people to leave over the next few years. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are also leaving town, which not only affects human rights advocacy in the city but also in the region. Numerous non-profits have folded.
One of the biggest blows to the city’s psyche came in June of 2020 when Apple Daily shut down its presses due to its journalists being arrested and its assets being frozen. The paper was considered by many to be the city’s journalistic trumpet for democracy. Chung Ching Kwong, an activist living in exile in Germany, told me the closure “was a blow to us. … and the removal of the Pillar of Shame [at the University of Hong Kong] marked the end of an era. We did not imagine this happening.” The Pillar of Shame sculpture was an acute reminder of the cruelty of the CCP. It memorialized the suffering of those killed in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Due to governmental pressure or investigation, other groups have closed their operations including unions, political parties, independent media outlets, and civil rights groups. The city is shriveling, becoming a soulless shell of itself. And yet, the sentiment of certain Christians is anything but soulless. Mr. Wong has said, in an interview with World magazine, “As Christians, we are not only responsible for preaching the gospel and then waiting to go to heaven when we die. We need to be bringing heaven down to earth.”
Ted Hui is another Christian who believes in demonstrating heaven’s holiness. During the protests in 2019, he would stand between the protesters and the police and strive to deescalate tensions between the two groups. Churches and young people also strove to be peacemakers. During our conversation, he spoke of moments in 2014 and in 2019 when Christians broke into song and sang the worship song, “Hallelujah to the Lord.” He remarked, “… it became quite memorable, and even unbelievers, they remember the Christians doing that. And many churches, young people get organized and go to the front and they knew they should be the peacemakers and instead of really protesting.”
In some of the most critical moments of the protests, Mr. Hui and other Christians deemed the cause of Christ more important than the push for democracy. He said many Christians believed it was more important to win people’s heart rather than win a political point. He reminded himself he should be “fighting peacefully [rather than] physically confronting the police. … You really think about what Jesus would do if he was here.” This thought informed him and many others as to how they should act, he said. Mr Hui continues to push for democracy in Hong Kong as he lives in exile in Australia.
When Jimmy Lai had an opportunity to leave Hong Kong before Beijing began its crackdown. He chose to stay. “If I suffer for the right cause, it only define[s] the person I am becoming. It can only be good for me to become a better person if I believe in the Lord,” he said. And according to Dennis Kwok, he and others are thriving spiritually in the midst of suffering in prison.
In another example of heaven’s ways dictating earthly actions, Mr. Kwok, a former legislator, shared with me of a time when he prayed with Benny Tai, one of the initiators of Occupy Central. They entered a quiet, little church and began to pray about the immediate future. As they prayed, Professor Tai began to cry knowing the “journey would be hard.” Mr. Kwok said the professor was willing and “submitted to taking the cup [of suffering].” This type of sacrifice does not surprise Ms. Kwong who is not a member of the Christian faith herself. She noted Christians fight for democracy because it “lines up with their beliefs,” especially in light of the alternative, the atheistic CCP. Christians believe in pursuing justice and loving their enemies, she said.
This belief in the Truth is a witness to Christians worldwide. Christian Hong Kongers may not have prevailed in guarding, let alone advancing democracy in their city. But they advanced another cause—one of exemplifying love, sacrificing personal safety for the rights of others, and proclaiming peace in the midst of violence. It is a cause Mr. Kwok would gladly take up again. He said, “I would have done it all over again. … Confidence comes from Christianity. Those with faith see how authoritarianism is wrong and are unwilling to do nothing.”