God-shaped hole in story on Hong Kong protests

Every now and then, when I a traveling, I discover another layer of torn-out articles for GetReligion review buried deep inside some pocket of my shoulder bag. It’s sort of like the analog, portable version of the gigantic digital tmatt “folder of guilt” in my email program that I open up from time to time.

You see, there’s just so much to write about and so little time. There are religion-news ghosts all over the place.

Consider, for example, that recent Washington Post story about the ongoing tensions between Hong Kong and its rulers on the Chinese mainland. There was no real news hook in this one. Still I appreciated the update, since I was fortunate enough to have attended a journalism conference in Hong Kong during the final days and, literally, hours before the 1997 handover.

As you would expect, I focused — in my writing for the Scripps Howard News Service — on ways in which that great city’s future unity with the mainland could affect human rights and religious freedom. Click here and especially here, if you wish, to see what I wrote way back then. The key, according to the people I interviewed in Hong Kong, was Article 23 of the Special Administrative Region’s Basic Law, especially the part stating that the city’s new leadership:

“… shall enact laws … to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition (or) subversion against the Central People’s Government, … to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.”

Of course, to paraphrase a famous statement by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, during the apartheid era, one man’s street-corner evangelist is another man’s dangerous political activist. Anyone who has studied church-state history at the global level knows that governments often like to say that religion equals politics, when the religious believers in any way clash with the state. That’s a formula for conflict in the United States, as well. Ask Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Anyway, I was disappointed — to say the least — that the Post team included zero, zilch, nada, religious content in this story. Clearly, the goal of the story is to talk about tensions in Hong Kong about human rights. That’s clear, right up front, with its talk about protesters marching in the street waving flags “emblazoned with the British Union Jack.”

The number of people parading colonial-era symbols has been minuscule and doesn’t reflect any widespread hankering for a return of British rule. But, after 15 years as part of China, a population that is overwhelmingly Chinese and deeply proud of its Chinese heritage has increasingly come to view the rest of the country as a source of trouble, not pride, that needs to be kept at arm’s length.

Britain’s retreat from Hong Kong in 1997, which turned a “crown colony” into a “special administrative region of China,” marked a singular, triumphal moment in a historical narrative at the heart of the Communist Party’s legitimacy: only the party can “wipe clean the shame” of colonial-era humiliations and fully represent the national aspirations of all Chinese. Beijing used to denounce its critics here and elsewhere as “anti-communist” but now vilifies them as “anti-China,” an insult that turns any challenge to the ruling party into an assault on the Chinese nation.

What does this have to do with religion? That’s the question I would like to see addressed.

Why? Check out this crucial paragraph in this long news feature.

Promised a “high-degree of autonomy” by Beijing under a formula known as “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong still largely runs its own affairs, with the exception of defense and foreign relations. Despite growing complaints of self-censorship by journalists, Hong Kong retains a boisterous free press and has developed a booming niche publishing industry that churns out books and magazines on Chinese politics, largely for sale to visiting mainlanders who don’t believe China’s tightly controlled official media.

So things are going fine, except for those issues linked to “defense and foreign relations.”

Thinking back to 1997, that leads me to ask this question: When it comes to “foreign relations,” are the Chinese authorities starting to get entangled in relations between, let’s, Catholics and the hierarchy in Rome? There are plenty of reasons — millions and millions of them — for Chinese Catholics to worry on that front. And when it comes to self-censorship, how are Hong Kong’s other religious leaders doing these days?

The bottom line: Find me a land in which journalists are worrying about freedom of the press and I will find you a land in which religious believers have good cause to worry about religious freedom. The equation works the other way around, too (and more journalists need to ponder that).

So what’s the state of religious liberty in Hong Kong? Are any of those flag-waving protesters concerned about that? I’d like to know, how about you?

IMAGE: Inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Hong Kong.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://hehsiehshehui.wordpress.com/ Andrew H.

    I’m an ex-pat who has lived in both Hong Kong and attended pro-democracy rallies together with prayer services supporting the same, so can speak with some (limited) authority and say that religious freedom is an issue for the pro-democracy camp, but it isn’t what gets 100k’s of people in the streets.

    I think the Washington Post can’t be blamed. What has always surprised me is how the pro-Beijing media (both Chinese and English language) in the city itself ignores this particular aspect of the gradual retrocession of Hong Kong’s rights. Even as they breathlessly advocate the erasure of the border between the SAR and the mainland, they seldom ask what will happen to the Anglican and Catholic schools, hospitals, hospices, and other services the city relies on. The British Common Law tradition that survives in the Hong Kong Basic Law allows for these to flourish while the officially atheist system farther north would not, to put it mildly.

    As for self-censorship, there isn’t anyone like Cardinal Joseph Zen these days, but some people still speak out. Szeto Wah, a thorn in the side of both the British and Beijing, was more known for his pro-democracy politics but also belonged to an Anglican church. As I understand it the Protestant church leaders who were invited to represent their community in the Hong Kong version of the electoral college to choose this year’s new chief executive (in reality a Beijing-choreographed affair) chose to abstain rather than give legitimacy to the farce. Some Christians are more supportive of the government, I imagine. It’s like any democracy with believers on both sides, at least for now.

  • http://www.hongkongudy.com Karl Udy

    As someone living in Hong Kong with children in the local school system, the recent protests against the introduction of National Education were something that I was following closely. I usually read my news from overseas as HK’s main English newspaper is behind a pay-wall :-(, and there was very little commentary on the hunger strikes and protests for what had the potential to be a sinister political move.

    The proposed National Education would have included one-sided uncritical portrayals of the Chinese Communist Party. Mao would be portrayed as a hero. One wonders what would be made of Sun Yat-Sen, who played a leading the revolution against the Ching Empire, and agitated for political freedoms. Historical events such as The Cultural Revolution and The Great Leap Forward which resulted in mass-book burnings and millions of deaths through institutional starvation would obviously be ignored. The respective merits and drawbacks of a one-party political system would not be open for discussion.

    What is more, the speed with which this happened is astonishing. The new CEO of HK was only elected in July, and the National Education was announced (not suggested or proposed – announced!) within 2 months of taking office with an expectation of being implemented within a year. Given that the new CEO is strongly pro-Beijing, it strongly hints that if this could be successfully implemented then HK could expect restrictions of speech (including internet censorship), press, and religion.

    What is troubling is that despite the strong protests against the introduction of the National Education curriculum, it is likely that there still will be attempts to introduce restrictions in these areas under the current leadership of HK. That is one of the reasons the protests have been so strong (including the waving of British flags) – if Beijing can be convinced that HK will not be stable under such leadership, then there is less likelihood of Beijing appointing such a pro-Beijing CEO next time.

    I believe that there are parallels to the Free Church opposition in Nazi Germany. Especially once you know that the leaders of the hunger strikes were Christians.

  • dave

    Yes, the leaders of the hunger strike are Christians, but it wasn’t clear if the opposed the national education proposals because of their faith, or whether they happen to be Christians supporting a secular cause. I haven’t seen good coverage in this aspect. But I don’t think it’s necessary bad. The opposition to national education was not seen as an issue specific to a certain religious group.
    As for religious freedom, may be it’s slowly beibg eroded, but so far i don’t think there is much concern among religious groups yet. The society still considers religion as a force for good imo. The government may favor Buddhism for cultural reasons, (for example, officially welcome a Buddhist relic visiting HK for exhibition) . But doesn’t ran it’s seeking to curtail the freedom of other groups


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