When thousands flooded the streets of Hong Kong late last month to protest the Chinese government’s encroachment on the city’s political autonomy, demonstrators were quick to claim many common beliefs: a love of freedom, a support for Hong Kong’s unique status within China, and a passionate belief in democracy.
But as the protests stretch into their third week, many participants have discovered that they are also unified by something else: their Christian faith.
As several news outlets have noted, the leadership of Hong Kong’s burgeoning protest movement — which seeks to preserve the city’s right to elect its own politicians without interference from the Chinese government — is headed up by several self-identified Christians. One of the effort’s most prominent leaders, for example, is Jason Wong, the 17-year-old student activist who achieved fame for leading several student demonstrations in Hong Kong before helping organize the recent pro-democracy protests. Although Wong, an evangelical Christian who attended United Christian College in Hong Kong, has said that his activism is primarily about protecting Hong Kong’s democratic process, he has also rooted his advocacy in a distinctly Christian theology.
“I believe in Christ,” Wong told PRI. “I believe everyone [is] born equal. And they’re loved by Jesus. And I think that everyone, therefore, should get equal rights in the political system. And we should care [for] the weak and poor in our society.”
Other Christians have also worked to assist the protestors. In addition to Wong, two of the three leaders of Occupy Central, one of the main protest groups, are Christian, and Rev. Joseph Zen, Hong Kong’s former Catholic bishop, has taken to the streets to express solidarity with the movement. Moreover, when government forces fired tear gas canisters at protestors in late September, nearby Wan Chai Methodist church opened its doors to assist, offering its facilities for demonstrators to receive first aid, store supplies, and distribute food. As media coverage of church’s actions mounted, Rev. Tin Yau Yuen, the president of the Methodist Church in Hong Kong, published an open letter explaining the church’s position towards the protestors, noting that while the religious body doesn’t formally endorse groups like Occupy Central, the Christian faith inspires many believers to fight for democracy.
“The Gospel we believe in is a Gospel which redeems people from evil and sin, not only saving us from personal sin, but also freeing us from the suppression and binding of evil and sin caused by others, society and constitution,” the letter read. “It’s impossible to be politically neutral, as who can have no political view? … As Christians, we take sides according to Bible teaching and church tradition, rather than simply seeing things from the social perspective.”
But while many protestors in Hong Kong cite their faith as a key motivator, experts argue that their participation is also due to a mixture of politics, demographics, and fear of persecution. To be sure, the primary concern of demonstrators in Hong Kong is holding Beijing accountable to its promise to guarantee the former British colony full democracy by 2017. However, as Hong Kong locals malign Beijing’s attempt to increase control over the city, some speculate that religious protestors are concerned that the Chinese government will eventually implement other oppressive policies typical in mainland China — namely, the government’s much-maligned restrictions on religious freedom.
“The Hong Kong society is very free,” Carsten Vala, Associate Professor of Political Science at Loyola University, Maryland and research fellow at Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society, told ThinkProgress. “The pushback here is [partly] the fear that what happens in China will someday happen in Hong Kong unless people speak out.”
Indeed, the Chinese government, which is run entirely by the ardently atheist Communist Party of China, is well known for limiting expressions of faith — especially those of religious minorities. The U.S. State Department cited China as a “Country of Particular Concern” in its “International Religious Freedom Report for 2013,” released in July, noting that several religious groups in the region regularly face obstacles to the free expression of their faith. The government in Beijing has attempted to control religion by sanctioning “official” versions of Catholicism and Protestantism, inventing its own brand of state-sponsored Christian theology, and detaining or imprisoning congregants who attend underground “house churches” that operate without government approval. Chinese officials have also recently launched a campaign to forcibly remove crosses from several churches, and detained several Chinese Christians who resisted through acts of civil disobedience. And in addition to cracking down on the actions of Tibetan buddhists, the Chinese government has officially banned fasting during Ramadan for Uighur Muslims in the country’s Western region, with local police reportedly forcing some Muslim students to end their fast.
As the protests in Hong Kong enter a new phase of negotiations with local officials, Vala noted that religious minorities in mainland China are likely keeping a close eye on the effectiveness of the demonstrations.
“The bigger issue is that there are many other groups that the primarily Han Chinese party rules — mainly Tibetans and Uighurs — who are watching this,” Vala said.
The prominence of Christianity among the protest movement’s leadership is also a byproduct of the heightened role religion plays in Hong Kong society. Christians only make up 11.7 percent of the population of Hong Kong — 6.6 percent Protestant and 5 percent Catholic — but that is significantly higher than in mainland China, and is evidence of Christianity’s unique history in Hong Kong. The British brought Christianity with them when they annexed Hong Kong from mainland China during the Opium Wars in 1842, and the faith has remained a key part of the city’s political infrastructure ever since — especially within the education system and student population.
“Christian and mission bodies cooperated with the British colonial government in setting up schools and social welfare organizations,” Francis Yip, Associate Professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Divinity School of Chung Chi College, told ThinkProgress. “This historical legacy explains why about half of the elementary and high schools in Hong Kong have some sort of Christian background. This is also why a substantial percentage of the elites in Hong Kong are Christians.”
Still, not all Hong Kong Christians have been supportive of groups like Occupy Central. Rev. Paul Kwong, the archbishop of the Hong Kong Anglican Church, has openly opposed the protests, preaching a sermon in which he asked his parishioners not to join the demonstrations.
“Jesus remained silent in the face of Pilate,” he said, according to the South China Morning Post. “He was like a lamb awaiting slaughter. Sometimes we don’t have to say anything. Silence is better than saying anything.”
Kwong’s sermon, however, was blasted by several other faith leaders, and the provincial secretary of the Anglican church quickly attempted to walk back his comments, saying he “did not intend to belittle anyone.”
Ultimately, however, experts agree that while there is some disagreement in their ranks, Christians seem to be an important component of Hong Kong’s growing pro-democracy movement. And while the current protests might fade over time, the city’s Christian supporters of democracy — like the rest of the protestors marching through streets — don’t look to be going away anytime soon.
“People who are aware of the relation of their faith to social-political issues will continue to do something,” Yip said. “They will continue to work for the good and transformation of Hong Kong.”