Victor was one of the few missionaries who stayed in Hong Kong after the British handover to China in 1997. Since then, Victor (who asked that his real name not be used) has steadily built up Christian contacts in China. He now visits the mainland regularly to teach in unregistered churches.
Victor recently met a Christian leader from an Asian country who offered to send him compelling evidence of religious persecution in that leader's country. "I handed him my card," Victor said. "Looking at it, his expression changed. 'Oh, I can't send you this information. Hong Kong is in China.' "
Although Victor was shocked by the response, such fears may soon be justified. Yet in the five years since the handover, Hong Kong Christians have few complaints about political or religious freedom.
Christians in Hong Kong constitute about 10 percent of the territory's 6.9 million people. They operate more than 500 schools and 60 percent of the social organizations. They also run 25 percent of Hong Kong's hospitals.
Religious leaders are warning that human rights and religious freedom now hang in the balance. New enabling legislation, based on Article 23 of Hong Kong's Basic Law, could sharply curtail religious liberties in Hong Kong. Bishop Zen, leader of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong, said the legislation is "very dangerous" and "full of hidden traps."
Under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong has been required to outlaw subversion, sedition, and other crimes against the state. Article 23 has never been implemented with specific prohibitions or penalties.
In the 1984 Sino-British Declaration, China promised to keep Hong Kong's freedoms untouched for 50 years after the handover.
"I see this as a daily life threat," said Rose Wu, director of the Hong Kong Christian Institute, a nonprofit organization that seeks to involve Christians in civil society. "This has created an atmosphere of fear that will affect everybody."
No date has been set for implementing the new regulations. Hong Kong's Legislative Council may approve them by the end of June.
Article 23 states: "The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government, or theft of state secrets, 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."
Critics are calling on authorities to issue a white paper to clearly explain how Article 23 will be implemented. No white paper has been issued so far. The government stopped accepting public comment on the new regulations on December 24 after receiving 90,000 comments.
Some believe the legislation will compromise ministries' privacy. "Under the proposed legislation, mere suspicion of any of the [listed] offenses could bring police officers to our computers and filing cabinets, putting the security of those we serve at great risk," Victor said.
Many ministries in Hong Kong have connections with banned religious organizations on the mainland. Humanitarian assistance to such groups could cause problems for Hong Kong-based ministries.
"It is not unimaginable that our prayer letters could be considered seditious publications," said Lyla Stephens, director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide Hong Kong.
In December, Rose Wu and several leaders from nongovernmental groups coordinated one of the largest rallies in Hong Kong in five years. More than
2,500 Christians marched with a cross, sang hymns, and prayed against the antisedition measures.
But one week later, pro-Beijing supporters rallied for national unity. One red banner said: "Why don't you support the law if you are not subverting the country?"
On January 28, Beijing-appointed Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa bowed to public pressure and declared the government has scrapped parts of the proposed anti-subversion bill and amended others. Tung would not answer questions on whether the administration would hold a further round of public consultations.
Christians and others will monitor the legislation. "We need to watch the developments very closely in the next few months," Victor said. "We need to pray for great wisdom for those who are putting those laws together."
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This week, the Associated Press reported that Hong Kong's Catholic leader, Bishop Joseph Zen, fears the proposed law will be used against Hong Kong's Roman Catholic church because of its ties to underground Catholic churches in the mainland.
The 2002 International Religious Freedom Report on China says, "The Government tries to control and regulate religious groups to prevent the rise of groups that could constitute sources of authority outside of the control of the Government and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and it cracks down on groups that it perceives to pose a threat. Despite these efforts at government control, membership in many faiths is growing rapidly."
Last year, Tony Carnes wrote a Christianity Today cover story on persecution in China. Articles included:
'New' China: Same Old Tricks | Top communists, despite their denials, endorse arrest and torture of Chinese Christians by the thousands. (Feb. 15, 2002)
The Unlikely Activist | How a bitter athiest helped besieged Christians—and became a believer. (Feb. 15, 2002)
What China's Secret Documents Reveal | The New York archive of religious persecution in China contains numerous government documents that show how the government controls religion. (Feb. 15, 2002)
China Persecution Dossier: Zhang Wu-Ji | Tortured to the point of death. (Feb. 15, 2002)
China Persecution Dossier: Shi Yun-Chao | Beaten for Hosting Bible Studies. (Feb. 15, 2002)
China Persecution Dossier: Gu Xiangmei | Surviving on "tiger's diarrhea." (Feb. 15, 2002)
See Christianity Today'sBearing the Cross article on the persecution of Christians in China.
Previous Christianity Today stories about religion in China and Hong Kong include:
Working with the Communists | Some evangelicals minister happily within China's state-supervised Three Self church. (Oct. 18, 2002)
Bush: 'I'm One of Them' | Religious persecution allegations set the stage for George Bush's visit to China. (Feb. 27, 2002)
What is the Falun Gong? | And why does the Chinese government want to destroy it? (Feb. 6, 2002)
Gong's 'Accusers' Claim Torture Induced False Confessions | Letters from imprisoned Christian women in China describe assaults with electric clubs. (Feb. 1, 2002)
Free China's Church | The Communist country may ease some religious restrictions, but they still want an apolitical church. (January 3, 2002)
Church Leader Gets Reprieve | China's case against Gong Shengliang now on hold. (Jan. 24, 2002)
Chinese House Church Leader Granted Time to Appeal Death Sentence | Sentence likely to be commuted to imprisonment, but church remains in danger. (Jan. 8, 2002)
Communists May Recognize Independent Christians | Communist leaders in China are preparing to give formal recognition to unregistered religious groups, but house-church leaders are wary. (November 19, 2001)
Changes in China's Religious Policy Imminent? | Several respected house-church leaders consulted about official registration. (November 16, 2001)
Hong Kong Church Leaders Fear Anti-Sect Bill | French legislation may have worldwide consequences. (July 3, 2001)
House Churches May Be 'Harmful to Society' | But China's unofficial congregations resist "evil cult" label. (Jan. 25, 2001)
China's Religious Freedom Crackdown Extends to Foreigners | It is against the law for visitors to teach the Bible in China's house churches. (Nov. 13, 2000)
China's Smack Down | 53 Christian professors, students, and church-planters detained. (Sept. 11, 2000)
House Approves Divisive U.S.-China Trade Pact | But will permanent normal trade relations status help human rights? (May 25, 2000)
China Should Improve on Religion to Gain Permanent Trade Status, Commission Says | Religious liberty in Sudan and Russia also criticized. (May 8, 2000)
A Tale of China's Two Churches | Eyewitness reports of repression and revival. (July 13, 1998)
FreeChurchForChina.org is a non-profit advocacy group for religious freedom.
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