Quick to Listen/Episode 162 |51min

The Christian Backstory of Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Protests

How the church played a role in the fight for voting rights. 
The Christian Backstory of Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Protests
Image: Anthony Kwan / Stringer / Getty

In April, nine Hong Kong activists were convicted for participating in the pro-democracy Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement protests. One of those was a Baptist pastor, Chu Yiu-Ming.

In the courtroom, he painted a vivid picture of the faith that had transformed his life and inspired his activism: “We have no regrets. We hold no grudges, no anger, no grievances. We do not give up,” he said, speaking on behalf of fellow activists striving to bring universal voting rights to Hong Kong. “In the words of Jesus, ‘Happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires; The Kingdom of heaven belongs to them!’” (Matt. 5:10)

Our coverage of Chu’s sermon was one of CT’s most popular news stories of the year so far, with many on social media praising his bravery.

Chu was not the only leader known for his faith. Earlier this month, Joshua Wong, a 22-year-old Hong Kong pro-democracy activist, was returned to prison. Earlier he told 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. That seems like a totally idealistic dream, but if we want that dream to come true, how should we let people know that as Christians we don’t focus only on trying to increase our salaries and better our careers? We ask, how can we do more for the people around us?”

The Umbrella Movement and Occupy Central Protests have not been welcomed by all Christians. Several years ago, Archbishop Paul Kwong at the Anglican St. John’s Cathedral angered many Hong Kong Christians after saying that pro-democracy activists should remain silent, as Jesus did while being crucified more than 2,000 years ago.

“I would like to ask for Christians in the world to pray for Hong Kong—especially for Hong Kong church and Christians—for hearts of love and peace, because I think in the division, we have a lot of hatred and anger in ourselves,” said Wai Luen “Andrew” Kwok, associate professor in the department of religion and philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist University.

This week on Quick to Listen we’ll explore what’s at stake in the Umbrella Movement, how Christians have influenced it, but also why it’s divided the church.

This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you by Classic Christian Thinkers, the new book by author and theologian Kenneth Samples. It highlights the lives of some of Christianity’s greatest historical figures. Get your copy today here.

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May 28, 2019 transcription

Mark Galli: Hello, our guest is Kwok Wai Luen, better known as Andrew, that's how we'll be addressing him for this podcast. He's associate professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist University, where he is also associate director for the Center for Sino-Christian Studies. Welcome, Andrew.

Andrew Kwok: Hello, Mark. Hello, Morgan.

Morgan Lee: In April, nine Hong Kong activists were convicted for participating in the pro-democracy Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement protest. One of those was a Baptist pastor Chu Yiu-ming. In the courtroom, he painted a vivid picture of the faith that had transformed his life and inspired his activism. "We have no regrets. We hold no grudges, no anger, no grievances. We do not give up," he said, speaking on behalf of fellow activist striving to bring universal voting rights to Hong Kong. "In the words of Jesus, 'Happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires. The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them.'" And he was quoting from Matthew 5:10 there.

Christianity Today's coverage of Chu's sermon was one of our most popular news stories of the year, with many on social media praising his bravery. Chu is not the only leader known for his faith, earlier this month Joshua Wong a 22-year-old Hong Kong pro-democracy activist was returned to prison. Earlier this year, he told this to 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. This seems like a totally idealistic dream, but if we want that dream to come true, how should we let people know that as Christians, if we don't focus only on trying to increase our salaries and better our careers? We ask how can we do more for the people around us?"

The Umbrella Movement and Occupy Central protests have not been welcomed by all Christians. Several years ago, Archbishop Paul Kwong at Anglicans St. John's Cathedral angered many Hong Kong Christians after saying that pro-democracy activists should remain silent as Jesus did while being crucified more than 2,000 years ago. This week on Quick To Listen, we'll explore what's at stake in the Umbrella Movement, how Christians have influenced it, but also why it's divided the church.

Alright, so we have lots of things to get into today. Mark, I would love to just get a gut reaction from you as we start.

Mark Galli: My gut reaction was probably since I'm not completely familiar with what's going on there—and one of the reasons I enjoy doing this podcast is getting more familiar—but I have been familiar at a distance with many Chinese activist whose faith prods them to work for human rights. And I do know the story of some of them and the sacrifices it requires, and I have to admit I am deeply impressed with their level of commitment. So that's my gut reaction. I marvel at their courage.

Morgan Lee: I'm definitely really interested in this with regards to the way that it seems like it has potentially split the Hong Kong Christian community. I definitely know that it seems to echo things in our own country, especially around the Civil Rights era 50 years ago, about Christians who felt that in some ways there was a tension between their own faith and politically organizing in this particular way. And it seems like it's always a really controversial thing when Christians decide that their faith is the thing that leads them to the streets. While there's other Christians feel like that's really inappropriate to maybe protest the government that way. Yeah, I'm just really looking forward to our discussion about this. And Andrew, I'm wondering if you can tell our listeners what the Umbrella Movement is exactly and what it's about.

Andrew Kwok: Actually if you know, the Umbrella Movement is not the original name that Benny Tai, Rev. Chu, and another university professor, Dr. Chan Kin-man used. Originally, they named the movement as Occupy Central with Love and Peace. In 2013 January, Benny Tai wrote an article in a local newspaper—actually the name, the title of that newspaper article is very annoying—that's called "Mass Destructive Weapon for Democratic Movement." But because the central government promised the Hong Kong people, we will have a universal voting right after 1997 for our chief executive, but finally you'll find that after nearly 20 years that kind of election cannot be realized. So Benny Tai into 2013, he wrote the article and he just at that time he conceived that if the central government refused to give a true, a meaningful universal voting rights to Hong Kong people, then he suggests that Hong Kong people should have a kind of civil disobedience movement to give pressure to home government and central government to grant us to universal voting right. So this is the very beginning of the so-called Umbrella Movement. Actually, it was called Occupy Central with Love and Peace. And because of this newspaper title, a "mass destructive weapon," okay? So this title has ignited a lot of the division among different social groups. So it's just like a fire, and a lot of people discuss whether it is good to use a kind of destructive weapon to realize democracy in Hong Kong. But you'll find that actually because many Hong Kong people they want to have democracy for a very, very long time. Since the 1980s, Hong Kong people start to ask for direct election, both legislation and also for the executive head. We want to have that kind of democracy.

Morgan Lee: So even when the British were in charge of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong people were not allowed to vote? Is that correct?

Andrew Kwok: We have the first indirect election for the legislature in 1984. And then we have the first direct election in 1991. So it is very late. And the British document that released recently, one of the factors that we cannot have direct election in 1988 because the communist government, the Chinese government want to stop that direct election by that time and give a diplomatic pressure to British government. So that stopped the direct election proposal in 1980s.

Morgan Lee: And since then, basically after Hong Kong moved from being under British control to Chinese control, as you mentioned, they have not been able to secure voting rights, which has then led people to protest the government?

Andrew Kwok: Just before. Just before the handover, that is the first direct election is in 1991. So this is the first direct election year in Hong Kong. So a very short time. But in 1980s, British government, they already want to have some kind of so-called localization process. So in Hong Kong we have some basic self-governing councils. For example, district boards or the urban council, that's the local governing body. The British government, they start direct election in 1980s, so this is the starting point that you can say that the Hong Kong people have democracy in legislature or the local government.

Morgan Lee: And in what year would you say that the Occupy Central movement started?

Andrew Kwok: Benny Tai start his propaganda 2013, but actually the movement break out in 2014, September 28. And in between, you will find that actually Christian groups are highly involved in that movement because just after January 2013, the first article Benny Tai comes out and then he wrote another article in Christian newspaper in February to call for Christians to support his civil disobedience project. And then in March 2013, Rev. Chu, Dr. Chen and Benny Tai, they have a kind of a manifesto on Occupy Central movement. And that manifesto issued an alarm and has a press conference in a church. So you can see that Christians are highly involved in that movement.

Morgan Lee: So you have these Christians who are involved all the way back in 2013 and 2014. What can you tell us about this guy who we mentioned Joshua Wong?

Andrew Kwok: He is a bright young man. You can say that a second-generation of a Christian family. He became a social data in 2012. There was a campaign called NT National Education campaign. Because in 2012, Hong Kong government they proposed to have a kind of curriculum to have the so-called "national education." But the students found that national education was quite brain washing, and not a kind of civic education, but rather a kind of brainwashing education. So Joshua Wong by that time was a secondary school student. They had other secondary school students form a group called Scholarism. There is a group they called Scholarism, and then they initiated a campaign against the government. And then in September 2012, university students and secondary school students, they sit in before the government headquarters, and I think by that time around 40,000 people sit in there and cause a lot of pressure to the government. And then at last the government just cancelled the whole proposal about the national education. So this is what happened.

Morgan Lee: So he originally you said was protesting this idea that the government might be trying to use propaganda on them. And then I'm assuming he moved from that political campaign to become more political and to participate in Occupy Central as well.

Andrew Kwok: Yes, yes indeed. Yeah, because after that campaign he become one of the very famous young social activists.

Mark Galli: How was he regarded by his local churches then? Was he regarded as a radical, or was he a hero, or what?

Andrew Kwok: As far as I know, he's own congregation church at least, give him spiritual support and still embrace him as a good member and brother in Christ. So I think his own church actually support him quite well, as far as I know. His congregation, and his pastor, they offer him spiritual care and spiritual support. So, they do not stand up for his political actions, but at least they consider him as a very good brother and embrace him.

But for other Christians in other congregations, you will find that opinions are quite hostile towards Wong and other social activists, Christian social activists.

Morgan Lee: You were saying that other Christians don't necessarily support what's happening. What are the main arguments that they're saying against the Christians who are supporting the movements?

Andrew Kwok: You and Mark had talked about Bishop Paul Kwong. Actually, this is one of the very typical arguments about why they go against the Occupy Movement. The first is that they think democracy is not a necessary good. Democracy cannot solve all the problems. So don't go for civil disobedience movement just for democracy. And they think that this is not something violating human rights, or not a very oppressive regime. So, there's no case for a kind of civil disobedience. They think civil disobedience shouldn't be done unless you face some kind of segregation or some kind of racial discrimination. That's what they think. And they think democracy and voting rights cannot use civil disobedience to solve the things.

And then the second thing is that they think Occupy Central is not civil disobedience. They think Occupy Central is a kind of occupying movement. So they are intentionally violating the law, and that law is not directly related to what you want to object or want to achieve. And so they think actually there's no case. Intentionally to violate a rightful law is not a Christian practice. So this is the second argument.

And the third argument in that some Christian think, oh China is on the road of becoming better and better, and why use such a kind of oppositional and violent movement against the government? And this is very unwise thing to do. So this is the third argument.

For those Christians opposed to the Occupy Central movement, actually I would describe them, they are living in a quite alternative reality with those in the social participation.

Mark Galli: What do you mean by that? Alternative reality?

Andrew Kwok: They think, okay Hong Kong is quite good. Hong Kong is prosperous; Hong Kong is stable. Hong Kong compared with maybe other Asian regions is safe and "just." And so from this perception of reality, they think that this is no case for civil disobedience.

Mark Galli: So you're not saying that's a false reality. That's just what they experience and how they react to it.

Andrew Kwok: Well, I think for them this is not a false reality, but maybe this is the reality that they can enjoy, and they are living in. So it is somehow a partial true reality, okay? Not totally true. But somehow, they are in that reality. And you can say that this is unfortunately why we are in a so deep division in Hong Kong churches. Because some people they are well off, they enjoy much privilege. But others maybe think they are problems.

Morgan Lee: So in other words, it may be true for the people who are not protesting. All of this may be true for them, but it may not be true for the entire country.

Andrew Kwok: Indeed, indeed.

Morgan Lee: Alright, so you have this split and I'm just curious, right now Andrew, how severe has the Occupy Central movement cost the church? How much division is there today?

Andrew Kwok: I think now in the Church in Hong Kong, we are still talking about two very important issues. The first issue is the division's still there. And then, now somehow politics has become a kind of taboo in ordinary church life, unless your church is quite active already in social movement. Then maybe, everyone maybe just shut up and do not talk about politics. And this is what ordinary church life happened. But on the other hand, you will find that Christians are very, very active. Those Christians want to support the social movement. They are very active outside the church. And then you will find that for the young generation, because they are very disappointed with the church leadership that they are conservative politically, they left the church. So in Hong Kong recently, a big topic is about the young generation [leaving] church. I think this is a big problem that we face.

Morgan Lee: So there's this sense that because the older generation didn't support some of these protests, or fewer older Christian supported the protests, overall some of the young people who did support the protest don't even want to be in the church anymore?

Andrew Kwok: Indeed. Yeah, they left.

Morgan Lee: I read this article to do some more research about this topic. It interviewed some of the parents of the protesters and one of them was Joshua Wong's parents. He basically said that it had been really confusing and hard for the parents to see their son in this position. I'm just curious if that is your experience at all. Whether within Christian families there's also been division over this as well.

Andrew Kwok: I think there is division. Joshua Wong's father is quite exceptional. Because his father is very active, an active conservative evangelical. And before all this democratic movement, his father is active in some kind of pro-family movement. He is very engaged to the movement against LGBT in Hong Kong. And so you will find that his father already is some kind of social activist. And so why that Joshua's father is very supportive to Joshua, and somehow, I think that political activism also influenced Joshua. But for some family members, parents—actually, as I have told you I am a theological member of Christian and Missionary Alliance Union Hong Kong. During the Umbrella Movement or Occupy movement period, parents expressed their worries about their children. They worried their children are being arrested by the police and or being beaten by police. And then our denomination organized some kind of dialogue between different parties, between parents and the students, and even we invited some retired police officers to engage with the students and to have dialogue. And so you see that ordinary Christian families, their parents are very worried about their children all the time.

Mark Galli: So how do they relate, how do the people who are involved, the Christians who are involved in the Occupy Movement, how do they understand the relationship of their faith to their politics? And let me just take a step back. Obviously, they see that their Christian faith demands that they work for human rights and for democracy, yet there are other parts of the world not too far from Hong Kong where there are Christians who are committed, who think the communism and Christianity can coexist. And then there's of course Latin American theologians who think Marxism and Christianity can co-exist, that Christianity almost demands a type of Marxist approach to life. So how do they relate their faith to their particular political passions?

Andrew Kwok: Your question is very good. Actually before the Occupy Movement, or even the Occupy Movement Benny Tai and Rev. Chu, they do not attempt to overthrow the communist China. Actually, they just asked for Communist China to fulfill their promise for the universal voting rights for Hong Kong people. So for Christians in Hong Kong, when join in the civil disobedience movement, I think they have a kind of a heart to want to see justice, okay? Or they want to do something good for their later generation, rather than they want to overthrow the communist government. So I think we are quite different from liberation theology, thinking that whether communism or Christianity can be coexist, or whether we should join in communism to support a kind of liberation in Hong Kong. I don't think we have that kind of theological perspective.

Rather, you will find that for example, Benny Tai and Rev. Chu, they all come from so-called evangelical denominations. So I think for them, they will think that they just want to support democracy and to support good, and this is the Christian duty to do good. And the Bible told us that if the authority has done something bad, Christians should be bold enough to say no to the government. I think that's all. And then you'll find that even from Benny Tai's exposition, you will find that he does not have a kind of liberation theology to think about whether Christianity can join in communism or go against communism.

Mark Galli: So the issue is justice and not the form of government as such?

Andrew Kwok: No, not the form of government. Just about democracy and they want the government to keep its promise that they have given to the people.

But after the Umbrella Movement you will find that the political situation got worse and worse. And so that actually for Christians, now we are deeply to want to find our spiritual resources for what the Hong Kong Christians should look for in the near future.

Morgan Lee: Wow. So, it sounds like you're saying that the protests are not successful then?

Andrew Kwok: I think that's just beginning. The protest is not successful. We cannot achieve what we want—that is the universal voting right—but you find that actually during the movement a lot of people in Hong Kong were being awakened. [26:10-26:12] They awaken form, even Christians they wake up., For example some very well-off Christians, professional Christians, they realize our society is not so good. We have a lot of problems and social issues that we need to address, the government policy that we are also need to look for. So I think the Occupy Movement, or Umbrella Movement, is just a starting point of the Hong Kong democratic endeavor.

Morgan Lee: So in other words, you're saying that basically they may not have been successful in changing the government's mind, but they were helpful in helping Christians may be challenged themselves and see what they overlooked. And I guess that leads me to my next question which is, would you say that the majority of Christians in Hong Kong are going to be wealthy?

Andrew Kwok: Well, I think when compared with average Hong Kong people, from our statistics you will find that because in in the past Christian churches they runs a lot of good schools, and so that a lot of Christians in Hong Kong they became Christian because they are in Christian schools and they are trained by Christian school and go to universities and become professionals. And so you will find that Hong Kong Christians are middle-, upper-class. Many of them are quite well-off professionals in the society. And actually when you look at the government, that is very interesting. Even the government, now a lot of officials, they are Christians or Catholics. So it explains how Christian occupy the social positions in Hong Kong.

Morgan Lee: Mark was asking you a little bit earlier about some of the influence that Christians on the mainland may have had on Hong Kong Christians, and I'm curious if you could tell us about the relationship between Hong Kong Christians and mainland Christians, and the extent to which maybe Hong Kong Christians go over to the mainland to help disciple or train them or vice versa.

Andrew Kwok: Many of Hong Kong people they were refugees from the mainland. So you'll find that mainland Christians and Hong Kong Christians, we have a very strong relationship. Both historical or even current interaction and relationship. In the past, maybe for example in 1990s, Hong Kong Christians, they offer a lot of help to the mainland Christians in terms of resources, in terms of training, or even in terms of money support. Yeah, they offer a lot of support. But indeed, now mainland churches, in terms of population, Christian population, they are much bigger than Hong Kong churches. So we find that they rose somehow. From the past, we are helpers and mainland churches are being helped, but now I think somehow, we are co-workers or partners. Hong Kong churches still have some kind of advantage in terms of freedom of information, freedom of speech, and freedom of movement. And so we still have the role to offer training or to offer some of the latest information about the world Christianity. But in terms of resources, I don't think now the mainland they need Hong Kong as much. Because they're quite well off.

Morgan Lee: Wow, interesting. Even in the midst of the more recent crackdowns on the church in China?

Andrew Kwok: In recent crackdown, you will see that Hong Kong has become a platform for information. You will find that a lot of campaign to ask for the world awareness of this kind of Christian persecution initially they start from Hong Kong. You can see that, for example the signature campaign petition was also initiated by Hong Kong Christians. So I think you can see Hong Kong Christians are very concerned about our mainland brothers and sisters. So whenever they have some problems, we offer prayers, we offer voice, and we try to get the support to support them. But in terms of resources, I still quite think that mainland churches, they are rising, and Hong Kong churches is just keeping steady in terms of resources.

Mark Galli: In terms of the divisions that they're experiencing Hong Kong, I'm wondering if anyone's taking what I'd call a big picture view. It has struck me that as I've looked at protest movements in the past, whether they're Christian or not, it does seem to me that there are some—this is related to some of the arguments of the Christians who are against the protests—it has struck me that as I read history of social change in various places, that actually it isn't usually an either-or world. That is to say there are some people in the front lines protesting, while there are some people in the government actually not protesting but actually trying to make changes within the system, and then everybody in between. But in order for something to change, you need Christians doing all three things. But when you're in the middle of that tension and argument, it feels like an either-or. If you're not for the protesters, you're not really a good Christian. Or if you are a protester, you're not, etc., etc Is anyone seeing it from that perspective in Hong Kong at this time?

Andrew Kwok: We know that Hong Kong government somehow, they are also being controlled by the central government. I don't think that now we have some church leaders come out to say publicly, we need to have a different kind of people or you may imagine we have some kind of undercover within the government to initiate the movement. No, no church leaders say that. Actually, because when you read the central government's papers, indeed they worry Christianity as a kind of tool of the so-called peaceful revolution for that. So, I think this quite, very quite difficult whether we can have church leaders come out and say, oh we can have different people and then we can do different roles.

Mark Galli: Right, right. Well, obviously if you're working within an unjust structure to work for change, you can't very well say it out loud that you're doing it.

Andrew Kwok: Indeed, indeed. So actually, we are just a kind of a small part of the bigger PRC (People’s Republic of China) politics. Yeah, so that that is quite sad for Hong Kong churches.

Morgan Lee: I'm wondering if there are any other names of Christian leaders in this movement that you think we should know, or our listeners should know.

Andrew Kwok: Rev. Yuen Tin-yau. He is the chairman—he was, because he stepped down and retired now—he was the chairman of Methodist Church in Hong Kong. And I think he is a one of the very senior clergyman in Hong Kong churches. He openly stepped out to support the Occupy Movement, even for example during the Occupy Movement, he opens the church to let the campaigners to come to the church, to take water, or to use the washroom, or to take a rest, or to have some silent moment. So he is very generous to those campaigners at that time. And so I think Reverend Yu is one of the very important leaders that the outside world should know.

But you'll find that actually besides particular leaders, a lot of young pastors in Hong Kong, they form groups and become a kind of so-called post umbrella [35:38] groups. And to support and to continue the spirit of the campaign. So I think these groups you can take notice of.

Morgan Lee: How would you challenge listeners of this podcast to pray for the Hong Kong church?

Andrew Kwok: I would like to ask for Christians in the world to pray for Hong Kong, for hearts—especially for Hong Kong church and Christians—for hearts of love and peace, because I think of in the division, we have a lot of hatred and anger in ourselves. So, please pray for us for a heart of love and peace. Also pray for us, a heart of spiritual discernment and justice. As I have told you, some people were living in alternate reality. We need much spiritual discernment to find out the truth and the falsehood, and fight for the justice for the people.

I asked to pray for our hearts with patience and service. Just as Mark told, maybe now we cannot be successful just to use social activism, but I think service and Christian generosity and kindness can show how we can achieve justice, and an equal society or an equality society in Hong Kong through our Christian witness in our lives. So please pray for us for these areas.

Mark Galli: That's very helpful. Thank you. Very specific

Andrew Kwok: That's my pleasure.

Morgan Lee: Yes, I think that's what Mark is usually preaching all the time, right?

Mark Galli: Yeah. Well I think what's being experienced in Hong Kong is every social justice movement is tempted toward hate and anger because the injustice is so infuriating. But for Christians, that's just not, that's not going to work. We've got to move beyond the anger, the hate and the anger, and still seek justice without giving up.

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