Last month, the Chinese government approved a plan that would give Mainland China the ability to crush any acts in Hong Kong that it deems a national security risk. Despite international outcry, the legislation will go into effect in September.
In one of many responses by Hong Kongers, hundreds of theologians, pastors, and church leaders signed a statement accusing the draft decision of “further depriving Hong Kong of freedom and human rights.”
The Christian leaders accused the Chinese government of destroying its promises and undercutting the city as an international financial center.
At a time where, quote, “darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, we fearlessly and solemnly declare the following confession and promise to our society, including our full embrace of the Gospel of the Kingdom, our sincere repentance towards the Church’s shortcomings, our absolute refusal to authoritarian government, and our determination to walk together with Hong Kong society.” the statement said.
As Hong Kong heads to the fall, the church could use prayers “for guidance and clarity for church leaders and Christians in Hong Kong and how we're going to walk this path. Because I honestly have no idea what's going to happen next,” said Ann Gillian Chu, who is completing her doctor of divinity at the University of St. Andrews in the Center for the Study of Religion and Politics and who has written widely on the theology of Hong Kong’s protest movements.
“And I think there is also a general sense of weariness and dread on what’s going to happen,” she said. “And obviously, this is entirely out of our control. And so there's nothing else we can rely on, except for God.”
Chu joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss the state of Christianity in Hong Kong, if the protests will unify or split the church, and if any prominent Hong Kong Christians desire a closer relationship between Hong Kong and China.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #217
We read a statement at the beginning from the Church in Hong Kong, but can you give us an idea of what Christianity looks like, and what the role of the church is, in Hong Kong?
Ann Gillian: The statement that you were referring to was one of many statements that have been put out by Christians in Hong Kong throughout the past few weeks. They were from the Evangelical Free Church, the Anglican Church, the Christian Missionary Alliance Church, the Pentecostal Church, and the Lutheran Church.
The statement that you read is from the Glorious Worship Ministry, which started pretty recently and it's a new form of church. It doesn't actually have a brick and mortar building, but rather it's an online church. And from looking at its Chinese name, it looks like the idea came from the anthem of the protest, “Glory to Hong Kong.” The people who started this church were among the first few listed in signing the petition, including Andrew Kwok, who you interviewed last year.
As far as what does church looked like in Hong Kong, what denominations are at play, it's very different from what it looks like in North America. People kind of go back and forth in different denominations, depending on whether the church is close to their work location or close to home or if their friends go to that church. There's not that much of a distinction. I mean if somebody's studying theology, they would know the difference, but as a layperson, they probably won't.
The main difference is between evangelical and mainline churches. And this is a broad stroke distinction, and obviously, individual Christians would have different convictions and theology, but evangelical churches tend to look more towards inside the church, and how do you evangelize and bring people into the church? Mainline churches tend to look more at social justice issues, which is why, for example, in the Umbrella Movement, there were evangelical churches that had statements saying that they didn’t want protesters coming in and using their facilities, while at like a Methodist church, they were like, “Come in, charge your phone, take a shower.”
So that’s the major difference between churches as an establishment, but individual Christians would be very different. The Umbrella Movement was started by prominent Christians, and obviously, it could be because of that Christian conviction, but they don't represent a church or a denomination. Most churches or denominations would not want to be spearheading any of this, even if they are participating in it. Even if their pastors are doing that as well.
To what extent have millennials and Gen Z embraced Christianity in Hong Kong?
Ann Gillian: I mentioned Glorious Worship Ministry earlier, which is not like a brick and mortar church, and there are other churches like that which started around or after the Umbrella Movement. And these churches are kind of gathering millennials and Gen Z, who are leaving the Church.
In the 2014 Hong Kong church census, in roughly 58.3% of the churches they surveyed, they felt like the youth were dissatisfied with their current church community and find it difficult to fit into a church. And in terms of the church’s social action efforts, the census also found that only around 11.3% of churches surveyed have participated in any protests or marches, and only around 25.4 % encouraged their congregants to vote.
And so you can see how Gen Z and millennials would find that situation dissatisfying because those are the people that would be interested in social justice and participating in society. And so these new forms of churches, which are usually online, or they have mobile locations, and have new forms of worship like drama, that's very attractive for the younger generation. And so they have been kind of gathering lost sheep.
Also, millennials and Gen Z, especially second-generation church-attending, who usually come back from having studied abroad, will tend to want to go to an English-speaking church.
We focused on one statement in our intro, but you mentioned that other churches also put out statements. Was there are certain kind of flavor of the statements from churches that are more traditionally evangelical versus the more mainline ones?
Ann Gillian: So I first want to point out that churches and denominations themselves didn't put out a statement. I don't know if this is unique in Hong Kong, but it’s certainly very fascinating. Although they might support the cause, there is the issue of government registration, and so they don’t want to get caught up in it. But they don't want to stop their congregants from making a statement.
And so the statements are issued by people who are part of the denomination, but they don't represent the church officially. And so there are different statements that come out. And it's a different way of issuing statements than you would have imagined. It's just people who got together on their own initiative to do it.
Those who do put out a statement usually are condemning the national security laws and asking for them to be retracted. But specifically for the Evangelical Free Church, they mentioned how they came from the Scandinavia and wanting to be free from the government's control. And for the Anglican church, the people who put out the statement were commenting on the Archbishop (who is part of the National People’s Congress in China) and how the church shouldn't be bowing down to regimes and injustice.
And so everybody is kind of reacting to what's happening, but also specifically within the context of their denomination as well.
Let’s talk right now about the protests that have been going on in Hong Kong for the past year. Can you give us a snapshot of some of the key things that have happened or shifted in the last year with regards to the Hong Kong church and the protests?
Ann Gillian: It's interesting to watch how things are quite different from 2013/2014 during the Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement because, at that time, the Church as an institution was pretty silent. But in 2019, before the violence or force or vandalism—depending on how you see who's the actor and what kind of act they're acting on—escalated, the Church was generally on the side of protesters.
And there were some statements that were issued by denominational bodies that were supporting the protestors. There were many more churches that issued statements condemning the extradition bill. There have been suggestions that the nature of the protest in 2014 and the one in 2019 are very different because the extradition bill is taking away existing freedoms while the Umbrella Movement was striving for universal suffrage, so that would be gaining something that hasn't been enjoyed yet.
And so that could be a reason why Christian communities were less outspoken then and are more outspoken now. But as the protest carried on, and as there were more issues of vandalism, they started to become more ambiguous in their response again.
The church has been a target for persecution in mainland China, so to what extent are there also self-interested concerns from churches and Christians in Hong Kong about what this might mean for their freedom to worship?
Ann Gillian: There are concerns, for sure. With the possible national security laws, we don't know what that means because it's unprecedented. So it would be difficult to speculate, but I think there are definitely concerns.
But at the same time, people are so continuing to exercise their religious rights, especially in the face of the police not granting protest requests. So usually in Hong Kong, if somebody wants to hold a protest or a rally or demonstration, they would go to the police and apply for a letter of non-objection. And very recently, the police have been very reluctant to issue the letters.
There was an incident last year, where they refused to give someone a letter, and so students from a divinity school decided to get together and start an outdoor prayer meeting because they see it as their religious right to get together.
And so people are trying their best to use whatever rights they have right now to exercise their religious freedom. But of course, it is a concern.
Are there prominent Hong Kong Christians who believe that a closer relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China is a good thing?
Ann Gillian: Yes, definitely. So most prominently is the Anglican Archbishop, and there’s also the provincial secretary of the Anglican church. And so this is not to say that everyone in the Anglican church believes this or agrees with these leaders.
But they enjoy a close relationship with the Chinese government, the way they see it is that they are doing the slow work. And being able to liaise with the Chinese government enables them to continue their education, and their social welfare work in Hong Kong and possibly in China, and to be able to advocate for those who are in China.
And so they're doing work there that's not seen in the general public for obvious reasons because to advocate for other pastors in China would mean that this is not something that they could broadcast to the world. So that's how they see their work.
The way I see it is that everybody’s reality is informed by their experience. And so their experience informs this particular reality, just as protesters who have been in the front line and have been pepper sprayed have a different reality.
Are there any pastors, writers, or theologians who are emerging as voices amid all of this that people are rallying to, reading, passing around, and discussing?
Ann Gillian: One would be John Chan, who is the founder of Flow Church, which is one of the churches that started after the Umbrella Movement. He’s also a theology professor at a local seminary and he writes on Facebook. And he's also a millennial, so he writes in a way that's assessable for millennials.
As we wrap our conversation, would you be willing to share a couple of things that our listeners should be praying for in Hong Kong and especially the church in Hong Kong?
Ann Gillian: It would be great if your listeners could pray for guidance and clarity for church leaders and Christians in Hong Kong and how we're going to walk this path. Because I honestly have no idea what's going to happen next. And I think there is also a general sense of weariness and dread on what’s going to happen. And obviously, this is entirely out of our control. And so there's nothing else we can rely on, except for God.
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