The people of Hong Kong have protested for greater freedoms for years, but the latest demonstrations represent a historic outcry.
Since 1997, July 1 has marked the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return as a territory of China after 150 years of British colonial rule. Beginning in 2003, it is also the date of annual protests by Hong Kong residents calling for increased democracy.
These demonstrations have been generally peaceful—until this summer, when a group of protesters stormed the Legislative Council parliament building. They were angry at what they saw as China’s most recent, and most egregious, effort to weaken the freedoms of Hong Kongers.
In April, Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, had introduced a bill that would allow Hong Kong to detain and transfer people wanted in countries and territories with which Hong Kong has no formal extradition agreement, including mainland China and Taiwan. The bill, she argued, was necessary to send a Hong Kong man wanted for murder to trial in Taiwan. It specifically included exemptions for political crimes, religious crimes, and certain white-collar crimes.
The Hong Kong public, though, saw the bill as a thinly veiled ploy to give China additional power over the semi-autonomous territory. The bill has kicked off nearly four months of protests that have, at times, had as many as 1.7 million participants—a remarkable number for a city of 7.4 million people.
Even as the extradition bill was suspended by Lam, and then withdrawn altogether, the protests against Chinese overreach have continued, with turnout spiking leading up to another anniversary: National Day. October 1 marks the 70th annual commemoration of the founding of the People's Republic of China.
Aside from the bill itself, four of the protesters’ five main demands remain: Lam’s resignation, an inquiry into police brutality, the release of those arrested, and greater democratic freedoms.
Many Hong Kong Christians, while comprising less than 12 percent of the population, have played a prominent role in the protests—marching, singing hymns, holding prayer circles, and providing food and shelter to other demonstrators. (The Jesus People song “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” became an unexpected anthem of the protests, as participants sang the tune to calm confrontations with police.)
For Christians there, the Chinese Communist Party may be the greatest existential threat to the Hong Kong church. In the past few years Chinese president Xi Jinping has systematically cracked down on Christianity in the mainland, razing churches, arresting leaders, and ejecting foreign missionaries. The persecution has extended to other faiths, with Xi’s government detaining as many as one million Muslim Uighur people in re-education camps in the country’s western region.
Under the Hong Kong Basic Law, a constitution agreed to by the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China when the former handed Hong Kong back to the latter, none of these things should happen in Hong Kong—at least not until 2047, when the Basic Law and Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy expire.
But in the 22 years since Hong Kong became part of China again, the Communist country has shown a willingness to push the boundaries of that agreement. The Hong Kong legislature is stacked with pro-Beijing lawmakers; the supposedly free press is regularly censored. On multiple occasions, China has pushed for history curriculum in Hong Kong schools that, among other things, erases significant events like Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign and the Tiananmen Square massacre. Electoral reforms proposed by Beijing, which gave the Chinese Communist Party more influence over who was eligible to run for office in Hong Kong, sparked the Umbrella Movement in 2014.
Even without an extradition agreement, China has already shown its willingness to abduct and detain Hong Kong residents that have angered Communist leaders. Most notably, five Hong Kong booksellers who sold books critical of Chinese leaders disappeared in 2015, claiming later that they had been imprisoned on the mainland. In a country where as many as 99.9 percent of defendants are found guilty, the idea of justice is questionable at best.
For Chinese Christians within the diaspora, the threat from the mainland is no less real. Those born in the 1930s and 1940s grew up as Mao Zedong and his staunchly atheist Communist Party came to power. Many Chinese Christians who now live abroad fled after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, with Hong Kong often being one of their first stops toward the freedom to practice their faith.
Today Hong Kong remains the safest haven on the border of mainland China for missionaries and ministries, where they go to purchase supplies, attend trainings, post on social media, or simply to escape the ever watchful Chinese authorities, known for monitoring communications and the movements of foreigners. Hong Kong often serves as the staging ground or headquarters for missions efforts into the mainland. As China attempts to exert greater control over Hong Kong, their work is even more at risk.
Of course, no protest movement is perfect in its motivations and actions. Protesters in Hong Kong have been criticized for shutting down the city’s bustling international airport on multiple occasions, damaging government buildings, scuffling with police, and harming the tourism industry.
But even flawed protest movements can provide a prophetic voice, bringing to light the forces threatened by a people who are free and empowered. The demonstrators’ persistent efforts have highlighted police brutality; they have incurred the aggression of the Triads, organized crime syndicates in Hong Kong.
Protest leaders, including Joshua Wong, a Christian activist who rose to prominence during the 2014 protests, and anti-Beijing lawmakers have been arrested. The Chinese military is amassing security forces on the Hong Kong border as a stark warning to the protesters about the possible consequences of their actions.
In recent years, the international community has been more inclined to overlook China’s curbing of human and political rights within the mainland and its territories, in hopes of currying favor with the economic and military superpower. But with these protests, it has become much harder to ignore the fact that China ranks 135th on the Human Freedom Index. Activists from Hong Kong have recently testified before the United Nations Human Rights Council and the US Congress.
At this point, no one knows how the story unfolding in Hong Kong will end. Some could even argue that their efforts are futile, given that, in a short 28 years, Hong Kongers will have lost all claim to their existing freedoms and political systems. The many thriving churches and ministries in Hong Kong may be forced to close their doors or go underground after 2047.
But, for now, they continue to raise their voices. They continue to march. And the spotlight continues to shine into some of the darkest corners of Chinese rule.