News Analysis

As their freedoms disappear, how long can Hong Kong’s Christians hold out?

Dominic Chan, the Vicar General of the Hong Kong (Getty)

The ex-colony’s Christians enjoy religious freedom. But for how much longer?

On March 30, hundreds of Hong Kong Christians prayed on a Way of the Cross march for nine activists facing jail after calling for democracy. Several of the nine – in particular Benny Tai and Pastor Chu Yiu-ming – are Christians who played a leading role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement.

Since then, Hong Kong has increasingly been walking its own Via Crucis as its freedoms and autonomy are eroded. Booksellers have been abducted, pro-democracy legislators and candidates disqualified and a Financial Times journalist expelled. I myself was denied entry in October 2017 and have received anonymous threats.

The trend of present-day lawmaking is worrisome. For example, under the “co-location” principle, mainland Chinese law applies at the rail terminus in Kowloon. So if you are travelling to China from Hong Kong, you are subject to mainland law even before you have left Hong Kong – a clear breach of the principle of autonomy. Then there is the National Anthem Law, criminalising any perceived insult to China’s national anthem – though “insult” is undefined.

Of greatest concern is a new extradition law allowing Hong Kong to extradite suspected criminals to the mainland. Booksellers have already been rounded up, and activists fear that legalisation could result in many more removals. Cardinal Joseph Zen, an outspoken critic of China, fears he would be in danger.

Despite clear opposition from the legal and business communities and foreign governments, the Hong Kong government appears determined to press ahead in doing Beijing’s bidding, unleashing a campaign of ‘‘lawfare’’ against basic human rights. The “storm of unprecedented ferocity” which former Court of Final Appeal Judge Kemal Bokhary spoke of seven years ago is now underway.

The one basic liberty not yet affected is religious freedom. Hong Kong’s churches can still worship freely, as they will do this Easter. Yet even they have reasons to be anxious. They may – for now – be left alone if they stay strictly within the realm of ‘‘spiritual’’ affairs, but living up to their call to be voices for justice and peace may be increasingly difficult. Already some Hong Kong church leaders have warned Christians not to engage in the democracy movement. Fr Luke Tsui Kam-yiu, founder of the Catholic Institute for Religion and Society, condemned US Christian “hegemony” and linked the destruction of crosses in China to “our original sin – our antagonism to China”.

In 2017, Umbrella Movement activist Derek Lam wrote in the New York Times that Hong Kong Christian youth camps are increasingly becoming centres of Chinese Communist Party propaganda. And with the Holy See’s deal with China, how long will it be before the Church in Hong Kong is subsumed into the Communist Party-approved entity in the mainland?

As Christians in Hong Kong commemorate the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord, they are preparing to endure further suffering. When Hong Kong was handed over to China 22 years ago, it was on the principle of “one country, two systems”, which gave Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and guaranteed human rights. That is now in tatters. The Sino-British Joint Declaration gives Britain a responsibility to ensure that China keeps its promises but, despite belated representations by the UK, China is ignoring that completely, and Britain has effectively abandoned them.

As the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee said earlier this month, it is now increasingly “one country, one and a half systems”. In the wake of the Vatican’s disastrous deal with Beijing, Christians in Hong Kong are hoping that Rome won’t sell them out too.