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Beijing knows it is losing the battle of ideas over Hong Kong

The regime is so alarmed that it is even disrupting private meetings in Europe

Almost exactly a year ago, the Holy See and the Chinese government signed an agreement on the appointment of bishops designed to “normalise” relations and – at least in the mind of the Vatican – enhance protection for China’s 10 million Catholics. A year on, where are we?

Well, there has been no tangible sign of improvement in religious freedom in China. Christians – both Catholic and Protestant – continue to face what most analysts regard as the most severe crackdown since the Cultural Revolution. Churches are still being closed or destroyed, clergy jailed and crosses torn down. Those below the age of 18 are prohibited from worshipping and surveillance cameras mounted at the altar record every worshipper with facial recognition technology.

China’s Muslims, particularly the Uighurs in Xinjiang, are facing a cultural, if not yet physical, genocide. At least one million (and perhaps as many as three million) are reportedly being held in internment camps, some subjected to torture and slave labour.

China’s state media have publicly declared that the goal in regard to the Uighurs is to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins”. As the Washington Post put it, “it’s hard to read that as anything other than a declaration of genocidal intent.”

The persecution of Tibetans and Falun Gong practitioners continues, and earlier this year an independent tribunal, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, concluded that the Chinese state has been forcibly extracting human organs from prisoners of conscience for the transplant industry, that it amounts to a crime against humanity and that anyone engaging with the Chinese state should do so in the knowledge that they are “interacting with a criminal state”.

This is the very same state that Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, has described as the best example in the world today of Catholic social teaching. I am only a six-year-old Catholic and so I hesitate to question the judgment of an eminent bishop. But when I was exploring the Catholic faith before entering the Church I read the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church from start to finish, and I cannot see anything in Xi Jinping’s China that matches in any way the Church’s social teaching. One wonders what the courageous Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei, who was made a cardinal by Pope St John Paul II in pectore (in secret), would have made of this, having spent 30 years in Chinese prisons because of his refusal to accept the Communist Party’s control of the Church.

And then on top of all this, there is the continuing crisis in Hong Kong. It did not come out of nowhere. For at least the past five years, Hong Kong’s freedoms, autonomy and rule of law have come under increasing pressure. We have seen promises of universal suffrage – which are there in black and white in the region’s Basic Law – denied. Pro-democracy legislators and candidates have been disqualified, and pro-democracy protesters jailed. Booksellers publishing titles critical of Beijing’s leaders have been abducted. Academic and press freedoms have been threatened. A law has been proposed to criminalise vaguely defined “insults” to the Communist Party’s national anthem. The Financial Times’s Asia news editor has been expelled.

As a footnote to that list, I myself encountered Beijing’s assault on Hong Kong’s autonomy in a small way when, in October 2017, I was denied entry at Hong Kong airport. I had lived in Hong Kong for the first five years of the handover. I was going to visit friends and have private meetings with various stakeholders. I was not intending to give any public speeches or media interviews, and certainly not to stir or address protests. Yet Beijing decided I was not welcome.

My case was raised on the floor of both Houses of Parliament. Boris Johnson, then Foreign Secretary and now Prime Minister, issued a public statement and the Chinese ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office.

I had not sought publicity, but I was glad that my case helped shine a spotlight on the increasing erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms, rule of law and autonomy. Little did I know, however, how much further the crisis would escalate.

A few months before, Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow – three of the figureheads of Hong Kong’s remarkable activist movement – were jailed for the first time. When I heard the news I was sitting in a taxi in a traffic jam in Surabaya, Indonesia, and thought something had to be done. Surabaya traffic jams give you plenty of thinking time, and so in that taxi I got the idea for a new organisation, Hong Kong Watch.

I was already working full-time on Burma, North Korea, Indonesia and mainland China, and was not exactly looking for a new cause to take on. But I looked around, saw no one else doing anything about Hong Kong, thought someone should, and found myself doing it.

A few months later, on December 11, 2017, Hong Kong Watch was launched at Speaker’s House in Parliament, with patrons from across the political spectrum. Now there is a growing group of activists and parliamentarians waking up to Britain’s responsibilities to Hong Kong.

None of us, however, anticipated just how timely such an initiative would be. None of us knew that Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam – who describes herself as a practising Catholic – would propose such a dangerous piece of legislation as the extradition bill. In essence, she decided to destroy the “firewall” which had been established in preparation for the handover 22 years ago between Hong Kong’s judicial system – which is based on the rule of law, fair trial and an independent judiciary – and mainland China’s, which is premised on the idea of “rule by law”, a politicised judiciary, no fair trial, torture, public executions and forced televised confessions.

Ms Lam thought it was time to legislate to allow the extradition to mainland China of suspected criminals – which could, of course, have included political dissidents who have already been disqualified from elected office and jailed in Hong Kong.

The tragedy is that Hong Kong’s crisis could have been stopped months ago. Having a bad idea is not in itself wrong. It is the failure to listen that is the sin. So when Ms Lam first floated the bill, she should have listened to the voices of caution. She didn’t. Then many of Hong Kong’s lawyers took to the streets, weeks before the mass protests. That should have been a warning. But Ms Lam failed to heed it.

Then chambers of commerce and business people began to speak out against her proposals. She stuck her fingers in her ears. Then diplomats, first at a lower level and then all the way up to the US Secretary of State, spoke out. Still no movement.

Then first a million, and then a week later two million, Hong Kongers took to the streets. Initially, they sang the song from Les Misérables, Do You Hear the People Sing? Later, regardless of religion, they sang a Christian worship song that became the movement’s anthem, Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.

Christians of all traditions have been at the forefront of the movement. Cardinal Joseph Zen, the courageous former bishop of Hong Kong, has joined every demonstration. Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, the current Auxiliary Bishop of Hong Kong, has been constant in his calls for prayer and fasting.

Many of Hong Kong’s democracy activists are Christians. Martin Lee, the father of the democracy movement, Anson Chan, the former chief secretary, and Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon, are all Catholics. Joshua Wong, Benny Tai, Chu Yiu-ming and others are Protestants.

This is not a religious struggle as such, but as in any fight against tyranny and repression, voices of conscience have often come from the Church. One only has to look to Edith Stein, Maximilian Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and St John Paul II to know that. Indeed, Hong Kong’s struggle is reminiscent of Poland’s Solidarity movement, at whose heart were brave Polish Catholics inspired and encouraged by their pope. How sad that there has not even been a call for prayer for Hong Kong from today’s Vatican.

The appointment of a new Bishop of Hong Kong is expected soon, following the death of Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung. There are two likely candidates: one who is already a bishop and has shown great leadership guiding his flock in these difficult times, the other who is favoured by Beijing.

The agreement between the Vatican and China does not include Hong Kong because of the principle of  “one country, two systems”. But if the Vatican were to appoint Beijing’s favoured candidate, even though the other candidate is much more widely supported by Hong Kong Catholics, it would by precedent give the regime a say in future Church appointments in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is now the new front line in the struggle for freedom against tyranny. I have felt that in a small but personal way. It’s minor in comparison with the brutality and repression Hong Kongers face. Nevertheless, in addition to being denied entry to the city I once lived in, I have received continuous letters and emails from anonymous pro-Beijing agents from Hong Kong, not only to me but also to my neighbours and even my mother.

I was recently at a meeting with Cardinal Zen and the democracy movement’s Martin Lee. It was a private gathering and therefore I won’t disclose the details. Astonishingly, the Chinese Communist Party regime found out about it, and went to the most extraordinary lengths to disturb the event. The idea that these two octogenarian Catholics, however courageous, charming and inspiring, threaten the Communist Party – as very clearly they are perceived to do, given the effort the regime expended to prevent them speaking – gives me confidence that the ideological battle is half-won.

That China, supposedly the world’s rising superpower, fears two old men speaking at a closed-door meeting at a pilgrimage site in Europe, along with an under-resourced activist who lives in a London suburb, so much that it deploys serious resources to harass and hinder them is a remarkable compliment. That suggests that we need, as Catholics, to rediscover the spirit of St John Paul II as we engage with the world’s rising communist superpower.

So Hong Kong’s struggle is not just a complicated fight in a distant land of which we know nothing. It is a struggle which Britain has a moral and legal responsibility to be engaged in, given our historic connections and our obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984.

It is also a struggle which inevitably affects our own interests, values and way of life. The Chinese Communist Party only understands one language, that of strength.
If we compromise on our values, we should not be surprised if we wake up one day and find that our freedoms in our own land, in our own Church, are compromised. Yet if we stand firm, if we draw a line, if we look the regime in the eye and say enough is enough – that there are certain principles we cherish and can never betray – they may blink. And if they don’t, we go on fighting.

What we cannot do is kowtow, roll over, blink first. We must be clear: we are for the people of China, but we are against the repressive regime that rules them. And, for all the efforts of Xi Jinping’s propaganda machine, there is a difference and we must never forget it.

Benedict Rogers is the East Asia team leader at the human rights organisation CSW, the founder and chairman of Hong Kong Watch, and the author of six books, including From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church (Gracewing, 2015).