Hong Kong Catholics have played an important role in the massive protests that have overtaken the city nearly every weekend since mid-June. At the height of the protests, crowds swelled to an estimated 2 million people, and violence erupted. Catholics have been at the forefront of the efforts to keep the protests peaceful, while also seeking to make the voice of the Church heard in the streets and in the halls of Chinese power.
Demonstrators first gathered more than four months ago to march against proposed legislation that could lead to the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China. Such a step by the communist government in Beijing is seen by many as an aggressive move that erodes the freedoms Hong Kong has been afforded since 1997, when the former British colony became a “special administrative region” of the People’s Republic of China.
At the time of the handover, the people of Hong Kong were told that once the British hegemony was ended, they would not suddenly find themselves living under the same laws as the rest of communist China. The agreement for the handover stipulated that Hong Kong was to be a part of communist China but granted a high degree of autonomy, including control over its own legal system and economic life. The unusual status has been described by the phrase “one country, two systems.”
From the start, however, there has been worry that Beijing would not honor the agreement.
Those concerns have only grown in the last years, in the face of efforts to curb freedom of speech, shut down any criticism of the government and strip away Hong Kong’s autonomy.
In late 2014, Hong Kong witnessed a massive series of protests, called the “Umbrella Movement,” against the decision by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) to push for reforms of the Hong Kong electoral system that would have led to the Communist Party exercising tight control over elections to the region’s main governing body. The movement took its name from the umbrellas protesters carried to hide their faces from cameras and to provide some cover from pepper spray and tear gas. In all, more than 900 arrests were made, and the situation ended without resolution.
Now, five years later, the new extradition bill put forward by the city’s pro-Beijing government, called the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019, threatens to curb Hong Kong’s independent legal system. The proposed measure would increase the number of countries to which extradition might apply, including mainland China. Critics warn that political dissidents or anyone deemed a danger to the government might be extradited to the mainland and subjected to a legal system with few rights for the accused.
Any new law that raises the specter of extradition from Hong Kong’s autonomous justice system to mainland China must concern the city’s 580,000 Catholics. Catholics and other Christians recognize what is at stake, knowing as they do the terrible situation facing all Christians, Catholics especially, on the mainland. In many provinces they face the demolition of churches and laws forbidding minor children from entering churches.
For the Catholics of Hong Kong — struggling like their brothers and sisters on the mainland to understand and implement the 2018 Vatican-China deal — the next few weeks may determine ultimately how the Church in Hong Kong will fare in Chinese Premier Xi Xinping’s campaign to “Sinicize” religion.
In an interview with the Register, Father Bernardo Cervellera, the editor of AsiaNews, a Catholic press agency operated by the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, warned that the extradition could be used against anyone deemed a religious dissident.
“Considering the fact,” he said, “that many Christians help both the official and unofficial Church, the ‘underground Church,’ they would be directly accused of being suspected criminals and extradited to China and prosecuted.”
Similar fears were expressed by Edwin Chow, acting president of the Hong Kong Federation of Catholic Students. Speaking to Catholic News Agency recently, he noted that the persecution of Catholics in mainland China might come to Hong Kong. “The Chinese government is suppressing the Church in mainland China,” he said, “and so we are worried that when we have communication with the mainland Church, maybe one day the Chinese government will also arrest the Hong Kong people to suppress Hong Kong people.”
Given the levels of control exercised by the Communist Party over all religious life in China, any similar crackdown on believers in Hong Kong would represent a serious blow to human rights and religious freedom and could herald a dark era of oppression for Hong Kong Catholics.
This is why, in part, the Diocese of Hong Kong issued a statement that urged the Hong Kong government and the public to find a peaceful solution, but it also implored the government “not to rush to amend the fugitive bill before fully responding to the concerns of the legal sector and the public.”
As the protests continue, Catholics must continue to play a vital but shrewd role in Hong Kong — and Chinese — society, steering any protests away from radical actions that will endanger both lives and democracy.
With the 30th anniversary of the bloodshed of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 still fresh in their minds, protest leaders know the risks of provoking the communist government.
Edwin Chow put it well when he advised, “For the Catholic groups, for the Christian groups, we have the responsibility and we have the power to calm our friends down. Because I think singing hymns, just in the beginning … creates a peaceful atmosphere, and it has a power to keep everyone very calm.” Catholics in Hong Kong see more than ever that the voice of the Church must be heard not just in Hong Kong but across all of China. It is a voice speaking out while there is still time, to affirm Catholic teaching on the dignity of the human person in the face of oppression, but it is also heard not just in speech but in those calming hymns.
Among the hymns is a simple 1974 Christian song that found its way to Hong Kong: Sing Hallelujah to the Lord. Sung by Christian and non-Christian protesters alike in the streets, it has become the anthem of the entire protest. Its joyous message — “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord. … Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth” — is especially needed at this moment in the history of China.