China in Hong Kong: Why ‘the First Freedom’ Will Be the First to Disappear

COMMENTARY: Religious freedom’s very existence poses a threat to the power of the People’s Republic of China.

Children attend Christmas Eve Mass in Beijing on Dec. 24, 2019.
Children attend Christmas Eve Mass in Beijing on Dec. 24, 2019. (photo: Photo by Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

Time magazine readers chose the Hong Kong protesters as the people’s choice for 2019 Persons of the Year. The poll is vivid support for the pro-democracy cries of the 2 million Hong Kong protesters. What many don’t realize is that religion is a significant factor in the current conflict.

The Beijing government, long a source of religious persecution within the Chinese mainland, is now posing a grave threat to religious freedom in Hong Kong, long a beacon of greater democracy in Asia. China’s attack on civil rights there has led to massive protests that are unlikely to stop. At their peak the demonstrators’ numbers have reached, by some accounts, two million of Hong Kong’s 7 million inhabitants.

Given this challenge to its ultimate authority, the Chinese government’s long game is not yet clear. A decision by President Xi Jinping to move troops into Hong Kong would likely trigger an international crisis and substantial problems for China. But Xi’s aggressive domestic and foreign policy trajectory, combined with Hong Kong’s rebuke, suggests that such a decision is by no means out of the question.

Should China move into Hong Kong, one of the first freedoms to be eliminated will be religious freedom. Indeed, religious freedom’s very existence poses a threat to Chinese power.


Background to the Hong Kong Protests

Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, after more than 150 years as a British colony. Under the Sino-British agreement, Hong Kong retains a substantial degree of autonomy as a “special administrative region” under Chinese sovereignty — one country, two systems — until 2047.

That deal has made Hong Kong a functioning quasi-democracy, and a global commercial powerhouse. The island has become an important offshore center for China’s growing global investments and financial services.

Hong Kong’s Basic Law provides civil rights, including considerable religious freedom, that are utterly absent on the mainland. Among other things, Hong Kong has a judiciary with substantial independence and a British common law system.

The protests began when Hong Kong’s Beijing-approved Chief Executive Carrie Lam introduced a bill that would permit extraditions of Hong Kong citizens, including religious citizens, to the mainland to face “justice” in Chinese courts where their substantive rights would be non-existent.

Under such a law, Catholic critics of China, such as former bishop of Hong Kong Cardinal emeritus Joseph Zen Ze-kiun and others, would be vulnerable to prolonged detention, torture and other forms of brutality routinely used to silence opponents of the communist regime.

The protests forced Lam to withdraw the bill, at least for the time being. They continued throughout the summer and into the fall, triggering violence and increased arrests. Local elections in November resulted in landslide victories for pro-democracy, anti-China parties.

The elections and demonstrations threaten Xi’s policies of consolidating his power at home and expanding Chinese influence abroad. They suggest that, unless Hong Kong finds a way to return to stable acquiescence in China’s authority, Xi’s response will remain at best uncertain. His current strategy in Hong Kong appears to be arrests of leaders and intimidation.

However, should Chinese troops move into Hong Kong, what America’s founders called the first freedom, i.e., religious liberty, will necessarily be a casualty.

This fundamental right, properly belonging to every human being, is a permanent rebuke to tyranny, which is why America’s founders put religious freedom first among our constitutional freedoms. When citizens are faithful to an authority greater than the state, the very existence of religion in public life acts as a limit on government. So too do the actions of religious communities providing public services — charities, schools, hospitals — that otherwise government would have to provide.

The Chinese communists, like all totalitarians, understand instinctively the threat of religion to their power. This is why the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has for decades studied religion outside China, especially American religion.


The New Cultural Revolution

Religion’s threat to totalitarian power also explains why President Xi has stepped up China’s internal policy of controlling religious minorities, who, though only 20% of the population, are growing in size. Xi is targeting Chinese Catholics, Protestants, Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists as internal fifth columns.

Unlike Mao Zedong, who tried and failed to destroy religion during the Cultural Revolution, Xi knows that the goal of eliminating religion altogether is unrealistic. But he is heir to Mao’s belief that religion in general, and some religions in particular, pose mortal threats to communist authority, and must at all costs be harnessed to the state. His strategy is to terrorize, intimidate and transform.

For example, Xi employs DNA testing and facial recognition technologies to track religious and political opponents. He has installed video surveillance cameras on the altars in churches. He has imprisoned over a million Uighur Muslims in “reeducation camps,” which brainwash, terrorize and warn. He has pursued China’s goal of emasculating Tibetan Buddhism with population replacement and violence against Buddhist monks and nuns. He has continued the policy of murdering practitioners of Falun Gong and harvesting their organs for sale.

Protestants and Catholics who resist control by the state agencies established for that purpose (the Protestant Three-Self Movement and the Catholic Patriotic Association) suffer imprisonment, torture and destruction of churches. Marian shrines have been bulldozed. Catholic bishops and priests in the “underground” Church are increasingly targeted.

In fact, there seems to be a renewed Chinese fear of the dangers posed by bishops and priests faithful to Catholic teachings on human rights and religious freedom for all. The Catholic Patriotic Association recently issued a detailed set of instructions to China’s Catholics that will render the Church little more than an arm of the Communist Party. Here’s one key passage:

The [Catholic] Church will regard promotion and education on core values of socialism as a basic requirement for adhering to the Sinicization of Catholicism. It will guide clerics and Catholics to foster and maintain correct views on history and the nation and strengthen community awareness.

The fact that many Hong Kong Catholics and other believers support the protests is not lost on Beijing. Whereas the number of Catholics in Hong Kong is small, the proportion is 20 times higher than in China (5% in Hong Kong: less than 1% in China). The threat of Hong Kong’s overall religious population is much higher proportionately than China’s (40% compared to 20%).


The First Freedom for All

The United States is pressuring the Chinese government to back off. In November President Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, mandating sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses on the island.

The law also requires a determination of whether U.S. products are being transshipped through Hong Kong to China for use as systems of mass surveillance, such as the DNA testing and facial recognition technologies being employed to identify and track religious minorities.

It is possible that U.S. pressure, the possibility of international sanctions and Hong Kong’s role in the Chinese economy may cause Xi to abandon any plan to move against the island. On the other hand, international support for the protesters has been muted, and the Trump administration’s desire to resolve Sino-American trade disputes could be seen in Beijing as a restraint on U.S. counter action.

Whatever happens in Hong Kong, one thing is clear: Religious freedom is the bête noire of tyrants, which is why it must be supported by everyone who seeks justice and peace, including in Hong Kong.

Thomas F. Farr is the president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C. He was the founding director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, and, from 2006-2018, was a professor of religion and world affairs at Georgetown University. Farris the author of World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Freedom is Vital to American National Security (Oxford University Press).

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun departs the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome on Nov. 18, 2014.

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