HONG KONG — The massive public protests in Hong Kong continue to draw worldwide attention, and among those taking part are a number of Hong Kong’s 400,000 Catholics. These Catholics, according to three sources who recently spoke with the Register, view the protests as a fight to secure religious freedom and basic human rights in a region of China that historically has enjoyed more freedom than the rest of the country — ruled for the last 70 years by the anti-religious and often inhumane Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Three of these Catholics protesters, “John,” “Lee” and “Herman,” provided an exclusive look at what is happening on the ground in Hong Kong. Their names and identities have been concealed because of the high risk of arrest by Hong Kong police protesters now face.
Demonstrations began last March as peaceful public gatherings, but now, according to John, Lee and Herman, protesters are responding with increasing violence in opposition to increasingly brutal attempts by authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing to end the demonstrations by force. However, at least one prominent Church official is calling for a return to peaceful means of protesting to avoid further bloodshed and so that protesters can maintain the moral high ground.
People first took to the streets of Hong Kong this past March in opposition to the “Fugitive Offenders Amendment Bill,” introduced in February. By early July, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (a professed Catholic) tabled the bill proposing extradition of Hong Kong’s residents (and Taiwan’s citizens) to mainland China, claiming the bill was “dead” in its application to Hong Kong after the massive protests.
But seeking assurance that Hong Kong’s rights would be protected, demonstrators want the extradition bill replaced with a bill that would affirm a universal right to vote as promised in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, a de facto constitution for the 426-square-mile territory drafted by the Chinese government after Hong Kong was handed over to CCP rule by Great Britain in 1997.
In commenting on the escalating violence at the protests, John told the Register that participants have become divided into two camps, “the so-called ‘peaceful group’ and the so-called ‘fighting group.’”
“In the past, the fighting group was always condemned by the peaceful group,” he said, “but since this past June, there has been a consensus among the peaceful group and the fighting group that neither group could survive without the other. The peaceful group forces the police to allow the demonstration, and the fighting group has remained behind to fight against the police — buying time for the peaceful group to leave when the police started to disperse the people with force.”
Among those calling for cooler heads to prevail is Hong Kong’s sixth bishop, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, who in a late September interview urged the protesters to take a nonviolent approach to achieving their goals. In the interview, Cardinal Zen admitted that, while he had not said much publicly about the Hong Kong protests previously, he could not remain silent about the increasing violence.
“The time has come to speak out, because in Hong Kong a tragedy is now a real risk,” he said in the interview. “The young people protesting are brave and generous, but violence can get out of control. We need to stop, join forces and review our strategy; otherwise their sacrifice will have been fruitless.”
According to John, however, the “fighting group” seems to have had more success than the peaceful group in getting the Hong Kong government’s attention, noting that the extradition law was suspended only after the fighting group engaged the police in a major conflict on June 12.
In his September interview, Cardinal Zen related the details of this conflict: “On June 12, while we, the peaceful protesters, dispersed after the march, the ‘brave’ or the ‘violent’ took the merit of surrounding the Legislative Council building [,] thus preventing the approval of the law. That was passive resistance, but then an aggressive behavior escalated. In the beginning it targeted only physical things; now some seem to want to target the police, too.”
Yet John defended the violent actions, noting that the peaceful protesters had not made much headway in making themselves heard.
“The government ignored the demands of the peaceful demonstration on June 9,” John said, as they had ignored similar protests [afterwards] on June 16, attended by 2 million people, and Aug. 18, attended by 1.5 million people. “It seems like the government would not respond to peaceful demonstration. That’s why the protests were escalated.”
Protest and Frustration
But such violence that occurs at the protests, said Herman, 18, is also a matter of self-defense due to the excessive force used by the police against the protesters — which, he claimed, was government-sanctioned.
Although he believed that there was, initially, “safety in numbers,” Herman said the government in Hong Kong soon viewed the millions of protesters with fear — a threat to their power. “The government has taken some violent measures due to [the large number of protesters], I believe — asking pro-government Triad members to attack the protesters or allowing the police to abuse the right of using anti-riot equipment such as tear-gas gun, shotgun and police truncheon.”
John expanded on this, saying that the police in Hong Kong are overstepping their mandate by using (often) expired tear gas in locations other than where the demonstrations take place, “in metro stations, residential areas, malls.”
Further frustrating the protesters, John added, with the escalating police violence came laws prohibiting protesters from protecting their identities with masks.
“There is an anti-mask law enforced by the chief executive now,” he said. But, he added, “the law is not only ignored by the people, it actually escalated the people’s anger towards the government.”
Besides the anti-mask laws, John said, the government has also restricted the hours of operation for the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), Hong Kong’s metro system, in an attempt to limit the number of protesters attending the demonstrations — or worse, restricting them from leaving when violence escalates.
“The MTR … is now closing early,” he said. “People believed that the early closure of MTR is a de facto curfew. On the evening of Aug. 31, riot police rushed into the Prince Edward Police Station to beat people. Videos of this went viral. Later, after the CCP criticized the MTR for ‘helping the protesters to get away,’ it started to close stations near [to where] the protests take place, but there was never any chaos in the stations. The police would rush out from ‘closed’ MTR stations, beat and arrested the protesters.”
Catholics’ Rights — Human Rights
Lee, 23, told the Register that his decision to join the protests was guided by his Catholic faith and his sense of civic duty as a Chinese citizen in Hong Kong.
“The most fundamental concern for me is the freedom of religion, followed by the freedom of thought and speech,” he said. “We protest because we do not trust the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP has a pretty nasty history of suppressing Christianity and other religions in China. Also, there is virtually no freedom of speech in China.”
Herman agreed, knowing he couldn’t remain on the sidelines as the protests grew.
“As a Christian … [what] I am protesting is that I want to protect our Church,” he said. “As we all know, there are numerous instances of religious persecution occurring in China — such as in the case of the Church in the Henan province, where all [Christian churches] were destroyed by the Chinese government, and Christians were being inhumanely treated by the police.”
But the Church is peacefully resisting persecution in China — as CNA reported last week that Catholics in the Hebei province barricaded themselves in their church in order to stop the Chinese government from tearing it down. Now, the government is offering land for a new church and monetary compensation.
Nonetheless, Herman said, the threat posed by the extradition bill is real — and the bill itself is designed to break down the unity of the Hong Kong people by targeting individual Christians.
“If an extradition bill were passed, a Christian who does not agree with the Chinese government could be sent back to mainland China,” Herman said. “We know that there we will be treated inhumanely.”
According to Lee, the protests also seek to address basic concerns for human rights, “even the most fundamental of human rights, including free election rights — especially electing the chief executive [of Hong Kong]. This is a very crucial issue, because when the leader is not elected by the people, but for the benefit of the central government, government policies are enacted without considering the common good of the people. In turn, the people — the ‘grassroots’ — are being exploited.”
John is also concerned that the Chinese government may be preparing to interfere in Hong Kong’s self-governance. Since being returned to China in 1997, Hong Kong has enjoyed an unprecedented political autonomy. One sign that things may be changing, John said, is the increased arrests in Hong Kong.
“The government promised that they would not extradite people [from Hong Kong] charged with political crimes, ‘thought crimes’ or religious crimes,” he said. “In reality, however, the Chinese government seldom uses these charges. They charge political dissidents and religious leaders with commercial crimes. These people disappear. I, like many other people in Hong Kong, want to defend our current freedoms, which are already shrinking.”
For example, John said, bookstore owners have been targeted for “selling books exposing corruption and internal conflicts within the CCP, being kidnapped into mainland China and forced to make video confessions while in detention. This is already being done. We must expose these illegal and inhumane actions, and the media is helping do so.”
John exhorted the media to continue to follow what is happening in Hong Kong.
“It is you, reporters and writers from overseas, who are protecting us,” he said. “You bring our words to the people in the West. There is safety in numbers, yes, but 7.5 million in Hong Kong is not enough. There are 1.4 billion people in China. We need the hundreds of millions of people from your country to stand with us. We need the support of the international community.”
Lee said that Catholics in the West can support their efforts by letting the rest of the world know about their struggles. “We want the faithful in other countries to know that democracy and freedom are very precious,” Lee said. “Democracy and freedom must be practiced, though, without abuse [of the dignity of the human person].”
John concurred. “I know some friends [in the West] who helped, smuggling Bibles and religious books into China in the 1980s and 1990s. I don’t want to see our Bible confiscated. I want my children to be able to worship God freely, if they choose to stay” in Hong Kong.
“Most importantly, however, we need prayers,” John added. “Please pray for justice and peace in Hong Kong. Without justice, there can never be lasting peace. May the Queen of Peace protect us.”
Register correspondent Bree A. Dail writes from Virginia Beach, Virginia.