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China's Christians
The Christian Element in the Hong Kong Protests

After some heated clashes this past weekend, both sides in the ongoing Hong Kong dispute have now agreed to a round of talks to discuss the protestors’ demands. But, via Get Religion, this WSJ piece on Occupy Central suggests that there has been a major gap in the media coverage of the protest’s demographics. Christians, according to the story, have played an important role in encouraging and leading Occupy. Much of the protest leadership is Christian—two of the three top leaders of Occupy and three-fourths of original founders of groups involved in the protest, according to the WSJ. Moreover, some important clerics like the former Catholic bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Cardinal Zen Zi-kiun, have been outspokenly pro-democracy. The Christian presence at the protests themselves has apparently been quite visible, “with prayer groups, crosses, and protesters reading Bibles in the street” and some churches giving food, medical care, and shelter to protestors.

The WSJ is cautious with its thesis, however. Most major churches have officially taken “largely neutral stances” to the protests, and there are Christians on both sides, including among the area’s government and business leadership. There are also other reasons to be skeptical. For one, Christians often fall into other demographic categories that correlate with opposition to the regime—they are likely to be educated, Westernized, or of an ethnic minority—which makes it hard to attribute their dissent to their faith alone. For another, the complicated state of religion in China makes it hard to draw sharp denominational lines; some, for example, might consider themselves to be both Christian and Buddhist. Even so, it’s not hard to believe that Hong Kong’s Christians might have particular reason to vigorously oppose a communist regime that has been unfriendly to their faith. As we’ve suggested before, the country’s ongoing crackdown on Christians might only serve to make churches stronger—or, perhaps as in Hong Kong, more vocal. But this paragraph in the WSJ is especially key:

Churches are deeply embedded into the fabric of Hong Kong society, in contrast to mainland China, where religion is strictly controlled. The Catholic Church established a foothold in the former colony in 1841, the very year that the British wrested control of Hong Kong Island from China, with other denominations following soon after. Christian institutions have since become part of Hong Kong’s civil sensibility.

Unlike in Beijing, where not only churches but many forms of civil society have been eradicated or eroded, Hong Kong still has an active body of non-state institutions that have help support and channel the protest spirit Occupy Central has displayed. That’s the thesis of this useful piece by James Palmer in The Spectator: 

The shrines and altars that dot Hong Kong speak to the richness of Chinese custom, annihilated between 1949 and 1976 in the mainland. Take Wong Tai Sin, a healing god whose cult once thrived in Guangdong. While his tradition was stamped out there, in Hong Kong his vast temple is a community institution that gives its name to a subway stop. Or take the tiny shrine of the ‘god of the four seas’. When it was founded decades ago, before the city’s land reclamation projects, it was on the coast. But every day, travellers still veer off course to visit it and offer devotions before taking the ferry, because that’s what their grandparents did.

Hong Kong preserves hobby clubs, literary societies, family associations, clan ties and ancestral temples that once made up the fabric of Chinese society. In mainland cities, the once-vast variety of regional cultures and traditions has been wracked twice over; first by Maoist persecution and then by waves of migration and materialism.

Beijing promotes what Palmer calls a “bland nationalism” instead of the fiery spirit of protest that traditionally characterized the Chinese, and believes that Occupy Central is a threat to that bland nationalism—one that much be crushed. Insofar as Christians are keenly sensitive to threats to their corner of civil society, it makes sense that they would become an important factor in the protests, which may, in the end, only increase Beijing’s desire to bring its second most troublesome religious minority under control.

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  • FriendlyGoat

    And why would we suppose that “major” churches would take “largely neutral stances” to the protests? “Major” churches are running a business that seeks to offend neither its contributors nor its possible regulators. We hope the Christians in the streets of Hong Kong are motivated by their personal belief, not their church leadership.

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