No matter what issues of religion and politics have occupied us over the past week, there has been a feeling that we ought to be following the umbrellas, black T-shirts and yellow ribbons spreading over Hong Kong. And not only following, but concerned enough to burden our souls with their symbolic meaning, think past the chop-suey, and pray.
The battle is nothing new: the people want the right to elect their freely-chosen candidates to govern them; the government seeks to vet those who may stand as candidates and thereby rig the election. Whether it is China, Cuba, Vietnam or the old Soviet Union (not to mention North Korea and a host of “former” Communist countries), the coercive one-party state – which often cloaks itself beneath the façade of multi-party democracy – is antithetical to every notion of liberty. The people may have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of worship (as they do in Hong Kong), but God help you if your speech is too condemning of the government, or your assembly too troubling for the police, or your worship so zealous that it demands manifestation in the public square. In the Communist state, disobedience can be a capital offence. The western TV cameras may catch the tear gas and broadcast anger. But we can never know what corrective punishments are being meted out in the police cells.
In Hong Kong, anyone may stand for election as long as they accord with China’s socialist precepts and Marxist-Leninist dogma. Perhaps that’s too strong: anyone may stand for election as long as they are trusted by the Chinese government. Trusted, yes, that’s better. After a century of British administration, Marxism in Hong Kong may be muddled with manifestations of state capitalism and conflated with all manner of residual assertions of social liberalism, but, essentially, the governing elite forms the representative (ie Beijing-friendly) nominating committee which selects candidates and approves the Chief Executive. This is the constitution bequeathed to the people of Hong Kong by Chris Patten.
Despite having the right to universal suffrage (which, it must be observed, the British never granted under colonial rule), tens (hundreds?) of thousands of student protesters feel their freedoms are being negated and their rights infringed. And so they demand the resignation of Chief Executive CY Leung for his handling of the situation. But the Chinese Communist Party is having none of it, not least because Hong Kong enjoys considerable liberties never dreamed of by the People’s Republic, including an independent judiciary and a free press. With universal suffrage, they aver, Hongkongers have never had it so good.
But student idealism transcends political realism, and their revolution demands reform. Their cause has divided Hong Kong, not least because of the blocked roads, commuting inconvenience and economic hardship caused by falling levels of tourism. But much support is coming their way from the churches – Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic: ‘Christians show support for Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Protests‘; ‘Christians back HK democracy protests with food and faith‘; ‘Hong Kong Cardinal makes appeal for peace amidst protests‘; ‘Zen serves as reminder of Pope’s China challenge‘. According too Professor Joseph Cheng Yu-shek of the City University of Hong Kong:
“The proportion of Christians supporting the movement is higher than the proportion of the Hong Kong population in general. Those who have Christian beliefs have a stronger distrust of the Communist Party of China because they are certainly an atheist party, of course. And I would say that Christians, by definition, certainly they accord a higher priority to spiritual things than material things.. Christians in Hong Kong, they see that economic development has not brought more religious tolerance in China, so despite economic development, despite improvement in living standards and opening to the external world, tolerance of Christianity especially has not been improving, in fact in the recent two years persecution has strengthened.”
And so the unanimous ecumenical exhortation from Hong Kong’s Christian leaders is to agitate for liberty; to exhort the faithful to clamour for democracy; to protest day and night for the right to elect freely-chosen candidates so that the government of the people might arise from the people. “It’s high time that we really showed that we want to be free and not to be slaves,” said Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun. “We must unite together.” And so the Christians are, because the demand for democracy is contiguous with their quest for religious liberty. The Cardinal explains:
“In a place where education is not sufficient, people will get cheated easily. There will be danger of manipulation. However, the basic conditions in Hong Kong are ready. People are mature enough.. Beijing does not allow civil nomination because they fear. They do not trust in us, thinking that we will intentionally choose a leader who will confront them.”
“The crucifixion of Jesus is political in meaning,” said Protestant theologian Rose Wu. Indeed it is: to live out the Christian faith is to participate in the structures of the state while confronting economic, political and economic injustices. Without freedom, this mission is impossible. Without freedom, there are no crosses, Bibles or prayer meetings. Democracy in Hong Kong is not simply a secular political pursuit: it is a manifestation of liberation theology. It is part of God’s battle for man’s freedom.