Hong Kong’s Religious Revolutionaries

Hong Kong’s Religious Revolutionaries

One of the most interesting things I’ve read about the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong touches on an aspect that has received relatively little attention so far. An article in the Wall Street Journal looks at the religious background of some of the movement’s main organizers. It turns out that many of the key people are Christians.

Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old leader of the activist group that has played a key role in launching and organizing the demonstrations, is an evangelical Protestant. Two of the three leaders of Occupy Central, the main protest group, are Christians. A former Catholic bishop of Hong Kong is another big supporter. "Christianity has been a visible element of the demonstrations, with prayer groups, crosses, and protesters reading Bibles in the street," the article notes.

This shouldn’t be entirely unexpected. As the Journal reporter notes, churches "are deeply embedded in the fabric of Hong Kong society" — in stark contrast to mainland China, where the Communist Party still views Christians as rivals for the loyalty of Chinese citizens.

Yet many other leading media organizations — like the New York Times or CNN — have neglected to mention this point. This strikes me as a significant omission. We can hardly be expected to understand why the demonstrators persist in defying the world’s most powerful dictatorship without understanding the beliefs behind their choices.

Why has there been so little attention to the Christian factor? I think it’s a combination of ignorance and embarrassment. Most journalists in the countries of the West today are skeptics or secularists. They tend to regard religious belief as a quaint oddity, a sort of exotic irrelevance. And since those reporters who hail from Europe or the United States come from environments historically shaped by Christianity, they’re also anxious about appearing biased.

This is myopic. In its origins, Christianity is a product of the Middle East, making it just as "Western" as Judaism and Islam. Modern-day Christianity is thoroughly global. The Catholic Church may have its headquarters in Rome, but nowadays the vast majority of Catholics live outside of Europe and North America. Evangelical Protestantism is expanding rapidly in Latin America and Africa — and Christians there see themselves as servants of God, not as "agents of the West."

The same goes for China. The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life put the number of Protestant Christians in China at 58 million in 2010 — greater than the number in Brazil (40 million). The scholar Fenggang Yang calculates that China is on track to become the world’s largest Christian country by 2025.

Western journalists may not be paying much attention, but that’s one mistake the Chinese Communist Party isn’t about to make. The Party regards religion, and Christianity in particular, as its greatest rival. It’s probably right to do so. There is a long tradition of militant religious groups in pre-communist China that posed powerful challenges to central rule: The Taiping Rebellion (1850 to 1864), led by a man who believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus, ended up taking 20 million lives. These days, the Falun Gong (Falun Dafa) movement, an idiosyncratic hybrid of Buddhism and other Chinese religious traditions, is one of the few mass organizations that continues to offer an alternative vision to communist rule.

Given such history, it’s hardly surprising that Beijing has gone to huge effort to keep Chinese Christians under tight state control. The People’s Republic only recognizes Catholics who worship in state-approved churches, while ignoring those who maintain loyalty to the Vatican; there’s another Beijing-approved organization for Protestants as well. The official rationale for this is that Christian missionaries often operated as allies of the European powers that subjected China to humiliating colonial rule in the nineteenth century. The real reason probably has more to do with Party leaders’ awareness of the shallowness of their own claim on Chinese loyalties. No one, not even the communists, believes in Marxism-Leninism these days, and the Party has yet to come up with a solid value system to take its place.

On top of that, the Party is also extremely sensitive to a history apparently lost on many of the reporters currently covering the protests in Hong Kong: the long and illustrious Christian involvement in revolutions around the world. The Chinese leadership is painfully aware of the role played by Pope John Paul II and his Polish Catholic compatriots in the downfall of the communist system in Eastern Europe. And despite their eagerness to discount Chinese Christians (and Hong Kong protesters) as agents of foreign powers, the rulers in Beijing also know that indigenous Christians were equally prominent in the pro-democracy movements that brought down dictators in South Korea and the Philippines in the 1980s.

Indeed, Christians have played strikingly important roles in popular protest movements ranging from the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa to the civil rights campaigns in the United States. To be sure, history is also filled with examples of slavedrivers and dictators who have cited Christian doctrine in defense of their own positions. Autocrats are particularly fond of Romans 13:1-7 and its exhortation to "submit to the governing authorities." (And as the Wall Street Journal takes care to note, not all of Hong Kong’s prominent Christians are on the side of the protesters.)

Yet the New Testament offers especially rich fodder to those who aim to throw off their chains. Martin Luther King mined Biblical texts for powerful metaphors of individual liberation and collective empowerment. Twentieth-century activists have translated Christ’s radical emphasis on love into programs for non-violent struggle. On the purely practical level, churches provide alternate networks of support and refuge that can come in handy for activists who might otherwise find themselves alone against the power of the state.

In this last respect, of course, Christianity resembles other organized religions that have lent themselves to political ends. By now, presumably, no one needs to be reminded that Islam is entirely capable of challenging governments. It would be impossible to imagine recent upheavals in the societies of Southeast Asia (and especially in Burma), without taking Buddhism into account.

Still, I can’t help but think that it’s time to take a fresh look at Christianity and its catalyzing effect on political transformations around the world. Most people in Hong Kong aren’t Christians — so what is it about this particular faith that seems to predispose its adherents to activism? Surely that’s worth examining.

In any case, I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that what the demonstrators in Hong Kong are living through right now is merely the latest chapter in a story that’s been going on for decades — or, for that matter, millennia. I earnestly hope that they can achieve their goals and live to tell the tale.