Hong Kong’s population has been in fer-ment during June, with protests by millions against an extradition bill proposed by the autonomous city’s own administration.
The situation was triggered by the murder in Taiwan of a 20-year-old Taiwanese woman. She was allegedly killed by her boyfriend, a citizen of Hong Kong, who fled there after the murder. In the absence of an extradition agreement between Taiwan and Hong Kong, the suspect was unable to be extradited to Taiwan to face trial.
The Hong Kong Administration, led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, proposed a new extradition bill to Hong Kong’s Assembly to enable extraditions to mainland China, Taiwan and Macau, to supplement other such agreements with 20 other countries.
At this point, other complicating factors came into play. Mainland China, of which Hong Kong is a part, has a dismal human rights record, with widespread persecution of Christians, Muslims, and other religious groups. Such persecution has been reported by human rights agencies. Over 1million Muslims in the west of China are currently incarcerated in re-education camps, while raids on underground Christian gatherings and demolitions of churches are widely reported. These activities are designed to ensure that the dominant secular creed of state communism shapes the primary identity of Chinese from all its diverse ethnic groups.
In Hong Kong, with its contrasting approach to freedom of religion, there is concern that the proposed bill will enable communist Chinese authorities to circumscribe religious freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong residents, but denied to mainland Chinese residents.
Christians number around 900,000 in Hong Kong, or around 12% of the population. They hold significant positions of influence. Chief Executive Carrie Lam is a practicing Catholic, while there are very active Protestant mega-churches from a variety of denominations.
In the wake of the announcement of the plan to introduce an extradition bill, Hong Kong residents protested in their millions regularly during the month of June, with the protests taking a distinctly Christian flavour in certain ways. Poster boy of the protests, Joshua Wong, is a devout Christian, and many Hong Kong churches have organised prayer events in support of the protests and opened their doors to protestors fleeing police activity.
A distinctive feature of the protests has been the image of crowds of protestors, both Christian and non-Christian, all chanting the 1970s American Easter hymn ‘Sing Hallelujah To The Lord’, written by Linda Stassen in 1974.
Hong Kong law requires that organised protests must be notified to the authorities in advance, but a religious demonstration needs no such advanced approval. Hence such public gatherings which on face value can present themselves as religious assemblies may be less vulnerable to police action.
Nevertheless, the response by the authorities has been strong. Tear gas and rubber bullets have been used to disperse some of the protests. After the level of public protest reached its peak in mid-June, Lam announced that the proposed extradition bill would be dropped, a significant concession.
However, Pandora’s box has been opened and the protests have continued, suggesting that the issues at stake are not limited to the issue of the extradition bill alone. On 1 July, the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s unification with China, there were violent protests throughout the city. On this occasion, ‘Sing Hallelujah To The Lord’ was not the catch-cry of the protestors. Rather, pro-democracy motivations were at play. This points to a deep-seated anxiety among many Hong Kong residents about the future of the city and its enjoyment of civil liberties and wide-ranging freedoms. Hong Kong’s autonomy status is due to lapse in 2047.
As Hong Kong negotiates its uncertain future, the churches and its active Christian minority will have an important role to play. This has been seen in the prominent role played by Christians in the extradition bill protests. Hong Kong’s status as a former British colony means that British churches have a responsibility to watch developments closely and to stand with their Christian brothers and sisters in Hong Kong in the uncertain times that lie ahead.
Professor Peter Riddell, Vice Principal Academic at Melbourne School of Theology and Senior Fellow of Kairos Journal