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Defender of Hong Kong

One pastor’s journey from life on the streets to the head of pro-democracy protests

Defender of Hong Kong

Chu Yiu-ming at Chai Wan Baptist Church (Nora Tam/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

As buses rumbled by and tourists jostled past, a procession of 400 people solemnly walked the streets of Hong Kong on March 30, at times singing hymns, at times silent. At the front of the crowd strode a 75-year-old Baptist pastor with white hair. Chu Yiu-ming, a longtime democracy activist, walked with his head slightly bowed, his face sorrowful, pacing in the shadow of a wooden cross carried by a fellow marcher.

While commemorating Christ’s Passion, Pastor Chu and several other democracy activists participating in the march were walking their own road of suffering: They faced an April sentencing for their involvement in the “Umbrella Movement” pro-democracy protests in 2014.

Chu, along with two professors, was a co-founder of Occupy Central, the group that launched the 2014 protests, which called for free elections in Hong Kong. A former British colony, Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 with assurances that Beijing would grant it broad economic and political freedoms for 50 years. Yet 22 years later, China has broken its promise multiple times: Hong Kong residents have little say in electing officials, and Beijing continues to constrict other freedoms.

A week after the Stations of the Cross procession, a judge convicted Chu and eight other activists of public nuisance charges connected with the 2014 protests. (On April 24, he sentenced the Occupy Central founders to 16 months in prison, although Chu’s sentence was suspended.) International observers criticized the convictions as “politically motivated.”

Chu is no stranger to political opposition. For the past 45 years, he has advocated for the poor and fought for democracy in Hong Kong, both as a pastor and—after retirement—a co-organizer of the largest civil disobedience movement in Hong Kong’s history. Today, China continues to chip away at Hong Kong freedoms. But Chu recognizes his life’s work as a calling—one he does not regret.

Vincent Yu/AP

Occupy Central founders (from left) Chu Yiu-ming, Benny Tai, and Chan Kin-man pose on June 22, 2014, at a Hong Kong polling center with a ballot for an unofficial referendum. (Vincent Yu/AP)

ONE AFTERNOON A MONTH BEFORE the verdict, I met with Chu in the social services office of Chai Wan Baptist Church. With the verdict looming, Chu seemed calm yet weary as he poured a cup of tea and shared his story.

Chu was born in Hong Kong in 1944. Both his parents died when he was young, so his grandmother raised him in nearby Taishan, Guangdong province. As a child, he watched officials humiliate and even execute landowners in front of jeering crowds. At school, lessons focused on defeating “American imperialists.”

As land reforms led to food shortages, Chu remembers eating tree leaves and pilfering vegetables from a neighbor’s field. After his grandmother died, he returned to Hong Kong as a 12-year-old to begin an apprenticeship with a tailor. Yet instead of teaching Chu any skills, the tailor forced him to cook meals and wash clothes.

After a year and a half, Chu left and lived on the streets, making money as a shoe shiner. Gang members demanded protection money—if he couldn’t pay up, they’d beat him with a metal bar. He worked miscellaneous jobs until one day an elderly man offered him a position as a school janitor, a job allowing him to take night classes to continue his education. Chu accepted.

One day, a nearby church held an evangelistic meeting, and Chu slipped in, sitting in the back row by the exit. The preacher spoke about Jesus being the way, the truth, and the life, and the message touched Chu—he realized he had long been searching for meaning in his difficult life. Desiring change, Chu professed faith in Christ.

As he became more involved in church, he thought back to his old companions: the homeless, the destitute, and society’s outcasts. He wanted them to know Jesus, so he decided to become a pastor. Just 18 at the time, Chu had only a middle-school education, but with his church’s help, he returned to school, graduated in three years, and enrolled in Chu Hai College.

While later studying at a Baptist seminary in Taiwan, Chu says, a professor taught him an important lesson: As a pastor, he should care first for his church, then for his community, and then for his country.

In 1974, Chu returned to serve at Chai Wan Baptist Church, becoming its pastor in 1978. At the time, Chai Wan was a backwater area where families lived in shanties often destroyed during typhoons or fires. Residents had little education and little access to public health facilities. Drugs and crime were rampant.

His first foray into activism came as the government planned the Island Eastern Corridor, a major thruway along Hong Kong Island’s northeastern shore. He advocated for the road to extend east into Chai Wan to increase access for the impoverished neighborhood. When a reporter asked Chu to speak on camera, doubts filled his heart: If he spoke out, what would his church members and other pastors think? He was applying for land to build a church building at the time—would the government consider his congregation a “pressure group” and deny it the land?

Then he remembered Jesus’ courageous ministry to the hungry, the blind, and the oppressed. “I shouldn’t fear others’ opinions,” Chu remembers thinking. “I should follow God.”

Today, the Island Eastern Corridor extends into Chai Wan.

In the 1980s, Chu also pushed the government to open Eastern Hospital in Chai Wan, as there were no hospitals for the 440,000 residents in the Eastern District. He advocated for the construction of public housing so that residents could move out of dangerous shanties. His church opened a medical center, a kindergarten, an after-school program, a homeless ministry, a drug rehab program, and other social services. 

Vincent Yu/AP

Riot police use pepper spray against protesters on Sept. 28, 2014. (Vincent Yu/AP)

THE COMMUNITY CHU SERVED expanded in 1984 after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an agreement announcing the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Despite the agreement’s promise of a high degree of autonomy, many Hong Kong residents feared the region would lose its freedoms. Many wealthier residents, including some Christians, left Hong Kong.

Along with other church leaders, Chu promoted a “Hong Kong is my home” campaign to urge Christians to stay. They also published calls for the Hong Kong government to maintain freedom of religion, press, and assembly and to create a democracy with checks and balances.

After the handover in 1997, Chu watched as the Chinese government reneged on its promise to introduce universal suffrage. Beijing claimed an immediate shift to democracy would invite chaos, so a 400-member committee chose Hong Kong’s first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa. Hong Kong residents could vote for only a third of the lawmakers on the region’s Legislative Council.

In 2002, Chu joined with academics, lawyers, and social workers to create the Hong Kong Democratic Development Network, which researched ways to bring about universal suffrage in accordance with the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitutional document. The group presented its research to the government in 2004, but days later the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, a Chinese governing body, ruled Hong Kong residents would not be able to vote for chief executive in the 2007 election. At a subsequent press conference, Chu and others from the network dressed in black.

“That day, Hong Kong democracy died,” Chu recalls. “Not only did it die, but it’s been buried.” 

Discouraged, Chu stepped back from democratic advocacy to focus on his church’s medical center. After surviving a life-threatening intestinal disease in 2008, he decided to spend more time with his wife, two sons, and grandchildren. He retired from the pastorate in 2010.

Before Hong Kong’s 2012 election, Beijing again pushed back the date for the implementation of universal suffrage. In 2013, law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting wrote an article in the Hong Kong Economic Journal calling for civil disobedience to pressure the government to implement free elections. The article was widely spread, and journalists followed up by asking Tai whom he would want to lead the movement with him. Tai responded: Sociology professor Chan Kin-man, and Pastor Chu.

Chu was surprised to see his name mentioned in the paper, and wondered whether he was too old and sick to join such a movement. But he ultimately decided to meet with the two professors.

Lucas Schifres/Getty Images

Students rally for free elections on Oct. 4, 2014. (Lucas Schifres/Getty Images)

AT UNION CHURCH on March 27, 2013, Chu and professors Tai and Chan announced the creation of Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a group committed to nonviolent civil disobedience and focused on advocating for free 2017 elections. The three men became known as the Occupy trio.

Occupy Central hosted community meetings to discuss reform proposals, then, in June 2014, held an unofficial referendum to determine which proposal Hong Kongers preferred. The group’s leaders expected a turnout of 100,000 people. Instead, 792,000 showed up to vote. The Hong Kong people wanted a chance to elect their own leaders.

Nevertheless, Beijing pushed back. That August, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress announced that Hong Kong residents could vote in 2017 for only two or three pre-approved candidates for chief executive. Frustrated, the Occupy Central co-founders applied to hold a demonstration on Oct. 1-3. Student activists, though, decided to hold their own pro-democracy strike earlier on Sept. 22—and on the 26th, they charged a government building. Police arrested several student leaders.

To support the students, the Occupy trio decided to move up the start of the Occupy Central demonstration to Sept. 28. That evening, as a mass of people tried to join the protest, police threw tear gas canisters at the crowd. Protesters opened umbrellas to shield themselves, dispersed, and then came back again in larger numbers. Quickly it became clear that Occupy Central’s plan of a short, nonintrusive demonstration had morphed into a student-led movement.

As the number of protesters swelled into the tens of thousands, the government agreed to talks with the student leaders. The Hong Kong Federation of Students met with government officials on Oct. 21, but with neither side backing down, the students halted negotiations.

Chu and the Occupy Central leaders disagreed: Without discussions, they had no chance to advance their demands. Worried about protesters’ safety and realizing there was little more they could do, the Occupy trio on Dec. 3 turned themselves in to police as a goodwill gesture to end the protest. Two weeks later, police cleared the last demonstration site.

Although things turned out differently than Chu had planned, he was proud that Hong Kong demonstrators remained peaceful and didn’t destroy any property in the 79-day protest. Even more, he was encouraged to see young people stand up for their future.

Guillaume Payen/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Protesters with umbrellas fill the streets of Hong Kong on Oct. 28, 2014. (Guillaume Payen/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

STILL, AFTER THE UMBRELLA MOVEMENT protest, many felt disheartened—Beijing hadn’t budged even though an estimated 1.2 million people took to the streets. Student leaders channeled their energy into creating political parties and campaigning for the 2016 elections for Legislative Council, with localists (those campaigning to preserve Hong Kong autonomy) winning six of the 35 elected seats.

Yet after some of the newly elected candidates criticized mainland China while taking their oaths of office, the government outlawed the alteration of oaths. The ban retroactively disqualified the six pro-democracy lawmakers.

Since then, China has continued to encroach on the region. Hong Kong banned a small political party that supports Hong Kong independence. A proposed extradition law would allow Hong Kong to easily hand dissidents over to mainland China.

China also plans to link Hong Kong, Macau, and nine Chinese cities to create a region called the Greater Bay Area. The first step is already complete—a 34-mile bridge connecting Hong Kong with the mainland city of Zhuhai. A high-speed rail linking Kowloon to Shenzhen has also given the Chinese government a foothold in Hong Kong territory: Inside the train station, China has leased 1.1 million square feet of the terminus where mainland Chinese law will be enforced.

Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

Chan, Chu, and Tai pose before entering the West Kowloon Magistrates Court in Hong Kong on April 10. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

Chu fears Hong Kong is becoming just another Chinese city with shiny buildings but no freedom. He believes that the government’s actions have left young people with only two options: moving away or radicalism. “I’m afraid that when people have no way out, society will become unstable,” Chu said.

Still, Hong Kong activists young and old continue their fight. For example, activist Joshua Wong, 22, continues to push for democracy, protesting the enactment of unjust laws. “It’s time for us to learn what it means to persist,” Wong recently said.

After a 20-day trial that concluded last December, a judge on April 9 convicted the Occupy trio of “conspiracy to commit public nuisance.” (Tai and Chan were also convicted of “incitement to commit public nuisance.”) Judge Johnny Chan Jong-herng claimed that by blocking the major roads in the city, “the unreasonableness of the obstruction was such that the significant and protected right to demonstrate should be displaced.” On April 24, the judge sentenced Tai and Chan to 16 months in prison. Chu’s sentence was suspended for two years due to his age and public service record. He is unlikely to spend time in prison.

At the defendant’s dock on April 9, Chu gave his final statement to the court. He called it “the most honorable pulpit of my ministerial career,” and he closed with these words:

“We have no regrets,
We hold no grudges,
No anger,
No grievances.
We do not give up.
In the words of Jesus, ‘Happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires; the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them!’”

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.