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The end of “one country, two systems”?

As China takes unprecedented steps against Hong Kong, religious liberty may also be in the regime’s sights

The end of “one country, two systems”?

Protesters march through Hong Kong on June 9. (Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

On June 9, on the anniversary of the anti-extradition bill protest that drew one million people and kicked off Hong Kong’s protest movement last year, several hundred protesters marched the streets of Hong Kong with their cellphone flashlights flickering in defiance of the government’s coronavirus restrictions.

Unlike a year ago, police no longer sign off on scheduled protests—deeming them illegal from the start—and quickly begin to search protesters, fire pepper spray, and disperse the small crowds. 

In the past year, Hong Kong has seen an enormous curtailing of its freedoms, especially last month as Beijing approved a plan to impose a national security law in Hong Kong that would criminalize secession and subversion.

Vincent Yu

Police in riot gear disperse protesters. (Vincent Yu)

This came as a shock to the people of Hong Kong, as laws in the city typically went through the legislative council—half of which is publicly elected—before becoming law. Now Beijing was using its rubber-stamp legislature to pass the plan, while China’s Standing Committee will write the law and put it into effect in a few months. The move—for Hong Kong’s people and also for its churches—is a menacing one.

“This is the end of Hong Kong, this is the end of ‘one country, two systems,’” said pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok in May. “Beijing has completely breached its promise to the Hong Kong people. … I foresee that the international status as a city—an international city—will be gone very soon.”

The new law would allow Beijing to set up security forces in Hong Kong to clamp down on pro-democracy protesters and could essentially silence dissent.

The United States has announced it would strip Hong Kong of its special economic status as it no longer retained enough autonomy to justify treatment different from mainland China. Some pro-democracy activists hope this will cause China to count the cost of stripping Hong Kong of its freedoms, however Beijing seems to have no problem turning the international financial hub into just another Chinese city. 

Several groups of Christians from different denominations have sent out open letters to condemn the national security law: A group of about 800 Methodists signed a statement calling on the China’s central government to “respect the commitments of the international human rights conventions and the Basic Law, listen to different opinions from all walks of life, and reconsider the drafting of [the National Security Law] to avoid putting Hong Kong into a more serious situation.”

A group of Anglicans responded to statements by Archbishop Paul Kwong, who is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and a supporter of the national security law. The open letter, signed by more than 250 church members, noted the new law ignores the promises of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and “as loyal Anglican believers, we must say ‘no’ to such violent power and injustice.” It added Kwong’s viewpoint “did not represent the position of all Hong Kong Anglicans.”

Kiran Ridley

Ying Fuk-tsang stands at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. (Kiran Ridley)

Ying Fuk Tsang, director of the divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, noted that although the national security law is not yet in place, it’s already having a silencing effect on Hong Kongers. Compared to last year’s extradition bill, fewer Christian groups have sent out statements condemning the new law. In addition, fewer Christians signed the statements and more people used their unofficial English names to sign rather than their Chinese names in an attempt to conceal their identity. Some churches are reluctant to speak out, afraid of facing repercussions once the bill comes into effect.

Ying said when news of the law first came out, some people purged their Facebook friend list of anyone who could be considered sensitive, while others changed their names or closed their accounts. VPN provider NordVPN noted on the day Beijing announced the law, downloads (which allows users to bypass the Great Firewall) increased by 120 times out of fears Hong Kong’s internet would also be censored.

Freedom of religion and freedom to worship in Hong Kong are protected by Articles 32 and 141 of the Basic Law, the territory’s mini-constitution. However, Beijing could charge Hong Kong churches with foreign interference as many churches have connections with the overseas church and pro-China newspapers have printed articles claiming Christianity is a “Western imperialist religion.” The broad definition of terms like subversion could also mean Hong Kong pastors who speak out about the government could be charged, much like their counterparts in mainland China: Authorities in Chengdu sentenced Pastor Wang Yi to nine years in prison on subversion charges.

Hong Kong’s democracy protests, which began in June of last year, caused divisions within churches between those who supported the establishment versus those who supported the protests. Some churches opened their sanctuaries to protesters, causing backlashes from church members who decried the violence of the protesters. Ying believes this divide will deepen with the national security law, as many fear that authorities would hold against them any outward sign of support for the protests.

Churches run many of the schools, hospitals, and social services in Hong Kong, and feel the need to stay quiet in order to continue their work in these areas. Others have relatives or business interests in China that could face danger if they partake in activities that authorities see as a threat to China’s national security.

Even more concerning, Ying noted, is the fate of the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that China declared an “evil cult” and banned in 1999. Pro-establishment lawmakers had pushed for a similar anti-cult law in Hong Kong, yet the bill failed as it encountered great opposition amid calls for religious freedom. Ying fears that after the passage of the national security law, authorities could ban Falun Gong from Hong Kong. 

“What’s most worrisome about China’s concept of national security is it conflates the regime and country,” said legal scholar Benny Tai in a livestream in early June. Tai, a Christian, is the co-founder Occupy Central with Peace and Love. Authorities sentenced him to 16 months in prison last year for his role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests. He was released on bail four months later. 

Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

Police officers arrest a pro-democracy protester on June 9. (Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images)

Tai noted that to endure the difficult times ahead, Christians must lean on God: “If I believe God is a just God, then as His follower, I must pursue justice,” Tai said on the livestream. “If I also believe God is a powerful, glorious God, then when facing a seemingly strong regime, I don’t need to be afraid. … This God is a trustworthy God. You can hang onto Him and His promises.” 

Louie Kin Yip, a theology professor at Hong Kong’s China Graduate School of Theology, said on the same livestream that the law would penalize Hong Kong people, including Christians, for speaking the truth. He noted that if it came down to it, he’d rather face imprisonment than speak against his conscience. 

While Louie doesn’t want to see more violence on Hong Kong’s streets, he believes the resistance of the protest movement is an important way to bear witness about what’s happening in the city. 

What’s inspiring about Hong Kong’s story is that “despite our lack of power and because of what we believe, we bear witness,” he said. “I say and do what I believe is true and valuable. It’s not a power struggle, but I hope to impact the Chinese society, its culture, and how they think. That’s most important.”

—with reporting by Erica Kwong

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.