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Hacking Hong Kong’s religious liberties

Mysterious hackers disrupt a church talk on politics, raising concerns about internet surveillance

Hacking Hong Kong’s religious liberties

Pastor Roy Chan, of Protect The Children leads a 2019 prayer vigil for the students trapped inside the besieged Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hung Hom, Hong Kong. (Photo by Kiran Ridley)

On Aug. 30, Hong Kong’s Church of Christ in China (CCC) Tuen Mun Church hosted the third in a series of talks on the history of church-state relations in mainland China over the videoconferencing platform Google Meet. About 50 church members joined the call, which included a lecture by a seminary professor and a Q&A session. 

Early in the call, organizers received requests from users named “Chinese National Security Bureau Hong Kong Branch,” “Chinese National Security,” and “Shenzhengovernment.”

The unknown requests concerned the organizers: Two months earlier, Beijing had imposed a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong that effectively criminalizes dissent and deems any criticism of the Chinese Communist Party’s policies—including about religion—as potentially illegal acts. The moderator rejected the users and at the end of the talk, Pastor Chan Minyi told the audience about the suspicious requests and possible government surveillance. Suddenly Chan and other participants were repeatedly kicked out of the meeting, forcing it to end early.

Chan suspects Chinese government officials interfered with the talk but also believes trolls or Beijing supporters could have, he told Hong Kong’s Christian Times. He pointed out the username “Chinese National Security Bureau Hong Kong Branch” was different from the agency’s official name. 

But Chan isn’t afraid: The lecture was merely “telling the truth” about history and did not break any laws, he told Hong Kong Citizen News .

The church has reported the incident to Google. It remains unclear how the hacking occurred. Webinars on the previous two Sundays had proceeded uninterrupted. As a relatively new platform, Google Meet may be unstable, but it’s also possible hackers used participants’ personal email accounts to sign into the meeting. The church decided to use Google Meet instead of Zoom for a four-part series due to security concerns: In June, Zoom admitted to shutting down other politically sensitive meetings at the request of the Chinese government. 

Days after the hacking incident, the Tuen Mun District Christian Churches Union posted on Facebook an open call to prayer. The organization condemned the disturbance of normal church activity, as it violated freedom of religion under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. Urging other churches to come forward with any similar disruption, the group also asked Hong Kongers to pray for God’s protection and that the government would effectively safeguard residents’ religious freedom.          

A staffer of CCC Tuen Mun Church confirmed the last talk of the series took place as usual but declined to comment further.  

The Google Meet hacking took place as Christians face increasing pressure under the new national security law. In the past two months, Hong Kong has seen its freedoms disappear as the law has been used to ban protest slogans, target a pro-democracy newspaper, remove books from the library, rewrite textbooks, and arrest activists. The maximum penalty under the law is life imprisonment.

Photo by Kiran Ridley

Ying Fuk-tsang (Photo by Kiran Ridley)

The Catholic church in Hong Kong is facing internal pressure to keep quiet about politics. In late August, Cardinal John Tong Hon issued a letter to clergy, cautioning them to watch their speech and exclude political opinions from homilies: “Words that insinuate or incite hatred along with libelous, offensive speech conducive to societal unrest are against the Christian spirit. They are absolutely inappropriate during service.”

Hong Kong diocese leaders opposed a Justice and Peace Commission crowdfunding campaign to print a prayer for democracy in the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, according to a commission Facebook post on Aug. 29. The original text mentioned God’s deliverance “from slavery and oppression,” which could be construed as anti-government, the South China Morning Post reported. Another group of Catholics decided to buy the ad space and print the prayer in early September. 

Pro-Beijing media have also attacked pastors who support democracy. State-owned Hong Kong newspaper Ta Kung Pao accused Pastor Chu Yiu-ming of working with a pastor in Taiwan to help convicted Hong Kong activists flee to Taiwan. Chu denies any connection with the pastor or participation in the fugitives’ escape. 

Ta Kung Pao also targeted Hong Kong Pastors Network, accusing the group of infiltrating and brainwashing believers with the intent to instigate secession. The outlet criticized a video the group posted to Facebook in June titled “Hong Kong 2020 Gospel Declaration,” claiming the montage of news clips spread hatred toward the police and contained elements of secession and subversion. The group has deleted the video but refuted the political accusations in a statement, insisting on the evangelistic intention of the video to establish believers’ faith in turbulent times.

In the aftermath, two core members of the network have fled Hong Kong, Christian Times reported. Wong Siu-yung  and William Yeung had been outspoken during the protest movement and were among the pastors singled out by state media.      

“It’s as if we’re walking through a dark tunnel today and don’t see the end,” said professor Ying Fuk-tsang of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s divinity school, at a prayer meeting livestreamed by Hong Kong Pastors Network last week. Ying reminded viewers: “We as Christians must live out light in the darkness, letting love and goodness guide us because we have the values of the kingdom of heaven in sight. … Remember we are not light ourselves, but in the Lord’s true light, we can live out this light.”

Erica Kwong

Erica Kwong