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Religious people in Hong Kong worried as territory awaits Beijing’s security law



John Burger - published on 06/15/20

Hong Kong Watch director outlines how freedoms could be impacted.

The annual observance in Hong Kong of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen massacre of protestors in Beijing was officially called off due to concerns about spreading the coronavirus. For many Hong Kong residents, that was just a ruse for Hong Kong officials to suppress demonstrations at Beijing’s behest. Thousands defied the ban and gathered for demonstrations anyway.

This year, they marched and held candle-lit vigils with another concern on their minds: a national security law that Beijing has crafted for the territory. In addition to basic freedoms such as that of conscience, assembly, expression and press, some Hong Kongers feel that their ability to practice their religion may be negatively impacted by the law. They hear what their co-religionists in mainland China have to endure, and they don’t like what they hear.

Just recently, for example, Chinese authorities told churches that they would be allowed to reopen after the coronavirus pandemic subsides if they promise to preach patriotism.

A Hong Kong-born journalist, who is close to the territory but asked not to be identified, told Aleteia that the Chinese government’s definition of freedom is “very different from the essence of freedom itself. It’s the problem and the fault of communism. All I can say and hope for, from a religious point of view, is to keep praying for the conversion of the People’s Republic of China and consecrate it to the Immaculate Heart of Our Lady and Our Lady of Fatima.”

Among Sinologists who are keeping a close eye on the situation is Benedict Rogers, co-founder and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Hong Kong Watch, a U.K.-based organization that researches and monitors threats to Hong Kong’s basic freedoms, the rule of law and autonomy. Rogers lived in Hong Kong from 1997, when Great Britain handed over their former colony to the People’s Republic of China, until 2002. He continued to make frequent visits there until 2017, when he was denied entry because, he believes, he had been outspoken on the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms and on human rights in China as a whole, and Beijing thought he was in some way representing the government in his position as Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

Lord Christopher Patten, Hong Kong’s last British governor, who just became a patron of Hong Kong Watch, wrote in an article at Project Syndicate that the national security law “covers unspecified crimes such as sedition and secession, and would allow China’s version of the KGB, the Ministry of State Security, to operate in Hong Kong, presumably using its customary methods of coercion.”

Rogers, who is also East Asia Team Leader for the religious freedom organization CSW, spoke with Aleteia last week about the situation.

We’ve heard about a national security law that’s coming for Hong Kong. What is it exactly? 

Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which is the mini-constitution of Hong Kong, contains in Article 23 a requirement that Hong Kong should introduce a national security law. The Hong Kong government tried in 2003 to introduce one, and it provoked very significant protests at the time — the largest protests in Hong Kong prior to the Umbrella Movement and the anti-extradition law protests of last year.

So it was sort of shelved and put on the back burner until a later date.

What’s now happened is that the Chinese central government in Beijing has unilaterally imposed the national security law through the National People’s Congress, which is the Chinese Communist Party’s … well, I can’t call it parliament. .. sort of assembly. It is a flagrant violation of all of their promises to Hong Kong, because even Hong Kong’s Basic Law, although it requires the national security law to be introduced, also says very clearly it must be introduced only by the Hong Kong government and through the Hong Kong legislature. So for Beijing to just impose it, without even going through the Hong Kong legislature, is in itself a big undermining of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

They haven’t published much detail, but what we do know is that it has three categories of criminal offense: subversion, secession and collusion with foreign political entities. Knowing what Beijing’s track record is and knowing how they interpret subversion or collusion with foreign entities, it’s almost certain that this law will really destroy Hong Kong’s basic freedoms — freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of protest. I think press freedom will be hit. Academic freedom could well be hit. Religious freedom could well be impacted as well.

In addition, it is a serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which is the treaty that Britain and China signed in 1984 in preparation for the handover in Hong Kong. It’s an international treaty that’s registered at the United Nations. Violating it is a violation of an international treaty.

Also, although the Basic Law does require a security law to be introduced, and although I would agree that, of course, any country has a right and a duty to protect national security, most people would argue that that should be done at the same time and in balance with protecting fundamental freedoms and human rights.

The Basic Law also does include a promise to introduce universal suffrage in due course. It’s sort of vaguely worded, with no time frame, but there is a commitment to universal suffrage. And my argument is that they should have upheld that promise before introducing this law. If you had a democratically elected, accountable government, then actually having a security law, provided it’s in balance with fundamental freedoms and rights, is no problem. But it’s introducing a law, the definitions of which will be determined by Beijing and therefore will be very draconian and there’s no transparency or accountability or democratic norms, then it’s basically an all-out assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms.

You’re saying that elements of this law would negatively impact Hong Kong’s freedoms. How would that work?

Essentially, it’s all to do with how Beijing defines subversion and secession and collusion with foreign entities. So for example, if it was the United States or the United Kingdom, it would be an entirely different matter, if it was a liberal democracy. But given Beijing’s track record, any critic or dissident or anyone viewed by the Chinese Communist Party as not being supportive of the Chinese Communist Party is very likely to be viewed as subversive, or if they’re in contact with foreign organizations they could be considered to be colluding with them. We haven’t yet seen the details of the law, but the expectation is that essentially criticism of the regime in Beijing — or indeed, the Hong Kong government — could be deemed to be subversive. Protests that are criticizing particular policies, even if they’re peaceful protests, could be deemed as subversive, and, crucially, under the category of collusion, I think there’s a great fear that those Hong Kongers who engage with people like me, with human rights organizations abroad or with foreign parliamentarians or foreign journalists and who share information about the situation in Hong Kong could under this law be found guilty of colluding with foreign political entities and could be criminalized and prosecuted for that.

What’s the status of the law now? What are the prospects that it will be enacted and put into effect? When do you think that will happen? 

It was announced toward the end of May, and then it was formally introduced and voted on in the National People’s Congress as a motion to introduce this law. What we’re now expecting is the full details of the law. The speculation has been that that will come very soon. It will be totally rubber-stamped in the National People’s Congress. It’s not a legislative process of the kind we would recognize in your country or mine. Once the details are published it will be basically rubber-stamped and then implemented. The speculation is that it will be implemented and enforced by the end of this month … unless Beijing comes under enough international pressure to change course.

How will it affect religious liberty? Have religious people or leaders noticed any specific red flags that things might be getting worse for them?

I’m not aware so far of any specific signs yet, but what I expect, once the law is enforced, is that there may not be an immediate impact on, for example, freedom of worship. I suspect that places of worship will continue to function. I don’t think you’re going to see an immediate crackdown of the kind that you see in mainland China, although I don’t discount the possibility, because it’s worth noting that the central Chinese official who’s in charge of Hong Kong policy, Xia Baolong, was previously the Communist Party chief in Zhejiang Province, where he oversaw the destruction of crosses and churches. He’s got a track record on this.

What I think will happen is that there will be much closer monitoring of homilies and sermons, and that those priests and pastors and other religious leaders who preach messages that are touching on human dignity, human rights, freedom, justice, could find themselves affected by the laws on subversion.

Similarly, churches and other religious groups that, for example, over the last year have engaged in the protest movement, sometimes not even directly protesting but for example holding prayer vigils, holding candlelit vigils — the auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong, Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, has regularly spoken at vigils — those kinds of activities may be affected. Somebody like Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun [bishop emeritus of Hong Kong], who has been extremely outspoken over a number of years against the regime in Beijing, could well be in grave danger.

So I think it will be those kinds of activities, where religious freedom, freedom of conscience, intersect with what Beijing would regard as political activities, and those will be the first to be affected, but further down the line you may see further restrictions on other aspects of religious freedom. More and more, I think if Hong Kong’s freedoms are denied, and if Hong Kong becomes more and more like any other city in mainland China, then sooner or later you’re going to see religious freedom across the board affected the same way it is in mainland China.

Have we seen any precedent from Macau, the neighboring former colony that also was returned to China?

I think in Macau it is pretty much along the lines I’ve described, whereby churches are still open and can function. They’re not nearly as repressed as they are in mainland China. But definitely, there is much greater repression of any form of dissent across the board, and that would include religious leaders expressing views on issues that intersect with political issues. I’m not aware of specific cases, but I am aware that the atmosphere in Macau for dissent, generally, is much more repressed and much tighter than Hong Kong. It’s a situation similar to what I’ve described, where churches are still open, you can still go to Mass, but people are much more careful about what they say.

I imagine religious Hong Kongers keep an eye on increasing restrictions on religion in the People’s Republic. Do they think similar things will happen to their churches in Hong Kong? For example, according to a recent report the government said churches would be allowed to reopen after the pandemic if they preached patriotism.

Absolutely. I think people in Hong Kong are acutely aware of the situation in mainland China, and they know that essentially what we’ve seen since [Chinese President] Xi Jinping came to power is the worst crackdown on religion and religious freedom since the Cultural Revolution, with the closure of churches, destruction of crosses and destruction of churches in some cases, imposition of portraits of Chinese leaders in some of the state-controlled churches, Chinese communist propaganda in churches, prohibition of entrance to churches of people under 18, and a whole list of other restrictions. And I think the people in Hong Kong certainly know that. I think they were very alarmed when Xia Baolong was appointed head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office at the State Council in Beijing, the official who was in Zhejiang, and Luo Huining [who, according to an article at UCA News, formerly enforced Beijing’s policies of cultural and religious destruction on the Tibetan people in Western China] was appointed head of the Hong Kong Liaison Office. It’s actually quite interesting that those two men who are both regarded as hardliners were appointed, people immediately saw that as a bad omen. I don’t think people realized then how rapidly things would deteriorate just in a matter of months.

One other consideration: I think there’s a lot of concern over the agreement that the Vatican and China made [in 2018, concerning the appointment of bishops in China]. The bishop of Hong Kong died a couple of years ago, and there’s been a vacancy since then. One would have thought the auxiliary bishop, Joseph Ha, would be a leading candidate to replace him, but there’s a lot of speculation that [another cleric] is being lined up instead, because Joseph Ha has been quite outspoken and is more in the Cardinal Zen mold, and they think it’s likely the Vatican will appoint somebody who’s more acceptable to Beijing, and that’s another sign of the way things are going.

Hong KongReligious Freedom
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