A Christian cleric in Hong Kong said he thinks it is likely that greater repression by the Chinese government of religious freedom in Hong Kong, particularly the freedom of religious schools, is about to occur.
The cleric, who was only identified as Reverend L, told the Hudson Institute’s Nina Shea on Feb. 10 that the Chinese Communist Party appears to be using ideological tactics, such as education, to chip away at the freedom of religion in Hong Kong, which came under Chinese control in 1997.
“In terms of restricting the rights of religious freedom, the CCP is doing it step-by-step,” Reverend L said, noting that China has in recent years imposed serious restrictions on the rights of assembly, press, and speech in Hong Kong.
“Freedom of religion is the only remaining freedom in Hong Kong at this moment,” he said.
Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China, whose citizens have historically enjoyed freedom of religion, “comparable to any country in the free world,” Reverend L said. In contrast, on the Chinese mainland, religious believers of all stripes are routinely restricted, surveilled, and oppressed by the communist government.
However, Reverend L says that religious freedom has been particularly eroded in Hong Kong since 2019, thanks to the CCP’s efforts to control the populace through an “ideological war.”
Reverend L pointed to a Reuters report from late December documenting an October meeting at which Chinese bishops and religious leaders briefed senior Hong Kong Catholic clergymen on President Xi Jinping’s vision of religion with “Chinese characteristics.”
Reverend L opined that the meeting sounded like a “brainwashing session” to attempt to make the faith more Chinese, and thus more expedient for the CCP.
At the end of January 2022, the Chinese-language newspaper Ta Kung Pao, which Reverend L described as a CCP propaganda publication, published four articles about Catholicism in Hong Kong, one of them about Hong Kong archbishop emeritus Cardinal Joseph Zen.
Zen, 90, has been a strong advocate of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement for years, and is a sharp critic of the 2018 Vatican-China deal on the appointment of bishops.
The newspaper article categorized Zen as an enemy of the CCP in the same vein as Falun Gong, a highly persecuted religious minority in China. The paper also called for Hong Kong’s religious institutions to be placed under government control, AsiaNews reported.
“This is a very, very troubling sign,” Reverend L said, noting that the CCP will usually start by writing an article in a propaganda publication if they want to suppress or arrest someone. Reverend L expressed worry that the communist government “may do something” to Cardinal Zen in the near future.
Reverend L also said that China has been “laying the groundwork” for their ideological war in Hong Kong for the past 20 years, including making contact with the principals of Christian schools in Hong Kong. By Reverend L’s estimates, some 60% of schools in Hong Kong are religious in nature.
The cleric opined that that CCP will likely set its sights on controlling Christian schools in Hong Kong, in an attempt to control the minds of young people.
Hong Kong’s 2020 National Security law, which China imposed directly on the territory, has a clause that all students must be educated on the law, he noted. Many religious schools associated with parishes, and parishes, could be held accountable for what the school does if they do not comply with the National Security law, and parishes could be shut down as a result.
In terms of the impact that the suppression of Hong Kong Christianity could have on Christianity in China, Reverend L said he had many interactions with Christians in China before 2019. In fact, he said, Chinese Christian ministers would come to Hong Kong every summer to take theology courses. Due to the pandemic, they had been continuing that system using Zoom lately, but the CCP recently imposed restrictions on online religious instruction, whereby no one can disseminate info about religious ceremonies on the internet without a license, he said.
In mainland China, there exists an “underground” Catholic Church, which is persecuted and loyal to Rome. Government-approved Catholic churches, on the other hand, have comparatively more freedom of worship, but face other challenges, including pressure from the government to censor parts of Catholic teaching, while including Chinese nationalism and love for the party in preaching.
Reverend L said he fears that the Chinese government could set up a “Religious Affairs Bureau” in Hong Kong, similar to mainland China, and all ministers of religion would be required to register with the government. If that happens, he said, some Protestants will probably go “underground,” while some would cooperate with the government.
It’s much harder for Catholics to go underground, he explained, because you need an underground bishop and underground priests. Reverend L expressed doubt that the Vatican would be happy if the current Hong Kong bishop went underground.
Father Stephen Chow Sau-yan S.J. was consecrated as Hong Kong’s new bishop on Dec. 4. Hong Kong had previously been without a permanent bishop since 2019.
Reverend L concluded by calling on leaders to speak out about the eroding of freedom of religion in Hong Kong.
“The West should no longer turn a blind eye on the CCP for the sake of economic interests,” he said.