Religion and Protest

 Today's post comes from one of RiAH's newest regular contributors, Lauren Turek. Lauren is a doctoral candidate in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia. She is currently a Dissertation Completion Fellow at the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. Her dissertation, "To Bring the Good News to All Nations: Evangelicals, Human Rights, and U.S. Foreign Policy, 1969-1994," examines the relationship between religion, foreign policy, and international human rights.  You can follow Lauren on Twitter here.

Lauren Turek

If you've watched or read the news over the past month, you've likely seen images of protesters marching the streets, calling for justice and at times clashing with police amid clouds of tear gas. You've perhaps read about the prayer sessions that clergy and demonstrators have organized at the sites of protest, or about the efforts of churches to provide food, shelter, and spiritual comfort to the protesters.

I imagine that these opening sentences have evoked images of the protests unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri, over the killing of Michael Brown this past August. Yet these sentences also describe the pro-democracy protests that erupted in Hong Kong at the end of September just as aptly. In both cases, the media coverage has included powerful photographs of the protesters as well as commentary on the role of religious groups in the demonstrations. Still, the initial reporting on the Hong Kong protests did not include much mention of religion even though several of the leaders of the movement have strong religious identities, while in Ferguson, the participation of religious groups has received sustained coverage. Perhaps the religious dynamics of the protests in Ferguson seem less surprising to media observers than do those of the protests in Hong Kong because of the well-known historic role that many religious groups have played in supporting movements for social justice in the United States. As the protests for democracy in Hong Kong gained steam however, the Wall Street Journal published an article which identified the longstanding conflict "between Christianity and Communist China" as a significant "undercurrent" in the demonstrations there. This description of a religious "undercurrent" hearkens back to international protest movements against communist repression that religious leaders led or participated in during the Cold War, such as the involvement of the Catholic Church in the Polish Solidarity movement or U.S. Christian support for persecuted Baptists and Pentecostals in the Soviet Union. Given this history, not to mention current U.S. foreign policy interests in the events unfolding in Hong Kong, I thought I would use my post this month to highlight a few recent articles that reflect on the role of religion in the Hong Kong demonstrations.

 First, a brief recap of the events that led up to the protests: In July 1997, Britain handed Hong Kong, its former colony, over to the People's Republic of China (PRC). As part of this arrangement, Hong Kong maintained constitutional rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion, as well as its capitalist economic system and significant political autonomy [1]. In 2007, the country began to take steps to reform electoral procedures in order to allow for universal suffrage in selecting its Chief Executive. However, on August 31, 2014, the National People's Congress (the legislature of the PRC) decided that it would vet the candidates for Hong Kong's Chief Executive before they could run for election. Angered by these restrictions on democracy and political exercise, student groups the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism (a group originally organized to fight government plans to mandate patriotic education classes), along with an activist group called Occupy Central, planned civil disobedience protests in response. These demonstrations began on September 26, 2014.

On October 3, the Wall Street Journal published it’s article on the role of Christianity in the protests [2]. According to the article, "while the protests are specifically for democratic elections in Hong Kong, some see a broader struggle to protect that culture from China's communist government as it increases its influence on the city. Christianity has been a visible element of the demonstrations, with prayer groups, crosses, and protesters reading Bibles in the street.”[3] The article identified several prominent leaders of the movement as Christians, including the 17-year old founder of Scholarism, Joshua Wong, and the leader of Occupy Central, a Baptist minister named Chu Yiu-ming. Though cautious to clarify that not all churches support the protests, the author of the article, Ned Levin, stated that the protesters do enjoy the support of religious leaders such as retired Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen and Pastor Wu Chi-wai of the Christian & Missionary Alliance Church.

After the Levin article appeared, a number of other commentators weighed in on the significance of Christianity in the protests. In Foreign Policy, Christian Caryl suggested that the Communist Party of China "regards religion, and Christianity in particular, as its greatest rival," in part because of Christian involvement in political protests movements throughout the world. Based on this reading of events, Caryl argues that "it's time to take a fresh look at Christianity and its catalyzing effect on political transformations around the world. Most people in Hong Kong aren't Christians—so what is it about this particular faith that seems to predispose its adherents to activism?" [4]. The American Interest suggested that "unlike in Beijing, where not only churches but many forms of civil society have been eradicated or eroded, Hong Kong still has an active body of non-state institutions," including churches as well as Chinese temples and shrines. As such, the article attributes Christian engagement in the protests to their awareness of "threats to their corner of civil society" from the PRC [5]. Other articles offer a nuanced portrayal of the disagreements among Christians in Hong Kong over the protest movement. June Cheng, for example, distinguishes between Catholic and Methodist support for the protests, the opposition of Anglican Archbishop Paul Kwong (who, according to Cheng, has ties to the Chinese Communist Party), and the neutral stance of other church groups. She also notes that while some church leaders have expressed fears about the potential that the PRC will subjugate Hong Kong churches, not all see this as a likely scenario. [6]. 

These protests are still unfolding, and recent evidence of police brutality against a protester has only served to further inflame tensions [7]. Although there was a flurry of media attention on the religious identities of the movement leaders and on the tensions between Christians and the PRC after the Levin article, I am curious to see how much additional coverage we will see about the role of religion in the protests in the future. All of the articles that I found that address the religious dynamic of the protest focus on Christians, yet most citizens of Hong Kong are not Christian. So what role are other religious groups playing there in the protests? Are there tensions between the Christian groups who support the protesters and other religious groups? I also wonder if the coverage of Christian involvement in the protests in Hong Kong has generated interest from Christian groups in the United States as Cold War era-protest movements did. At the moment, the future of the protests is a bit uncertain; if they do continue, it will be interesting to observe how the religious dynamics that some observers have identified in the movement end up shaping the future of Hong Kong and, potentially, U.S. relations with China [8]. 

[2] Ned Levin, "Hong Kong Democracy Protests Carry a Christian Mission for Some," The Wall Street Journal (3 October 2014). A few other articles offered coverage on the topic, but did not gain the same wide attention as the WSJ piece. See, for example, Carol Kuruvilla, “Christians Show Support for Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Protests,” Huffington Post (1 October 2014).

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Christian Caryl, "Hong Kong’s Religious Revolutionaries," Foreign Policy (7 October 2014). 

[5] Russell Mead & Staff, "China’s Christians: The Christian Element in the Hong Kong Protests," The American Interest (7 October 2014).

[6] June Cheng, "Hong Kong Churches Divided over Whether to Support Protesters," WORLD News Service (21 October 2014).

[7] Paul Bonicelli, "Beijing's Allies in Hong Kong Are Only Adding Fuel to the Protesters' Fire," Foreign Policy (20 October 2014).

[8] Frederik Balfour and Lulu Yilun Chen, "Hong Kong Protesters Delay Referendum Amid Differences," Bloomberg (26 October 2014); Bonicelli suggests that the outcome in Hong Kong might influence decision making regarding the Chinese approach to Taiwan, which will likely effect Sino-U.S. relations. Bonicelli, "Beijing's Allies."


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