Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Future of Catholicism in Hong Kong

Hong Kong Catholic Church
The recent suspension of Masses over the coronavirus feels like a harbinger of the future that awaits Hong Kong--
a future in which much of its Western identity threatens to be stripped away.
Hongkongers have a multi-faceted identity.  By race, most are Han Chinese; pottery from an ancient tomb in Kowloon links Hong Kong to the Han Dynasty.  My local friend was clear to delineate that Hongkongers don’t identify as Chinese culturally or politically, however. 

Probably, this is because Britain colonized Hong Kong for 156 years and imbued Hong Kong with a distinctly British air.  Its current legal system is based on British Common Law. “Victoria” is the name given to Hong Kong’s highest peak and central harbor.  Cars drive on the left side of the road, and red double-decker busses, an iconic symbol of London, transport locals across the city.  From my apartment window, I watch locals play cricket at the Kowloon Cricket Club.  And at a Christmas party I attended with locals, what did we have for desert? Bread pudding, made in the UK. 

Colonization created fertile mission territory, and the Catholic community in Hong Kong is well-established.  In every neighborhood at least one enormous parish and accompanying school bustles with Masses, weddings, parish dinners, etc. 

Yet, on Ash Wednesday last week, no one was seen out and about with ashes on their forehead. Cardinal John Tong suspended all Masses due to the coronavirus.  The timing corresponds with Lent and Easter, the most important seasons in the Church’s calendar. 

The virus, too, has dampened the Hong Kong’s monthslong protests against the People’s Republic of China (PRC), sparked in June when Beijing encroached on Hong Kong’s right to self-administer.  (Hong Kong’s Prime Minister, who’s selected by the PRC, proposed a bill that would extradite Hong Kong fugitives to Mainland China, to be tried in a separate legal system.)  Even in their heyday, the protests were dubiously achieving all of its aims.

The suspension of Masses feels like a harbinger of the future that awaits Hong Kong—a complete handover to China in 2047 and end to the Western influence that’s become part of its psyche.  How will Hongkongers handle it?  And how will the Catholic Church, which has been persecuted and forbidden in Mainland China, face these changes?  

Conversations I’ve had with locals have provided insight into these questions. 

The Pearl of the Orient
China ceded Hong Kong Island to Britain 1842 after the First Opium War, and Kowloon, the strip of land across Victoria Harbor on Mainland China, 18 years later after the Second Opium War.  In 1898, Britain expanded the colony with a 99-year lease of New Territories, which includes the rest of present-day Hong Kong. 

Victoria Peak
The spectacular view of Hong Kong and Victoria Harbor from Victoria Peak.
Hong Kong has the highest number of skyscrapers in the world!
With beaches, mountains, islands, a breathtaking skyline along Victoria Harbor, and luxe malls selling McQueen, Chanel, and Tory Burch (with no sales tax to boot!), Hong Kong has become a city of destiny. 

On a walking tour in December, our guide, Karry (name changed), told us many Hongkongers feel positively about British rule.  They attribute colonization to Hong Kong’s flourishing into the booming economic center it is today.  Currently, Hong Kong is the tenth-highest exporter of goods in the world, has the highest concentration of millionaires, and ranks only behind London and New York City by the Global Financial Centre Index, which measures a city’s business and financial infrastructure. 

China Wins Sole Custody
Britain, an empire in decline, lost negotiating power with China, and in 1984 Margaret Thatcher signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, agreeing to return Hong Kong to China in 1997.  Hong Kong would govern itself as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) for 50 years until its complete return to China in 2047. 

The Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing five years later, in which PRC tanks crushed protestors, terrified Hongkongers over the impending handover.  In the years following, more Hongkongers fled to democratic countries than at any other time in its history.

And although it was a bit anachronistic to be colonized in the 90s, Hongkongers weren’t eager for Britain to go—quite the contrary.  A local told me the years before 1997 saw a boom in childbirths; parents wanted children eligible for British passports.  Hongkongers born after the handover wouldn’t be. 

Karry said the handover felt like being the child of divorcing parents, and being told your mother was leaving, never to return.  And that you’d have to live with your father, who terrified you.  It’s a startling juxtaposition: a financial superpower seeing itself as a helpless child. 

Beijing Creep
The Basic Laws of the new SAR granted Hongkongers rights common to Western countries: freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly.  However, Beijing’s apparent encroachment on these Basic Laws has prompted many protests, including the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the current protests that began last June.

On the tour, Karry pointed out facial recognition cameras in Central Hong Kong, similar to those used for surveillance throughout the PRC.  She also mentioned that current and past Prime Ministers push for a pro-PRC curriculum in primary schools

Roman Catholicism in Hong Kong vs. China
Catholic missionaries wasted no time evangelizing the colony of Hong Kong.  Swiss Priest Theodore Joset founded the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in 1942, the same year Britain won the First Opium War. 

Today, the Diocese of Hong Kong has grown to 51 parishes and 251 schools.  Around 5% (380,000) of Hongkongers are registered Catholics.  (Not all students are Catholic; I’ve met one Hongkonger who said she attended Catholic schools as a child but converted as an adult.)  In a city that teems with domestic helpers, Filipinos constitute almost a third of the Catholic Community. 

In my experience, the liturgy is identical to any other diocese practicing the Latin Rite.  Masses are celebrated in both English and Cantonese, with additional devotions such as the rosary and Eucharistic Adoration.

Hong Kong’s public holidays include Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Monday and Christmas.  11% of Hong Kong’s population is Christian; many Christian denominations have active communities.  The Gothic St. John’s Cathedral of the Church of England, Hong Kong’s oldest Church, stands prominently in the Central neighborhood. 

Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association
Catholicism in China is a different story.  The PRC cannot square Christianity (or any religion) with Marxist Ideology and does not observe any Christian Holidays.  They want a population dedicated wholeheartedly to the government, and believe religion impedes this objective. 

A Catholic poses an exceptional challenge to Communism. 

To a lay Catholic, practicing the faith means receiving the Sacraments (Communion, Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick) and performing the Spiritual and Corporeal Works of Mercy (clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, burying the dead, etc.).  At the end of the day, however, The Vatican is a sovereign county and Catholics (in theory, anyway) declare allegiance to its leader, The Pope. 

Which doesn’t fly for PRC.  When established in 1949, the PRC toppled the church authority, and established the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), which selects and ordains bishops loyal to Communist objectives, without the Vatican’s approval. 

Telling a Catholic to palate a liturgy from a unapproved Bishop, however, is like telling an art collector who’s been sold a fake Van Gogh to get over it.  Many Bishops revolted against CPCA, creating an underground Church, some incurring imprisonment and martyrdom.  Even so, Catholics tend to prefer the Vatican-approved Church; in some communities the entire Catholic population attends the underground liturgies and the CPCA Church stands nearly empty!

In a step toward merging the underground church with the CPCA, Pope Francis last year acknowledged seven of the CPCA-ordained Bishops.  Critics believe this is Beijing’s attempt to bring the underground church into the light of day, where they’ll be able to supervise and sinicize it. 

Their suspicion has merit.  In the past six years, the PRC has gone on a spree decapitating spires from Protestant Churches not registered with the state--more than 1,200 the province of Zhejiang alone.  Beijing sees any religion not adherent to the PRC as a threat. 

In short, it’s no good.  Practicing Christianity in Hong Kong, by comparison, is a walk in the park. 

March into the Bright Decade
The diocese of Hong Kong has anticipated its rendezvous with China for decades.  The Sino-British Agreement left Catholics in Hong Kong anxious, fearing the “religious freedom” granted in the agreement would be mis-interpreted by the PRC. 

After consulting with twenty-one clergy and religious professionals for two years, Hong Kong’s Bishop Wu addressed this anxiety with the pastoral letter, “March into the Bright Decade”.  It was released in October of 1989, just months after the Tianammen square massacre rattled Hongkongers to the core. 

Wu grew up in the Wuhau area of Guandong Province so knew firsthand how things stood with the church in China.  In the letter he writes,
As it faces the issue of 1997…many people in the diocese are anxious to learn what direction the diocese will take in the next decade….Relying on our confidence in the Lord of History, we firmly believe that what He has prepared for us must be an even better future.  
In order to prepare for and to establish a new era, we must have a new spirit with new and appropriate equipment.  The future Christians in Hong Kong must…Be mature Christians who can maintain their life of faith independently...Know Hong Kong and love Hong Kong; be able to integrate faith into the future of Hong Kong, to integrate the cultures of the east and west….Chinese should have a deep national sentiment yet at the same time have a sense of solidarity with all people and in particular a sense of communion with the Universal Church.
Wu called for developing small faith-sharing communities within parishes, training and educating the laity in the faith, strengthening the Sunday School program, and encouraging parents to instruct their children in the faith. 

The Archdiocese distributed 60K copies of “March into the Bright Decade” in both English and Cantonese, and it was read at every Mass.  After collecting and evaluating feedback from parishioners, the council reports that “ninety-seven per cent supported the overall development orientations in the Consultation Paper”, and that “most people regarded [practicing and preaching the teachings of the gospel] as the most important direction of all.”

The letter’s message to optimistically march on did not charm the powers that be, however. While Beijing extended invitations to the Anglican Archbishop and the leader of the Buddhist Community to participate in drafting the Basic Laws of the SAR, it passed on Cardinal Wu.  (In neighboring Macau two years later, Beijing did invite the local Catholic Bishop to its Drafting Committee for Basic Laws.)  And in 1999, Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa denied Pope John Paul II a visit to Hong Kong, presumably under pressure from PRC. 

Nevertheless, the Church has marched on.  During the police’s siege of Polytechnic University last November, retired Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun “integrated his faith in to the future of Hong Kong” when he called the situation a humanitarian crisis, and called for food and medical care for the trapped protestors. 

And currently, an enormous banner hanging at Raimondi College, the school adjoining the Cathedral, reads:
LOVE is the greatest of all virtues.  Family is the basic unit of society.  Life is a priceless gift from God and is sacred in itself.  Truth is what the human intellect is searching for.  Justice is the moral virtue that consists of a constant and resolute will to give to God and one’s neighbour their due.” (notice the British spelling) 
This banner, summarizing the ethos of the Catholic Church, hangs outside Raimondi College,
the school adjacent to Hong Kong's Cathedral.  
I have never seem such a pithy or explicit summary of Catholicism so prominently and publicly displayed, and it feels like a direct effect of Cardinal Wu’s pastoral letter. 

Riots or Protests?
A more overt demonstration against the PRC swept Hong Kong these past nine months as protestors have taken to the streets demanding the SAR meet their five demands: withdrawal of extradition bill that sparked the protests, a separate investigation into police brutality, release of arrested prisoners, retraction of the official characterization of the protests as riots and the resignation of Prime Minister, Carrie Lam. 

For months, massive groups filled city streets for miles, holding signs that read things like “Trust the PRC? Seriously?” and banners with pleas for solidarity from democracies from around the world. 
Hongkongers call for worldwide support in its recent protests over what they
see as the PRC's breach of the Sino-British Join Declaration.
In their heyday, demonstrators vandalized the MTR (underground train) stations (once leaving 4 inches of water throughout the MongKok station), smashed the windows of pro-PRC businesses such as Starbucks, and pulled up bricks from sidewalks and threw them into the streets. 

Once, from my apartment I watched protestors hurl molotov cocktails at a cordon line of police officers, then disburse when the police fired back tear gas. 

The protests have subsided recently due to the coronavirus outbreak, but locals live with the aftermath: MTR and Starbucks windows boarded up, MTR payment kiosks still partially destroyed, sidewalks repaired in concrete rather than brick, and hundreds of arrested protestors awaiting trail and sustaining injuries received during their arrest. 

The SAR tried to frame the protestors as rabble-rousers and destroyers of the peace. 

They’re so sneaky,” my manager, an active protestor, said regarding the SAR’s decision to wait until after the November elections to reopen the cross-harbor tunnel.  It is one of only two underground tunnels connecting Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, and was closed due to the protests at nearby Polytechnic University.

They kept the tunnel closed over the elections, she said, even after the Polytechnic siege subsided, to demonstrate that protestors impeded the everyday function of the city. 

It doesn’t appear that the public has bought it.  The election had a record turnout (71%) and Democrats won 17 out of 18 councils over the pro-Beijing party. 

I’ve witnessed this solid, if sometimes covert, support for the protests.  A friend met her current flatmates at the Polytechnic protests and lives rent-free as her landlord supports their efforts. Another friend feels pressured at work to complain about the hassle of living amidst the chaos created by the protests, while in fact he supports them wholeheartedly. 

Despite the support, are the protests “working”?  In September the protestors achieved one of their five demands when Carrie Lam withdrew the extradition bill.  However, the prisoners certainly haven’t been released, nor have any of the other demands been met.  And the elected offices only affect issues at the neighborhood level (parks, trash collection, street signs).  It’s more of a symbolic victory, demonstrating that overwhelmingly, Hongkongers support the protests. 

My roommate came across a life-chain: thousands of protestors joined hand in hand along Nathan Road, a central road in Kowloon. 

“It was very impressive,” he said.  He’d spoken to participating protestor who said many believe the protests will be in vain, but they feel the need to make the effort anyway. 

Not Chinese, Asian
A lot of Hongkongers are mainlanders who came to Hong Kong at the beginning of last century during the Chinese Civil War.  And the two cultures share a lot, both celebrating Chinese New Year, Dragon Boat Festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival.  And Buddhism, by far, is the most practiced religion in Hong Kong. 

At the same time, Hong Kong is distinct from Mainland China.  One of my local students told me she can tell on sight whether someone is local or Mainland Chinese.  The father of another student mentioned that he, a Hongkonger, and his wife, a Mainlander, have hugely different perspectives on life.  Hongkongers, too, speak Cantonese, which is a dialect of Mandarin, the language spoken in Mainland China. 

Not a few Hongkongers have vehement, almost xenophobic, disdain for Mainlanders. They've told me they’re more civilized than Mainlanders, that Mainlanders defecate on street corners, how nice it is that due to the riots streets are clear of Mainland tourists, and how much they resent Mainlanders coming in from Shenzen to purchase baby powder to resell in China. 

Karry said that in a study, most Hongkongers identified as “Asian” rather than “Chinese”. 

Three years ago, China started branding Hong Kong, Macau and 9 neighboring Mainland cities as the “Greater Bay Area”.  Karry says it’s an effort for Hong Kong to blend in and identify with Mainland.  But will this help to bridge the cultural rift? 

An Altered State?
The streets of Hong Kong have become quieter since the coronavirus outbreak.  Restaurants have fewer patrons and venturing out is discouraged.  It has seriously dampened Hongkongers desire to “peaceably assemble and petition their government for a redress of grievances.”  And it will probably suspend Masses on on its holiest holiday: Easter. 

I visited with a Hongkonger in a bookstore in Sham Shui Po.  He spoke of the urgency to pray for Hong Kong.  He was a member of nearby St. Peters Parish, where after every Mass parishioners recite a prayer for the future of the Church in Hong Kong. 

The British really loved the city; they cared for it,” he said. “Chinese Communists do not.” 

There’s echoes of the child-of-divorced-parents motif in his comment.  Can a child have self-determination?  Or is he mercy to whims of his parents? 

Locals continue to leave: I met a taxi driver who deplored the changes he’s seen in Hong Kong and plans to join his girlfriend in Canada at the end of the year. 

But what awaits the millions who remain, when Hong Kong goes to “live with its father”?  How will Catholics react to CPAC?  Will a faction go underground?  What about the 251 schools when Beijing imposes an atheist and pro-Communist curriculum? 

The morning after one of the worst nights of protest last November, I took a walk through Tsim Sha Tsui.  The neighborhood had an errie armageddon-like air: a city bus had been completely charred, sidewalks were destroyed, and all the streets looted with bricks, umbrellas, and debris, completely blocking flow of traffic through one of Hong Kong’s busiest neighborhoods.

Some photos of Tsim Sha Tsui the morning after a night of protests during the siege of Polytechnic University
last November.  The streets were cleared of debris by 10 am, amazingly.

I was amazed at people’s alacrity to remove debris from the streets.  By 10 am, city life had resumed as usual. 

Hong Kong’s eventual complete return China will be ugly.  Over the next 27 years, Beijing will encroach and Hong Kong will push back.  But, perhaps, this tendency towards equilibrium will win the day, and after the ugliness has passed, a somewhat altered “normal” state will resume. 

Are you a Catholic in Hong Kong?  How do you anticipate 2047? 

1 comment

  1. It is interesting to learn about the different religions in Asia. Hong Kong has been a place of interest for the longest. Though, I know a lot of my Cantonese friends who are raised Catholic. It is interesting that those from HK doesn't like to say they are Chinese. I mean it makes sense. I have family from there and they try to separate themselves. They have more of a western mind. Thanks for sharing all of this info!

    Nancy ♥


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