At a recent meal with church friends, someone asked about the most beautiful place we’ve ever visited. Pictures of Yellowstone National Park, Sicily, Prague, and the New England coastline flashed through my mind, but one image remained: Hong Kong. The city skyline before a backdrop of green mountains, as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean, is hard to beat.
I grew up in a southern Chinese city named Guangzhou, roughly two hours north of Hong Kong by train. We speak the same dialect, sing the same pop songs, and watch the same shows. I’m accustomed to calling Hong Kong my second home. The small city is packed with different scenery, people groups, and cultures. It is the first lens through which I saw Western culture, and also where I glimpsed the best of Chinese culture.
I remember, as a child in China, watching the 6:30 evening news out of Hong Kong. Often our TV would suddenly switch to a color screen for five to ten minutes, and then everything would return to normal. Or during a special news report, we’d see scenes of birds flying over nature instead of the actual news report. My parents would say, “Ahh, they are talking again about something that we can’t hear.” My 10-year-old brain didn’t understand why certain things were off limits for those of us living in China. That was my first experience of censorship.
After I immigrated to the United States and discovered the spectrum of political opinions and worldviews, I became more aware of the danger of censorship. The audience isn’t just deprived of information on certain sensitive topics, but of entire categories of vocabulary with which to process information. In other words, people are denied different frameworks to make sense of the information they already have.
This is what makes Hong Kong such a fascinating place. It is an intersection of Eastern and Western ideas and cultures. The 99 years that Hong Kong was under British rule—a source of shame to many in China—gave the people of Hong Kong access to ideas and worldviews that most in mainland China didn’t have. But this is also what has, in recent decades, made Hong Kong such a dangerous place in the eyes of the Chinese government.
Intersection of East and West
Under the “One Nation, Two Systems” agreement, Hong Kong is afforded a degree of autonomy and freedom that the people in China don’t have. As travel between the mainland and Hong Kong became much easier in the early 2000s, it promoted not only a greater exchange of commercial goods but also a greater exchange of ideas. The people—and house churches—of China suddenly had access to knowledge they didn’t possess before. Hong Kong became a refuge for churches in China, a place where mainland pastors and believers could gather for training and prayer.
Censorship denies people not only information, but vocabulary and frameworks to make sense of the information they already have.
All of this didn’t go unnoticed by the central Chinese government. Since its return to China in 1997, Hong Kong has noticed a gradual erosion of its freedom and autonomy. The Extradition Bill was another big step in this trend, but even without the bill, the erosion process seems irreversible. (That could be a large part of why protests and unrest haven’t died down after the withdrawal of the bill.) The people—especially the young people—fear that over time, Hong Kong will just become another Chinese city, with social-media access limited, actions monitored, and news outlets censored.
In a sense, censorship is already happening in Hong Kong, but it’s a form of self-censorship. The various sides of Hong Kong society tend to see and interpret events in a way that supports their own positions. There is a spin to everything. The conflict is not just between the people in Hong Kong and the central government in Beijing, but also among different factions of Hong Kong society. As people dig ever deeper into their own ideological positions, the possibility for political compromise and peaceful resolution becomes less and less likely.
What Should the Church Do?
Churches in Hong Kong have faced questions about their social, political, and moral responsibilities. Some accuse the Christian leaders in Hong Kong of advocating for violence, since protests and rallies are often preceded by prayer gatherings. Some say Christians are obstructing justice, since they place their bodies between the police and the protestors. Some denounce the church and church schools as vehicles of Western ideology. Some demand the church condemn the violence and stop harboring protestors. Some call on the church to protest the government, because churches should speak out for the oppressed, and because they also stand to lose in the erosion of their freedom.
The way forward isn’t in choosing a side, but in protecting the distinctiveness of being the church of Christ.
One thing is clear: different factions see Christian churches either as allies or as enemies; they either seek to solicit the churches’ support or to ensure the churches don’t complicate things further. Facing pressure from within and without, some church leaders are struggling to come up with the best way to move forward.
Hong Kong churches are facing an unprecedented test, and it’s becoming harder to discern how they’re called to be a blessing to the city. But precisely in this time, churches can point people to the gospel. Perhaps the way forward is not in pleasing different sides of society or in forming an alliance with the right faction. The way forward may lie in protecting the distinctiveness of being the church of Christ and, as such, being the scaffold of God’s heavenly kingdom come to earth.
Witness to Another Kingdom
The best way to view current events is through the lens of eternity; this perspective is revealed throughout the Scriptures, and it cannot be censored. While public opinions can be swayed by the breeze of news reports, Christians know where their eternal destiny lies—in a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:28). The church must steadily preach the gospel, in season and out (2 Tim. 4:2). For only in finding true rest will men cease raging.
Because we hope in a heavenly King, we do not have to take sides to promote an earthly king. Christians don’t have to bend the truth to either support or denigrate any societal faction. If different sides are only interested in a partial narrative that supports their own ideological position, churches should shed light on the full narrative. Whether it is pointing out mistreatment of police officers or violence against protesters, the church defends truth—and as such, should call out any injustice done to anyone.
It is right and just for churches to speak out against unjust laws and defend freedom, but they never have to do it from a place of desperation.
The church can be an agent of love and peace. As we enter the sixth month of protest and unrest, peace in Hong Kong seems like a distant memory or fanciful dream. It’s almost impossible to get anyone to listen to each other, not to mention love each other. But Christians bear the call to love our neighbors—including our enemies—as ourselves. That neighbor could be a protester or a police officer, black shirt or white shirt, blue ribbon or yellow ribbon. The door of the church is open to all who seek refuge in Christ, who has broken down the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14).
Ultimately, church members can show their hope in Christ by living as people who are truly free (1 Pet. 2:16). It is right and just for churches to speak out against unjust laws and defend freedom, but they never have to do it from a place of desperation. In this, they can perhaps learn from their brothers and sisters in the mainland, who have not ceased to pray for the people who oppress them, share Christ with the officials who arrest them, and love the neighbors who report them. Proclaiming the gospel may even sound more distinct in the face of suffering, since light shines brightest in the dark.
We give thanks to God for preserving the churches in Hong Kong over the last 100 years and for two decades of relative peace and freedom under Hong Kong’s autonomous status. The future of Hong Kong is uncertain, and will likely include further unrest. In the midst of all the rubble, may the scaffold of God’s kingdom rise up to point to a better city.
A version of this article appeared at China Partnership.