As the CCP subjugates Hong Kong’s churches and their schools, no political space to object remains.
By Nina Shea | 20 March 2022
Bishop Stephen Chow at his episcopal ordination in Hong Kong, China, December 4, 2021. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)
At Beijing’s insistence last October, Hong Kong’s Bishop-elect Stephen Chow and 15 senior Catholic priests met with the mainland’s state-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. As the government watched on Zoom, the Hong Kongers were lectured on the fine points of President Xi’s religious policy of “Sinicization.” While no directives were issued, priests knowledgeable about the unprecedented conclave reported that “Xi was the elephant in the room” and saw that this was “just the first step” in what the CCP calls their “reeducation.” The clear takeaway was that Hong Kong’s churches, historically independent of the CCP, are having their wings clipped.
Sinicization is a strategy to absorb China’s religious communities into the party’s United Front, to help the CCP indoctrinate, surveil, and ensure ideological conformity. Since 2018, Sinicization regulations have restricted mainland churches in their preaching and practice of Christian teachings that are not authorized by the atheistic CCP. Moreover, they require them to actively support the party leadership and promote “values of socialism” and Xi’s thought in sermons and “learning sessions.”
In December, Xi exhorted officials to double down in their effort to “rally” the “vast” number of “religious believers around the Party and government,” according to Xinhua, the official news agency of the Chinese government. Standing in their way has been Hong Kong, an oasis of learning, information, training, and conferencing for all Chinese Christianity. Chinese Christians would go to the semi-autonomous territory to study theology and attend conferences, and Hong Kong clergy visited them to help in clergy formation. Since the 2018 religious restrictions on the mainland, the churches have had to turn to online meeting platforms. This month, new cyber laws ban this too, unless the meetings are specifically licensed by Beijing.
On the mainland, the registration of Christian priests and pastors, managed by branches of so-called patriotic religious associations and other oversight bodies, has been key to CCP efforts to control both Catholic and Protestant churches since the 1950s. To create a similar bureaucratic infrastructure in Hong Kong, Legislative Council member Peter Koon, an Anglican priest, is now advocating a new religious-affairs bureau. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, a Catholic, floated the idea herself in the campaign for the 2017 election.
Reverend L, a visitor from Hong Kong who requests anonymity, is a keen observer of church developments at home. In an email to me, he stresses the implications of registration. “It’s not like you just sign up and then that’s it,” he writes. “Registration means, the cleric submits to never ending CCP surveillance and reeducation to learn about Christianity according to the CCP.” Resisters are targeted with incarceration for reeducation and punishment. For example, earlier this year, Pastor Hao Zhiwei, a woman leader of an unregistered house church in Hubei, was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment. Since May, Bishop Joseph Zhang of the Catholic Diocese of Xinxiang in Henan Province has been detained without due process in a secret (or “black”) jail.
Independent Christian schools, which are banned on the mainland, present problems for the CCP in Hong Kong. The government reports that 60 percent of K–12 schools there are run by churches, though Christians constitute only 15 percent of its population. In addition to their religious curriculum, the schools have a culture that conflicts with the CCP’s. Reverend L, a graduate of one, writes that “they have instilled the ideals of academic freedom, human dignity, and democracy in generations of Hong Kongers.”
Bishop Chow, who headed a Jesuit boys’ school there, earned his doctorate of education at Harvard and wrote his dissertation on the “moral culture” in Hong Kong’s schools. “I find it unacceptable for human dignity to be ignored, trampled upon, or eliminated entirely,” he said in an interview with the website Mondo e Missione in February. While acknowledging that the “main job” of the schools was “to protect students,” he hoped that they could “develop independent thinking, and not just within a pre-established framework.”
Such educational approaches are anathema to the CCP. In January, it issued directives to place party cells within primary and secondary schools on the mainland, despite the CCP’s seven decades of control over them. A pseudonymous reporter in the online magazine Bitter Winter describes the party’s perspective: “Some still believe that students are educated to find a good job. This opinion should be corrected: students are educated ‘for the Party and for the Country.’” According to the directives, the cells will, in addition to cultivating “love for the party,” run the schools, be “strong fighting fortresses” of CCP ideology, and “deeply integrate the . . . inheritance of red genes into school education.”
Hong Kong’s Christian schools don’t just lack for party fervor. Many of their students have protested against the CCP. Protest leader Joshua Wong and former legislator Martin Lee, Hong Kong’s “father of democracy,” both convicted for political activism, are Christian-school alumni. In January, Ta Kung Pao, the Chinese government’s newspaper in Hong Kong, ran articles angrily blaming the Christian schools for nurturing the movement against the party’s oppressive measures. All Hong Kong schools are now legally required to provide the CCP’s compulsory “national-security education.” Baptist University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, together with its important divinity school, are set to begin next fall. More-drastic educational changes are sure to follow.
As the CCP subjugates Hong Kong’s churches and their schools, no political space to object remains, even for Cardinal Joseph Zen, the territory’s towering bishop emeritus. In January, the threat of harsh National Security Law punishments was dangled over him and the churches when he was accused in Ta Kung Pao of abusing his position to “disrupt Hong Kong” with past criticisms. Church leaders in the free world are mostly quiet. An exception is Bishop Javier Herrera Corona, the Vatican’s recently transferred Hong Kong representative. Last month the respected Union of Catholic Asian News reported that he derided those who, like Zen, were alarmed that “the Vatican and the communist government are collaborating in appointing bishops.” He was reported to have scoffed at their “psychological barrier,” which he attributed to rigid thinking.
The Biden administration is rightly concerned by the imprisonment of Hong Kong’s dissidents and by the shutting of its free presses. It also must speak out against the incipient crackdown on religious freedom, among the last remnants of the territory’s “one country, two systems” model. Under Sinicization, the CCP’s inexorable exertion of control over Hong Kong’s churches is, in Reverend L’s words, “soul-crushing.”
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