China accuses churches of inciting Hong Kong protests, threatens to restrict religious freedom

Protesters march after a rally against a now suspended extradition law, on June 17, 2019 in Hong Kong, China.
Protesters march after a rally against a now suspended extradition law, on June 17, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. | Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

A Chinese state-owned newspaper has accused churches and Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen of inciting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy student protests in 2019, and the Chinese Communist Party may consider restricting religious freedom in the city.

A series of articles published in Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper owned by China’s liaison office, accuses Christian clergy and churches of encouraging the pro-democracy movement and defending demonstrators involved in protests against repressive measures in 2019, prominent religious freedom lawyer and scholar Nina Shea has warned. 

The articles suggest a need for greater control over Hong Kong by the CPP, Shea, the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, wrote in an op-ed published by the anti-communist Epoch Times. 

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The four articles, she says, “resemble a denunciation campaign of the kind portending a new crackdown” by the CCP.

The first article, titled “Cardinal Zen uses his status as a clergyman to disrupt Hong Kong,” accuses the 90-year-old bishop emeritus of Hong Kong of associating with Jimmy Lai, a Hong Kong entrepreneur and founder of the pro-democracy media Apple Daily, and former Hong Kong legislator Martin Lee.

Lee and Lai were arrested and convicted last year of unlawful assembly, a move critics say is an assault on the freedoms that were once central to the city’s identity. 

“It is difficult for the government to regulate or eliminate these religious groups or individuals, despite the fact that they have committed many crimes,” the Ta Kung Pao article reads, complaining that many of those arrested in the pro-democracy movement had studied at Christian schools.

Three subsequent articles, Shea points out, promoted the claim that churches “incited riots” among Hong Kong students and even provided sanctuary to pro-democracy demonstrators.

“They advocate for them to come under government control,” Shea, a former commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, wrote. 

Cardinal Zen has drawn the ire of the Communist Party in recent years as he is “one of the few prominent China clergymen in recent years who dare to speak critically against Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s repressive Sinicization policy for mainland churches.” Additionally, Zen was critical of the Vatican’s 2018 agreement with China, which gave the Chinese government the ability to select bishop candidates. 

Shea reports that some of the articles go to the extent of raising the “question of whether the CCP is planning an imminent takeover of Hong Kong’s Christian schools, along with directing reprisals against the cardinal.”

She quotes an anonymous Hong Kong Christian cleric who said he is fearful that the CCP may “intend to rein in the Christian schools as a first step to imposing comprehensive regulations to tighten government control over Hong Kong churches.”

One of the Ta Kung Pao articles quotes Rev. Peter Koon, an Anglican priest on the pro-Beijing legislature of Hong Kong, as supporting greater government oversight of churches. Koon reportedly proposes creating a government religious affairs office or extending the Chinese Temple Ordinance to cover churches. According to Shea, the ordinance dates back to 1928 and “mandates an onerous regime of government registration, management, control, inspection, audit, and other controls over Buddhist and Taoist monasteries.”

In June 2019, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest a proposed law allowing individuals to be extradited from the former British colony to mainland China. Critics claimed such a move undermines the semi-autonomous status of Hong Kong created in a 1997 agreement transferring authority over the colony from the United Kingdom to China. 

In 2020, China appointed a hardliner, known for removing hundreds of crosses from churches in the eastern province of Zhejiang, to take charge of its office overseeing matters in Hong Kong.

Xia Baolong, the vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference,  was appointed as the director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office. He was a close aide to Chinese President Xi Jinping from 2003 to 2007 while serving as Communist Party secretary of Zhejiang Province.

Hong Kong also implemented the mainland China-imposed national security law in 2020 after delaying legislative elections as pro-democracy candidates could have won due to anger among the city’s people against that law.

The law, which went into effect without a review by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, had four categories of crimes: succession, subversion of state power, local terrorist activities and collaborating with foreign or external foreign forces to endanger national security.

In 1997, China had agreed to a “one country, two systems” arrangement to allow certain freedoms for Hong Kong when it received the city back from British control. The security law undercut the promised autonomy.

China is identified by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in egregious religious freedom violations. In addition to detaining upwards of 1 million to 3 million Uyghur Muslims in Western China concentration camps, the Chinese government has persecuted Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners and other religious minorities. 

Countless reports over the years have shown how China has regularly cracked down on unregistered house churches and movements. Open Doors USA, which monitors persecution in over 60 countries, ranks China as the 17th worst country for Christian persecution. 

“Church attendance is rigorously monitored, and many churches are being closed down—whether they are independent or belong to the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (the officially state-sanctioned Protestant church in China),” an Open Doors USA fact sheet on China explains. “It remains illegal for under-18s to attend church. All meetings venues had to close during the COVID-19 crisis, but some churches were forced to remain closed once restrictions began to lift, and were quietly phased out.”

“Christian leaders are generally the main target of government surveillance, and a very small number have been abducted,” the report added. 

With the Winter Olympics in Beijing kicking off this week, the U.S. and several other nations have launched diplomatic boycotts of the Beijing Games to protest China’s human rights record. Open Doors and other groups have called on individuals to boycott watching the 2022 Olympics. 

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