On November 24, 2019, voters in Hong Kong went to the polling stations in record numbers and produced a political landslide that turned the political landscape upside down. Of the 7.5 million population, 71% of the 4 million registered voters cast their votes at the local council election. Although the popular votes showed a 60/40 split in favor of the pan-democrats, they captured an unprecedented 85% of the local council seats. The big loss by the pro-establishment candidates spoke loudly of a government under siege. Indeed, Hong Kong has been a city under siege for half a year by now.
Since June, 2019, the city has been in a state of unrest. Every weekend, sometimes also on weekdays, there have been rallies and marches, and often they have turned violent. What started as a protest against the government’s effort to push through a Fugitive Offenders Ordinance amendment has turned into a major show of displeasure at many deep-seated socio-economic problems in the city. It soon also took on a widespread anti-China sentiment.
The proposed legislative amendment was quickly criticized as potentially granting the Beijing government arbitrary power to arrest and extradite anyone to mainland China. This stirred up fear among those long harboring distrust and resentment of China.
During the last decade more people have become fearful that both local identity and personal prospects are being squashed.
Since China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, the China-Hong Kong relationship had been relatively benign under the ‘One Country Two Systems’ regime. Yet discomfort over a rising China just next door has grown significantly during the last decade as more people have become fearful that both local identity and personal prospects are being squashed. For example:
Since British colonial rule, Hong Kong has been the purest version of free-market capitalism. In different global surveys, Hong Kong has been ranked as the freest or most competitive economy in the world. The private sector has always been successful in its wealth creation mandate, taking full advantage of the free port with a low tax regime alongside a vibrant Chinese economy. The result has been acute wealth disparity in the community:
However, Hong Kong remains a city with plenty of freedom: freedom of the press and information; freedom to protest; freedom of belief; and rule of law. It is true that Hong Kong does not have the freedom to choose its leaders, but it is not freedom ‘lost’: Hong Kong has never had that, either during British rule or since 1997.
Yet, young generations have grown up with the proliferation of idealistic universal values such as freedom and democracy. People are looking for hope through political reform and better government. Many believe that universal suffrage is the only assurance for the freedom that they enjoy and the autonomy China has promised; and this is one of the key demands in this social upheaval.
The protestors are expressing an indisputable aspiration for hope; yet most do not understand that earthly political systems are transient and not dependable. The only one that can give hope and truly set us free is Jesus.
The unrest in Hong Kong is a direct challenge to the political establishment. Across the globe, there are significant power shifts. Traditional repositories of power, whether political or cultural, are now vulnerable to challenges, as witnessed in current protests in several countries. Power manifests itself in new ways. Smaller and nimbler stakeholders may only have power to disrupt but not dictate, and destroy but not create; but it is sufficient to create gridlock or anarchy. Power is disintegrating and fragmenting.
In Hong Kong, with the proliferation of social media, mini-narratives have found their channels and their voices.
In Hong Kong, with the proliferation of social media, mini-narratives have found their channels and their voices. During the unrest, there has not been any visible leader to rally the troops. Actions have been coordinated through online mobile apps such as Telegram or LIHKG postings.
The faceless masked black-clad protestors and rioters operating in flash-mob disruptions and street vigilantism are testament to the rise of micro-powers. The once alienated are no longer marginalized. People who felt ideologically or experientially alone are newly equipped to find like-minded people and become empowered. In an age of post-modern populism, mini-narratives suddenly become viable players in the wider political landscape, and elitist leadership is sidelined.
The flow of these fragmented dynamics defies conventional wisdom and paralyzes established authority. At the same time, there is an emotional shift as people become more distrustful towards, and emotionally detached from, traditional units of allegiance. The church needs to be aware of this major shift of dynamics in the harvest field, and to reframe and reclaim the meta-narrative—with Jesus and his message of deliverance back at the center.
Among these faceless protestors and streetfighters are many young people. One in three of those arrested for criminality or violence is below 18. When their masks are removed, they look moderate, with some sporting innocent faces. How could they have mustered the courage to play the dangerous game of street rioting?
Young people have a great need for recognition. Without the protests, they would not have made one another’s acquaintance. They would have spent their adolescence homebound. Many of them have absentee parents who work long hours or are from single parent households. Joining the ranks on the streets, these youngsters receive peer recognition. They encourage and care for each other. The young men and women soon become comrades in arms. Acceptance, respect, or even fame become powerful spurs to ever more heroic exertions on the ‘battlefield’.
Young people have a great need for recognition. Without the protests, they would not have made one another’s acquaintance.
Some of these youngsters, beyond shouting slogans articulating their demands, actually seldom discuss political aspirations. Rather, their conversations often focus on racist comments about new immigrants and other Chinese mainlanders, and how these newcomers and visitors are ‘robbing’ local resources.
Others want recognition from the wider world. They believe that Hong Kong people should differentiate themselves from Chinese mainlanders. They do not want to be ‘diluted’ within a single sovereign framework. Underlying the drive for autonomy is a deep concern about identity. Sadly, such sentiment has been lethally abetted by social-media platforms, where anti-China protagonists spread their propaganda and hatred.
Gen Y and Gen Z in Hong Kong grew up in a high-tech but low-touch environment. High-speed internet enables more to tune into online communications and relationships, which breed isolation and alienation. The younger generation is increasingly growing up in a state of spiritual poverty, social inertia, and a longing for authentic relationships. This explains why the adrenaline rush and the peer recognition among their street acquaintances has become increasingly magnetic for them, even though the stakes are high if they are arrested.
In a community where the Christian faith arrived over 170 years ago, only about 10 percent of the population are Christians. Most youngsters have yet to learn that the incarnate Jesus is the savior that can heal their hurts and scars, and can offer authentic and rich relationship. The cry for hope is loud and audible. This is indeed a time of opportunity.
As the unrest persists, everyone in the city is unsure what might be the endgame. Although the slogans being uttered are subversive (‘liberation’ and ‘revolution’), the key demand is universal suffrage, and most people are realistic about the continuation of ‘One Country Two Systems’. Nevertheless, law and order need to be restored to pave the way for a political solution. Also, many aspects of life need to be revisited, from economic and housing policy to education, as well as trust and tolerance in the community. In a few short months, Hong Kong, the proud ‘Pearl of the Orient’, has lost much of its lustre, humiliated by this social implosion.
Many Christians have framed this as a fight for freedom and democracy. Others are concerned that the current persecution of Christianity might spread
With the protest movement focused on redressing misgovernment and defending Hong Kong against the threat of totalitarian rule by China, many Christians have framed this as a fight for freedom and democracy. Other Christians are particularly concerned that the current persecution of Christianity in China might spread south, and consider this a pre-emptive battle for freedom of faith and worship. Some even cite Dietrich Bonhoeffer as inspiration to risk arrest in making such a stand.
Initially, some Christians believed they should be peacemakers. They positioned themselves between the protestors and the police cordon singing ‘Sing, Hallelujah to the Lord’. As physical confrontations became routine and the level of violence escalated, such displays of Christian peace-making disappeared.
The church itself has been humbled too. Many months of upheavals have challenged its relevance in a changing context. In the face of pressures from mostly youngsters to respond to social and political injustice, many churches seemed paralyzed and immobilized. Worse still, the church is seen, not at the forefront of social justice, but as part of an establishment that lags behind events with no vision for the future of Hong Kong.
The church is also as divided as the community around it, either along political/ideological or generational lines. If church leaders choose not to support the young ones, they may be accused of being oblivious to injustice and may lose the younger generation in their congregation; yet if they support the young generation, they will alienate the older generation in the congregation who will accuse them of tolerating violence and taking an anti-establishment stand.
Some pastors have reacted by following the youngsters to the streets. Some have opened up church premises as a protestors’ refuge and have become willing participants. Many leaders have become the led.
What would Jesus do? Jesus was born into tyrannical Roman colonial hegemony. John the Baptist through his disciples asked if Jesus was the one ‘who is to come’ (Matt 11:3), the Messiah, the deliverer. Jesus pointed them to what they had heard and seen: ‘The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them’ (Matt 1:4-5). Then, when Jesus’ own disciples asked him before His ascension, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6)?’ Jesus told them to bear witness of him to the end of the earth.
The church needs to stand with the weak and the suffering.
Imitating Jesus’ value of justice and God’s righteousness is about a life commitment to reach out to the poor, the weak, and the marginalized, and to proclaim the good news. We are called to bear witness to God’s kingdom on earth to transform people’s lives holistically rather than simply bringing about political solutions. Many churches have found themselves open to criticism during the upheavals over their failure to mobilize their congregations to stand against injustice or minister to the poor and needy, in some cases simply relegating such ‘mercy’ ministries to church committees and budget lines.
The church needs to stand with the weak and the suffering. There are people living in fear and crying out for hope. There are people who are isolated, alienated, and looking for community. There are ‘nextgens’ searching for approval, acceptance, and an identity of which they can feel proud. In Jesus there is the ultimate hope that humanity can depend on, an intimacy that enriches, and an identity as children of God. In him, there is no storm that never passes. Beyond the storm, praise God, Jesus is the answer.
Photos by Joseph Chan on Unsplash
Francis K. Tsui is from Hong Kong and has been active in Asian mission in the last two decades serving as faculty, mentor, and Board member with Asian Access and AsiaCMS. He holds multiple higher degrees in modern Chinese history, business administration, as well as mission and leadership studies. Currently, he is working on a DMin at Fuller Seminary.
The Lausanne Movement connects influencers and ideas for global mission, with a vision of the gospel for every person, an evangelical church for every people, Christ-like leaders for every church, and kingdom impact in every sphere of society.