What’s more impressive than 2 million people walking down central Hong Kong demanding freedom? How about the scene where the human wave moved to the side in an orderly fashion to let an ambulance pass without anyone directing them?
How about before going home for the night, the young protesters stayed to ensure there was no litter left on the streets that 2 million people walked? How about that there was nothing, not a trash can, nor a car, nor a building, burned down, despite protesters’ emotions running high?
Anyone who has paid close attention to Hong Kong recently can’t help being in awe at how well-behaved the Hong Kong protesters, especially the youth, have been throughout the anti-extradition bill protests, which have gone on for two weeks now.
Journalists tweeted grateful messages to those who helped them:
Hong Kong's youth protestors are kind. I post this clip to say thanks. @CBSrandy was rolling when the police fired tear gas at the group we were in. An umbrella and helmet were forced on me. I'll prob never know who they are but I'm so grateful for their care. #HongKongProtests pic.twitter.com/NNAsFjpXOP
— Ramy Inocencio 英若明 (@RamyInocencio) June 13, 2019
Melissa Chan, an American journalist, tweeted:
The people of Hong Kong should be up for the Nobel Peace Prize. Two million protesters — orderly, recycling, giving way to ambulances as massive crowds part, giving safety hat and gear to visiting foreign correspondents — what better example of peaceful resistance in 2019?
— Melissa Chan (@melissakchan) June 16, 2019
What contributed to Hong Kongers, especially the youth’s, orderly, thoughtful, and dignified behavior? The outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen credits the city’s prevalent Catholic school education. He is not exaggerating.
In an article titled, “Church, State and Education: Catholic Education in Hong Kong during the Political Transition,” John Kang Tan notes that “many schools subsidized by the Hong Kong Government have religious bodies.” More than 50 percent of secondary schools in Hong Kong are faith-based. Although only an estimated 10 percent of Hong Kongers identify as Christian, many more Hong Kongers receive a faith-based education, despite the city’s outward appearance of an overly commercial and secular society. Most of these schools are run by Protestant or Catholic religious bodies.
According to Tan, “In terms of the number of schools, the Roman Catholic Church is the largest denomination that sponsors schools.” Zen confirmed the island city has about 300 Catholic schools, from kindergartens to colleges, providing education to 25 percent of the population. Catholic schools have such a stellar reputation for quality that they are highly sought after by eager parents.
Why are there so many Catholic schools in Hong Kong? It has everything to do with the island’s colonial past.
Catholicism and Colonialism
The first Catholic church in Hong Kong was founded in 1841, a year before the Chinese government officially ceded Hong Kong to the United Kingdom. Under British rule, Hong Kong was the freest city that is closest to mainland China, so foreign missionaries often established their bases here before they ventured onto the mainland.
As China suffered one war to another from the 19th to early 20th centuries, many mainland refugees flooded to Hong Kong. The Catholic church took the lead in providing orphanages, social services, medical care, and education to the poor and the displaced. Hong Kongers have more confidence in the church’s moral leadership than in the local government.
The first Catholic school in Hong Kong was founded in 1843, an all-male school. Since then, Catholic schools have played an important role in educating generations of Hong Kongers and shaping Hong Kong’s cultural, social, and political environment. On the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese’s education website, under “vision and mission,” it says its mission includes “help youth and students to cultivate wisdom and virtues, pursue the truth, verify merits, and to develop into persons who hold dear the basic human rights and dignity.”
After the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the Catholic church didn’t retreat from politics. Catholic schools, like many agencies in Hong Kong, have faced intrusions from Beijing. A 2004 Education Bill attempted to interfere with the management of Catholic schools. The church fought back by pointing out to the pro-Beijing legislature that if Catholic schools “did not have the freedom to continue [their way of managing their schools], their mission would be ruined, and this would damage the entire society of Hong Kong.”
Zen, who was made cardinal in 2006, has been vocal on issues regarding human rights, political freedom, and religious liberty in Hong Kong as well as in mainland China. He warned Pope Francis not to be misled by Beijing. But the pope ignored his warning and reached an agreement with Beijing last year, accepting the atheist government’s authority over how Catholic bishops are appointed in China.
This means bishops and priests in mainland China will be selected by the Chinese government—run by the atheist Chinese Communist Party—and must prioritize their loyalty to the party and country before God. They have to support government-sanctioned practices such as support for abortion, which violates the church’s teaching. The Vatican hasn’t released any text of the agreement. Zen decried the deal as “a total surrender” by the Vatican and “an incredible betrayal” to the seven million Catholic faithful in mainland China.
This year, when Carrie Lam, the Beijing-appointed chief of Hong Kong, tried to rush a controversial extradition bill through the Hong Kong legislature, the Catholic church joined by several other Christian organizations, provided moral guidance to the opposition. The Catholic dioceses urged “[the Hong Kong government] not to rush to amend the fugitive bill before fully responding to the concerns of the legal sector and the public.” When it became obvious that Lam wouldn’t listen, Zen called the faithful to join the peaceful protests.
As The New York Times noted, “Christians have been a visible part of the protests this month, providing food and shelter at demonstrations and condemning efforts by the police to break them up. Many protesters, even those who are not religious, have embraced the teachings and messages of Christianity to denounce a proposed law to allow extraditions to mainland China.”
Peaceful Protests By Faithful, Freedom-Seeking People
After Hong Kong authorities called the peaceful protests “riots,” Hong Kongers sought protection by singing “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.” Because religious assemblies in Hong Kong are protected, they hoped signing the hymn would protect protesters from police attacks and show the authorities the peaceful nature of their protest. No wonder this hymn has become the movement’s theme song and has been heard everywhere the protests took place.
After Lam apologized to Hong Kong people this week but still refused to meet protesters’ demands, the Catholic dioceses asked the government to “launch a thorough independent inquiry” on reported police brutality and to “make an explicit, public statement that the Bill has been ‘withdrawn’ to meet the strong demand of the general public.”
The Catholic church and other Christian organizations’ active involvement adds a moral dimension to the protest. They unite Hong Kongers from all walks of life as one powerful voice against injustice. They also serve as a restraint that helps keep the protests peaceful. It’s very likely that without faith-based organizations’ involvement in Hong Kong’s education and politics, the mass protests might turn out very differently.
Here in the United States, churches may lose their tax-exempt status if pastors or priests discuss politics from the pulpit. Progressives have been lecturing us that our religious beliefs are “private matters” and have no place in a public forum.
That’s why they keep dragging nuns to court for not wanting to pay for contraception and suing the same Christian bakers over and over again for not being willing to make a cake to celebrate occasions that violate the bakers’ religious beliefs. Opponents of school choice argue that when parents send their kids to faith-based schools using school vouchers, they somehow blur the separation of church and state.
Such attacks on religion haven’t made us any happier. We are so bitterly divided that it seems we can’t get anything meaningful done. Some even feel justified in using violence to shut down disagreement. As we cheer for Hong Kongers in their fight for freedom and note how much churches have taken the lead in the movement, we Americans should probably learn something, too.