Acton Institute Powerblog

The Church must confront China over Hong Kong

China’s worsening human rights abuses instigated an historic change in U.S. foreign policy. Unfortunately, they have drawn a sharper rebuke from secular politicians than from many in the church.

On May 27, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the Trump administration stands ready to revoke Hong Kong’s privileged relationship with the U.S., because the province is no longer sufficiently independent of the People’s Republic of China.

When the UK relinquished Hong Kong in 1997, Beijing promised to respect the province’s economic and political freedoms as part of its “one country, two systems” policy. Conditions have deteriorated for years, but they reached a boiling point with China’s new security law that would allow Beijing, for the first time, to establish its own security agencies on the island to combat alleged acts of “secession, subversion or terrorism.” Another bill making it illegal to disrespect the Chinese national anthem is poised to pass China’s parliament on June 4, the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

“No reasonable person can assert today that Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy from China,” Pompeo said. Therefore, the province does not “warrant treatment under United States laws in the same manner as U.S. laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1997.”

That could end Hong Kong’s special trade relationship with the U.S., subjecting goods that pass through its harbors to the same punitive tariffs imposed on the mainland. President Donald Trump announced he would repeal the “full range” of perks available to Hong Kong in a press conference on May 29. The reaction shows the administration is nimble enough to adapt rapidly to changing conditions, and that it continues to pursue Donald Trump’s one-front trade war with China.

“While the United States once hoped that free and prosperous Hong Kong would provide a model for authoritarian China,” said Pompeo on Wednesday, ‘it is now clear that China is modeling Hong Kong after itself.”

Secretary Pompeo made clear that the United States considers this reversal “disastrous.” However, recent statements imply some in the Vatican may find it praiseworthy.

“Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese,” said Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, last February. Sorondo praised “extraordinary China” and its “positive national conscience,” where leaders “seek the common good.” The bishop said the Chinese Communist Party “defended the dignity of the human person,” despite the fact that Beijing performed 336 million compulsory abortions as part of its dehumanizing one-child policy—a practice then-Vice President Joe Biden said “I fully understand—I’m not second-guessing.” Bishop Sorondo contrasted the architects of China’s brutal population control favorably with President Trump, whom he deemed too influenced by “liberal thought.”

Hong Kong, too, accorded its citizens democratic freedoms and economic liberty. Mike Gonzalez and Olivia Enos wrote at The Daily Signal:

We at The Heritage Foundation know well Hong Kong’s value as an outpost that demonstrated, every day, and for decades, the superiority of the free market system. Its low regulatory environment, rule of law, strong anti-corruption stance, and flat tax rate gave it a GDP per capita of $62,726. Mainland China, lacking all these attributes, clocks in at $15,376.

For all these reasons, Hong Kong sat atop our Index of Economic Freedom since we started it in 1995. It dropped from its position as the world’s freest economy only this year in part because of its increasingly close integration with the mainland.

The influence of British “liberalism” caused Hong Kong to earn Freedom House’s top rating for religious freedom.

That record could scarcely provide a sharper contrast with the mainland. China persecutes indigenous Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, the Falun Gong, and an ever-growing numbers of Christians.

In 2019, the Chinese government compelled the 60,000-churches of its state-run Protestant church, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, to replace the Ten Commandments with posters containing socialist propaganda. These placards declare that socialism will “support” churches in “interpreting religious thought, doctrines, and teachings.”

This February, Chinese officials implemented sweeping new administrative measures for religious groups,” which demand, “Religious organizations must spread the principles and policies of the Chinese Communist Party … educating religious personnel and religious citizens to support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, supporting the socialist system, adhering to and following the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

“In practice, your religion no longer matters,” a Catholic priest told Asia News. “If you are Buddhist, or Taoist, or Muslim or Christian: the only religion allowed is faith in the Chinese Communist Party.” Meanwhile, the government continues to rip crosses off churches to this day.

These developments have not gone entirely without comment. Pope Francis commended China to Our Lady, Help of Christians on Sunday, May 24. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI instituted this annual tradition in 2007, supplicating that Chinese Christians “might never fear to speak of Jesus to the world and of the world to Jesus.” This year, his successor assured Chinese Catholics that “the universal church … supports you in your trials”—and instructed them to be “good citizens.”

In the Chinese lexicon, good means compliant, secular, and socialist.

The CCP requires Hong Kong’s citizens to sit submissively as Beijing usurps their democratic rights—or pay the price. Those who refuse, like entrepreneur and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai, face the threat of arrest or being “disappeared.”

This evisceration of democratic norms also violates Catholic social teaching. The Compendium on the Social Doctrine of the Church holds that a “source of concern is found in those countries ruled by totalitarian or dictatorial regimes, where the fundamental right to participate in public life is denied at its origin.” (Emphasis in original.) The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops adds that “people have a right and a duty to participate in society.” Yet even before the latest crackdown, the Foundation for the Advancement of Liberty ranked China among the 10 nations with the least amount of electoral freedom.

In the midst of this tempest, faithful Chinese Christians feel abandoned. “With all the persecution increasing in China, with all the cruelties, the brutalities of the police on our young people—no word from the Vatican,” said Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong. “No word. Not one word.”

Indeed, Pope Francis signed an agreement in September 2018 legitimizing the the state-run rump church, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, as well as allowing the Chinese government to select new Catholic bishops and replacing two bishops in the underground church with hierarchs loyal to Beijing.

“Even our [Catholic] community is divided,” said Cardinal Zen. “Everybody in Hong Kong must take sides.”

Pompeo’s announcement came one day before Congress passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, which requires the government to identify and sanction Chinese officials responsible for some human rights abuses. Yet so far, secular and sacred responses to Chinese aggression have been fallen far short of Teddy Roosevelt’s injunction, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.”

The world’s 2.3 billion Christians must first believe, and then affirm, that China’s actions violate human nature, which is “made for freedom.” Chinese suppression of fundamental human rights, including the freedom of religion and expression, cries out for prayer.

This crisis provides a golden opportunity for Christian leaders, including the pontiff, to exercise a truly global ministry. Pope Francis should bid the world to pray for the fall of communism in China and the end of the PRC as a dictatorial, atheistic, irredentist, mercantilist, militarist, racist, kleptocratic, imperialist regime. People of goodwill must not rest until all believers can safely “stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free” (Galatians 5:1).

(Photo credit: A policeman sprays tear gas into a protest in Hong Kong on May 24, 2020. PaulWong / Shutterstock.com.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.