Acton Institute Powerblog

Hong Kong’s Catholics cancel prayer for fear of offending China

China’s draconian “national security law” has not just stifled the free speech of pro-democracy politicians, teachers, and journalists, it has now shut down a prayer campaign called by Roman Catholic hierarchy. Catholic bishops in Hong Kong canceled publication of a prayer for fear of offending officials in the Chinese Communist Party.

This summer, the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences asked its members to pray for the increasingly oppressive situation in Hong Kong. China’s violation of the “one country, two systems” framework comes as “freedom of religion or belief in mainland China is suffering the most severe restrictions experienced since the Cultural Revolution,” wrote Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Myanmar, the conference’s president. He offered a litany of problems with the new legislation, which UN observers have since described as overly vague:

I am concerned that the law poses a threat to basic freedoms and human rights in Hong Kong. This legislation potentially undermines freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, media freedom and academic freedom. Arguably, freedom of religion or belief is put at risk. … Even if freedom of worship in Hong Kong is not directly or immediately affected, the new security law and its broad criminalization of “subversion”, “secession” and “colluding with foreign political forces” could result, for example, in the monitoring of religious preaching, the criminalization of candlelit prayer vigils, and the harassment of places of worship that offer sanctuary or sustenance to protesters.

As it turns out, Bo knows Beijing. Through fear and intimidation, the law has triggered an act of self-censorship.

In response to Cardinal Bo’s call to prayer, the Hong Kong diocese’s Justice and Peace Commission planned to buy an advertisement in Jimmy Lai’s newspaper, Apple Daily, on Sunday, September 6. It would contain the following prayer:

Lord, You reward Your faithful servants with prosperity, but for servants not of Your mind, Your justice will come and You will deliver Your people from oppression and slavery. As the city of Hong Kong is under threats of abusive control, we pray for Your mercy. Amongst adversaries and oppression, we believe Your Word and grace shall bring back the confidence and hope of Your people.

Hong Kong’s Catholic hierarchy feared this wording might break the national security law. The call to deliver God’s people from “oppression” could be viewed as imprecatory prayer against the Chinese Communists. Hence, the bishops insisted the commission commit an act of omission.

Critics points out that the national security law’s broad and expansive terminology could criminalize virtually any prayer, however benign. Benedict Rogers, the founder of Hong Kong Watch, wrote that he often listened to “Holy Mother by Eric Clapton and Luciano Pavarotti. However, under the new law, the line, “‘Holy Mother, where are you?’ might be misinterpreted by Beijing’s puppet chief executive Carrie Lam, who has regularly asserted her ‘motherhood’ of Hong Kong status, as a question about her whereabouts or as a threat to Xi Jinping’s self-appointed near-divinity.”

This undermines the views of Cardinal John Tong Hon, the  bishop of Hong Kong, who assured the faithful that the national security law “will not negatively impact on religious freedom.” In fact, the law has already begun reshaping Catholic culture, especially the education of young people. The diocese wrote a letter instructing teachers in Catholic schools to “enhance students’ awareness of national security and law abidingness and enable them to recognize and respect” Chinese Communist anthems and institutions.

“Our church leaders are succumbing under political pressure, and our children’s education is at risk,” said the Catholics Concerned about the Hong Kong National Security Law Group. The directive to obedience short-circuits “students’ search for the truth for the sake of” being “politically correct.” By encouraging students to identify with the Marxist government, the group said, ecclesiastical officials “hold a candle for the devil.”

If that sounds too Manichean for some ears, it accurately summarizes the battle lines as the CCP sees them. “It must be understood that, to the [Chinese Communist] Party, the Church is an existential threat – it is an ideological competitor with its own organizational structure and hierarchy,” a senior cleric in mainland China told the Catholic News Agency. Beijing’s secularizing policy of “Sinicization” of all Christian churches has “nothing to do with cultural harmony and everything to do with co-opting the Church and sanitizing it into an agent of the state.”

Margaret Thatcher thought she had foreclosed Beijing’s possibility of exporting this system to Hong Kong when she negotiated the transfer of the financial hub from the UK to China. However, as Hong Kong has become less economically important to the overall Chinese GDP, the CCP has flouted these conditions. The national security law, which took effect June 30, has been denounced by government officials in the UN, France, Germany, even Canada – but the leader of the world’s largest Christian church aimed his criticism elsewhere.

Just days after this prayer cancellation took place, Pope Francis told transatlantic political and business leaders to create an economic system that shows “solidarity in wealth and in the sharing of resources,” one “that refuses to sacrifice human dignity to the idols of finance, that does not give rise to violence and inequality, and that uses financial resources not to dominate but to serve.” Presumably, he’s criticizing a theoretical version of free-market capitalism, a straw man that has become a papal target as frequent as it is painless.

However, if the pontiff opposes economic systems that produce “violence and inequality,” then he cannot possibly support the PRC’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Beijing refused to print an uncensored version of Thomas Piketty’s newest book, Capital and Ideology, because it records that Chinese income inequality has increased by 152% since economic liberalization began in the late 1970s. While flourishing economies inevitably produce economic inequality, socialism produces stagnant,  two-tiered societies where politicians reward the subservient and the well-connected. China’s kleptocratic economic policy and all-pervasive surveillance state combine the worst features of ruthless “capitalism” with the most innovative tools of communist repression.

The answers for China are not economic, because humanity is not primarily driven by economics. Each person is created in the image and likeness of God, which endows every individual with unalienable rights. As the island’s most famous Catholic dissident, Jimmy Lai, said, “Without assimilating into Western values, there won’t be peace in international trade, politics and diplomacy.”

Without Western values, Hong Kong doesn’t have a prayer.

(Photo: Cardinal John Tong Hon. Photo credit: T1NH0. CC BY-SA 3.0.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

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