THE KINGDOM IMPACT OF CHINA’S INCREASED CONTROL OVER HONG KONG
By Gustav Krös
China’s increased boldness in exerting its control and authority over Hong Kong – despite the ‘guarantees’ of the “one country, two systems” policy – begs answers to some critical questions:
- How will China’s increased influence in Hong Kong impact the Church in Hong Kong?
- How will China’s increased influence in Hong Kong impact the Church in mainland China?
- What lessons can the Church in Taiwan learn from China’s increased influence in Hong Kong?
On Thursday 11 March, the “patriots governing Hong Kong” resolution was passed at the National People’s Congress (NPC) held in Beijing. This will allow a pro-Beijing panel to vet and elect candidates in future Hong Kong elections. Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed back to China in 1997 under a model called “one country, two systems”. The agreement allowed Hong Kong various freedoms not allowed in mainland China, and it included its own mini-constitution and an elected parliament.
The Hong Kong Parliament, also known as the Legislative Council (LegCo), comprises 70 seats and helps make Hong Kong’s laws. Its role includes protecting the various freedoms Hong Kong has in contrast to mainland China, such as the freedom of assembly and speech, various other democratic rights, and an independent judiciary. The proposed new law – giving Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing electoral vetting committee the authority to vet all LegCo candidates and elect many of its members – opens the door for more laws that could alter Hong Kong’s distinct freedoms.
The detailed legislation, related to the new law, will now be drafted and could be passed within a few months. The Chinese government maintains that such steps are necessary to ensure stability.
Hong Kong and its Kingdom impact
For more than a century, Hong Kong has been a gateway for ministry activity into mainland China, as well as the wider region. First established as a colony of the British empire in 1842, it expanded its territory in 1860, and again in 1898 with a 99-year lease of the New Territories. Today, the 1,104-square-kilometre (426 sq. mi) territory has an estimated population of 7.7 million residents, making it one of the most densely populated places in the world.
Free trade and low taxation have contributed to Hong Kong developing into one of the world’s main financial centres, with the second-highest number of billionaires of any city in the world, and the highest number of billionaires of any city in Asia. Its financial prosperity, together with religious freedom (guaranteed by Hong Kong Basic Law), has given its Christian population of 12% a solid foundation for massive Kingdom impact. Operation World summarises it as follows: “Hong Kong’s Kingdom impact, regionally and globally, far outweighs its small size. It continues to be the source of many missionaries as well as a hub for financing ministry, outreach, discipling, media, and literature ministries to the Chinese speaking world in particular.”
This Kingdom impact was originally threatened as the British colony moved closer to the end of its 99-year lease of the territory, which would come to an end in 1997. In 1984, diplomatic negotiations with China resulted in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The declaration confirmed that the United Kingdom would transfer the colony to Chinese rule in 1997 and China would guarantee Hong Kong’s economic and political systems for 50 years after the transfer. Even with the declaration in place, however, Hong Kong saw a mass exodus between 1987 to 1996, with over half a million people leaving the territory.
Change in laws and mass protests
Since Hong Kong came under Chinese rule in 1997, with the Sino-British Joint Declaration in place, life in Hong Kong continued with much of its freedoms in place, and its Kingdom impact, on the doorstep of mainland China, unhindered. In 2014, however, China revealed its intention of not waiting until 2047 before exerting more influence on the territory, when it decided to implement a pre-screening process of the candidates for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. This step triggered mass protests that became known as the ‘Umbrella Revolution’ and lasted from 26 September to 15 December 2014.
Again, in June 2019, the Chinese government attempted to make further inroads in Hong Kong with the proposed ‘extradition amendment bill’ – which would permit the extradition of fugitives to mainland China. This proposed amendment caused more mass protests, with estimates ranging to over one million people.
In June 2020, the Chinese government then passed the controversial national security law, that diminishes Hong Kong’s autonomy and makes it easier to punish people participating in protests. This again sparked further protests, with some turning violent. The Chinese government maintained that the law is needed to prevent sedition and ensure stability. Currently, the largest trial yet, concerning the new security law, is underway with 47 pro-democracy activists having appeared in court on 1 March.
How will China’s increased influence in Hong Kong impact the Church in Hong Kong?
The implementation of the HK National Security Law in June 2020 was a watershed moment for the Church in Hong Kong. Up until that point, many Protestant and Catholic churches supported the pro-democracy protests of 2014, as well as the subsequent protests against the extradition amendment bill, while also being very outspoken in support of political reform in mainland China. Once the HK National Security Law was implemented, however, church leaders were confronted with the decision whether to continue their public support for the protests and face the prospect of imprisonment, or whether to abide by the new law.
This has led to division in many churches with congregations divided between those who want to continue their support of protests against China’s growing influence in Hong Kong and those who feel it is best to refrain from opposing the government and rather abide by the law. In many cases, this congregational divide runs along generational lines, with the youth supporting the ongoing protests, and the older generation preferring to abide by the law. This is an ongoing problem and church leaders need much wisdom to maintain unity within their congregations.
There are many Christians, including pastors, who have already decided or who are contemplating leaving Hong Kong due to China’s growing influence. It is not only Christians that are dismayed by China’s increased influence, people from all walks of life are considering immigrating to other countries – the UK is the most obvious and easiest option due to its recent history, with many residents still having UK passports. Current estimates of between 750,000 – 1 million people could potentially leave Hong Kong over the next three years. One ministry leader from Hong Kong commented on this prospect: “I do not see this as necessarily a bad thing, as God could use this kind of ‘exodus’ for missions, even when we are reluctant.”
This is reminiscent of how the Gospel spread in the first century, as described in Acts 8:1,4: “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” Similarly, the exodus of believers could have a positive missional impact if they continue to preach the Gospel wherever they go. In this manner, the missional impact of the Hong Kong Church could certainly grow exponentially, beyond Hong Kong and China.
At the same time, the believers who are called to stay in Hong Kong will certainly be entering a new season as well. One pastor commented: “As long as Hong Kong churches stay clear of any political activities or even making statements that could be considered political or anti-China, they should be able to operate as before and have the freedom to do any, and all types of ministry. There is no indication at the present time this will change in the immediate future, even as China is taking more control of politics in Hong Kong. While some ministers and congregational members are fearful of the loss of personal freedoms and are making plans to or have already immigrated, most of us are confident we will be able to maintain freedom of worship in Hong Kong.”
It is encouraging that many church leaders are not planning to leave and that they believe that freedom of worship is not threatened at this stage, but still, adjustments will have to be made. Churches will have to take special care with regards to their comments on any political matters, to make sure they do not violate the national security law.
1 Peter 2:13-17 reminds us of our need to submit to the authorities that govern us: “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honour the emperor.”
It is commendable that the Church in Hong Kong acknowledges these principles and is willing to adapt accordingly, so they can remain ‘salt and light’ in their community. By staying, they continue to maintain their influence as “good stewards” of the financial wealth with which the Lord has blessed Hong Kong and more than that, by submitting to the new laws introduced by China, they also continue to remain relevant to Kingdom expansion on the mainland.
How will China’s increased influence in Hong Kong impact the Church in mainland China?
China has the largest population in the world, an estimated 1.39 billion people. Due to the challenge of knowing the exact number of believers within the ‘house church’ network of China, Christians are estimated at 5.2%, or 71 million, but sources within the country say it could be as many as 130 million. This places China anywhere between the 8th and 3rd largest Christian nation in the world, while simultaneously having more than 1.2 billion people not adhering to Christianity.
Hong Kong has played a vital role in supporting outreaches to the mainland, while also supporting the Church on the mainland. Although the proclamation of the Gospel in mainland China is far from done, it seems like the Church in Hong Kong’s role is changing. As one ministry leader commented: “But it seems the strategic nature of HK being a beachhead for missions to China has been lost. Quite a number of mission agencies are planning to leave for other places for security reasons. Even missionaries based in HK for many years are going back to their home countries.”
The wonderful reality is that the Lord provided freedom in Hong Kong for long enough to see a doctrinally sound and mature Church rise in China, that is actively involved in reaching the ‘unreached’ within its borders, while also sending missionaries outside its borders. As the Hong Kong Church faces the possibility of their activities on the mainland decreasing, due to the Chinese government’s greater influence, they can have peace in their hearts, knowing they fulfilled their role towards the Church on the mainland, when it was most needed.
For the time being though, they will continue to make use of the opportunities they have to support the Church on the mainland with much-needed resources, financial support, skills training and networking while investigating new ways of ministry involvement on the mainland.
One Hong Kong pastor commented: “With a love of their nation and commitment to Christ and evangelism, very few Chinese believers will consider leaving for the freedoms and prosperity in the West. It is the same with us in Hong Kong. In spite of possible future restrictions on our freedoms, we know this is our home, mainland China is our mission field, and we are not going anywhere. More importantly, we know the power of prayer and the Gospel and are optimistic about the future.”
Under COVID-19 restrictions, churches on the mainland continue to use the internet to preach the gospel and distribute teaching materials. This shows that opportunities for the Hong Kong Church will continue if they are wise in their conduct and approach. Churches who want to continue being relevant on the mainland will have to adapt to a low-key approach. As far as possible, they will have to partner with the ‘Three-Self Patriotic’ churches (those approved by the Chinese government), and support ‘house churches’ through them, since many ‘Three-Self’ churches do have good relations with ‘house churches.’
One Hong Kong pastor commented on the future activities of the Hong Kong Church as follows: “Hong Kong churches will be wise to openly proclaim patriotism to China including that they will obey all Chinese laws, divorce themselves from any anti-China or pro-democracy peoples, and then build good relationships with the Three-Self leaders and churches. As long as they do that, they should be able to continue ministry to house churches, minority evangelism, purchasing of and distribution of Bibles and other types of ministry on the mainland. Those who fail to do so and have an anti-China, pro-democracy stand will probably see great hindrance to their ministry. Some may even be forced to leave Hong Kong and China altogether.”
What lessons can the Church in Taiwan learn from China’s increased influence in Hong Kong?
By witnessing China’s constant push for increased influence in Hong Kong, the Church in Taiwan can see that the Chinese definition of ‘one country, two systems’ looks very different from how Hong Kong and Taiwan understand it. Between the two, Hong Kong is certainly the easier one for China to exert its power over, and it also serves as a good training ground for a similar approach towards Taiwan in the future. When, and how, such steps will take place is unknown, but the Church in Taiwan will be wise to learn from the Church in Hong Kong before such a time.
The Church in Taiwan should be known for promoting peace. There are many voices proclaiming that it would take a war before Taiwan would submit to increased control from China, but in war, there will be only one loser – the people of Taiwan. It will thus be in everyone’s best interest if the Church remains a voice of peace from the outset, and rather takes the role of mediator, instead of taking sides. The Taiwanese churches would thus be wise to refrain from promoting Taiwanese independence and from being overtly anti-communist, and rather focus on promoting the Kingdom of God.
This would be to the benefit of the Church in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, as one Hong Kong pastor mentioned: “As long as we in Hong Kong relate to Taiwanese churches only in matters relating to Christianity, and avoid all politics, there should no problems in continuing our mutual relationships.”
The main lesson learned from the Church in Hong Kong, and which has been true for the Church over the past 2,000 years, is that one does not need democracy and freedom in order to proclaim the Gospel. As we see in Acts chapter 8, often when persecution comes, the Gospel starts to spread and leads to church growth. In a similar way, it was under the persecution of the Chinese Communist government that the Church in mainland China grew to the size it is today.
The Church can certainly promote democracy and freedom, but if it loses its Kingdom relevance in pursuit of these issues then they become idols to the Church. The Church’s calling is to take the Gospel to every nation, tribe and tongue, and the Church in Hong Kong is showing us that they are willing to give up their ‘freedom’ to continue doing their part in fulfilling the Great Commission.
The Church in Hong is entering an uncertain new chapter, but they have chosen to seek God’s Kingdom first, and as a Hong Kong pastor said: “The Gospel will be preached with power to China and all these nations, and with the completion of the Great Commission, Christ will return!”
- Operation World – Completely Revised-7th Edition – Jason Mandryk
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter
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