Religious freedoms under threat in Hong Kong
Updated: Jun 25, 2020
Lately Christians in mainland China have been experiencing a new order that has made it into the top ten commandments, and now new security rules have made their way into Hong Kong!
Apparently, several months ago the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) demanded the Ten Commandments be replaced with quotes by President Xi Jinping, and that portraits of the president, former leader Mao Zedong and other communist propaganda be used as well, as part of "sinicization" to ensure citizens are loyal to the officially atheistic party or face the wrath of the regime. Churches that fail to comply with CCP censoring of the pillars of Christianity are reportedly being closed down.
As far as I know this kind of religious censorship has not started happening in Hong Kong yet, but with the party ignoring the "One country, Two systems" model, and the Special Administrative Region (SAR) enjoying less and less autonomy, my guess is it will only be a matter of time. The passing of National Security laws in HK is likely to be a sign of things to come judging by developments on the mainland.
For now in HK, it's more likely than ever before that adherents of certain religions enact some form of self-censorship.
There is a great deal of religious tolerance in the city, and to some extent the different religions are embraced as part of the SAR's diversity. We note there was a great deal of sympathy last year for religious and ethnic minorities after a mosque in Tsim Sha Tsui was disrespectfully showered willynilly with blue liquid sprayed from a Police riot control vehicle (see our two part blog on the violation here and here). Even the city's Chief Executive (CE) made a half-hearted attempt at an apology!
Although CE, Carrie Lam, is a self-confessed Catholic, people in the SAR are rightfully fearful that religious freedoms could somehow be diminished. The Sino-British Joint Declaration guarantees freedom of religious belief, and this guarantee is further enshrined in various articles of the Basic Law: Articles 18, 137 and 141 being cases in point. A fair proportion of schools in the city are Catholic, and there are also others that include religious education ranging from Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Judaism.
As far back as 2017, CE Lam was noted for her lack of excitement when it was announced that HK had won rights to stage the 2022 Gay Games. And when asked about the topic of same sex marriage, she claimed that HK was still divided on the issue of same-sex marriage, taking the time to cite her Catholic faith. After being elected as CE, she is on record saying that she ran for the city’s top job in response to a call from God.
It does not seem like Carrie Lam is now commanded by God the almighty in heaven, but rather by some almighty power based in Beijing.
Anyway, we can get a fair idea of how religion is faring under the CCP and Xi Jinping from media:
According to The National Review demanding psychological submission to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), teachers in China are feeding school-age children intensely anti-Christian propaganda, building on new Regulations on Religious Affairs that ban anyone under the age of 18 from entering a church.
Bitter Winter, an Italy-based publication reporting on Chinese persecution of religious groups, published anonymous accounts of children returning home from school and chastising parents for their faith. Their kids are told that Christianity is a “xie jiao” (Chinese for “cult”) and that if they love their parents, they will warn them not to participate.
The Bitter Winter organisation publishes a magazine of religious liberty and human rights in China and is considered a reputable source. A follower of the Three-Self churches revealed in September 2019 that some branches of their church had been shut down for not implementing the government’s demand to replace the Ten Commandments with the president’s quotes. Some congregations were threatened with blacklisting by the government, meaning that member's travels would be restricted and schooling and future employment of their offspring would be impeded if they refused to overhaul their churches according to the current national policies. Apparently officials claimed that disobeying the orders meant opposition to the Communist Party.
The Lowy Institute reported in October 2019, the tensions between the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the so-called underground Catholics who remain loyal to the Vatican. Under “sinicisation”, there has been an increase in church demolitions, often using obscure property and planning laws to justify the action; extensive provincial programs of cross removal from churches; minors have been prevented from worshipping, triggering a ban on bible classes and summer camps; clerics are regularly detained by authorities or prevented from participating in religious festivals; and online sales of the bible and other Christian books have been forbidden.
Religious persecution in China, especially of Christians, has increased greatly, according to a U.S. government report issued in 2019. The “intensity” of persecution, which, the report states, has not been seen "since the Cultural Revolution," was linked to the Vatican signing a secret deal with the Chinese communist government to give the government power over the country’s Catholic Church.
China’s ongoing battle against religion even went online last year with the removal of Bibles from the country’s biggest e-commerce platforms, such as Taobao. It was all part of the crackdown across the country and across religions. While the systematic ethnic and religious persecution of China’s Uighur population in Xinjiang grabbed headlines globally, China is also targeting Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, Jews and those who follow China’s folk religions with greater government scrutiny more now than it has in several decades.
Unsurprisingly video content explaining the ban on Christmas celebration in mainland China went viral on YouTube (see blow).
According to The Guardian, in the northern city of Langfang in Hebei province, city officials ordered all Christmas decorations to be cleared and forbade shops from selling Christmas-themed goods. Officials said the measure was aimed at “maintaining stability” and controlling street hawkers.
In Changsha, in central Hunan province, the education bureau last week issued a directive to schools not to celebrate “western festivals” such as Christmas, including putting up decorations, posting related messages or exchanging gifts. At least four Chinese cities and one county have issued a ban on Christmas decorations, according to Associated Press.
30 December 2019, was a day when most people who live in the free world were busy planning ahead and getting ready for New Year’s Eve celebrations. But for China’s outspoken Wang Yi, the founding pastor of China’s most famous unofficial house church, the Early Rain Covenant Church, there was no such celebration. After being detained by Chinese authorities for more than a year without an actual charge, in a closed-door legal proceeding Wang was sentenced to nine years in prison for trumped up convictions of “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegal business activities.”
In the region of Xinjiang, upwards of 3 million Muslim Uighurs have been sent to “counter-terrorism” or “re-education” camps, where they are tortured into renouncing their religion and forced to recite state propaganda. Their freedom of movement has also been severely limited by the confiscation of passports in addition to the collection of DNA samples, fingerprints, and other biometric data. Documents leaked to the BBC in November 2019 detailed for the first time China's systematic brainwashing over three years of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in a network of high-security prison camps.
SCMP reported that in the far western region of Xinjiang, over 1 million Uygurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities have reportedly been held in internment camps and forced to denounce Islam and pledge loyalty to the party. Expressions and observance of Islam, ethnic customs and culture have also been curbed or discouraged in what some critics called a “cultural cleansing” of the Uygur minority.
RESPONSE TO THE XINJIANG OUTRAGE
At the United Nations there is a dividing line between defenders and critics of the Chinese state’s actions in Xinjiang. At the end of October 2019, 23 countries including France, the UK and the US denounced the repression of the Uighurs at the UN Committee on Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs. Nevertheless, Beijing won the support of 54 countries, who praised the Communist Party’s management of Xinjiang. A good number of these countries dare not offend the CCP.
A similar thing happened in July 2019: 22 states called on China to put a stop to arbitrary detention in the province. Then 37 countries rushed to Beijing’s defence, praising its “remarkable achievements in the field of human rights”. Amongst them were 14 members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, the UAE, Qatar and Algeria.
By contrast, in 2017, the OIC responded very differently to the Myanmar military’s crackdown on the country’s Rohingyas. Many Muslim countries – including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey – rallied to the defence of the Muslim minority group in Myanmar. Indeed, the OIC took an active role in condemning the treatment of the Rohingyas at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Let me stop here: I have not even begun to consider the plight of Tibet.
The Chinese Constitution is deliberately vague when it comes to the scope of religious freedom. Under Article 36, citizens rightfully “enjoy freedom of religious belief” provided that they practice “normal religious activities.” The term “normal,” however, is ambiguous and leaves room for broad interpretation. In practice, the CCP has exploited this leeway to implement extreme measures of control and attack religious communities threatening its power.
President Xi Jinping's policy regarding of "sinicization" of religion is about harnessing religion in China to maintain social control for the party's own political and financial ends. It clearly reflects an intolerance of cultural and religious difference.
Despite the crackdown on religion in Mainland China, some religions and churches are still growing.
AN INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE TO ANY CCP OUTRAGE IN HK
Based on knowledge that so many nations are economically or financially tied to China, Hongkongers should expect that some leaders will choose to stay silent, despite justified outrage over the NPC implementation of National Security laws in HK, the Coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing breaches of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and numerous other international crimes.
Looking ahead there's a whole list of things that the people of HK need and want, and another growing list of things that no respectable citizen of the SAR would wish upon either the city, its inhabitants or the companies that do their business here.
Good governance and public consultation is about establishing priorities, working out feasibility and making plans. WTPOHK have for some time seen the value in carrying out a public referendum in HK to truly let the people have their say. A referendum which is then acted upon can negate the anticipatory breach of the Joint Declaration by China and leaves it with no effect. In that case, the Joint Declaration can continue in principle ‘as amended’. Endorsing the referendum which is then acted upon would be the proper reaction of the British and Chinese governments as it would right the wrongs done in the SAR, and correct and nullify the breach of the legal treaty. We have even suggested how the referendum could be shaped to meet current needs.
When the people of HK take control of its Legislative Council and are able to elect the CE of their own choosing, then through good governance the city will have a greater chance of securing prosperity and stability - of becoming a place without religious persecution, but with greater tolerance for cultural diversity.
In the meantime can our lawmakers and legal people sort out some rather important human rights matters that impact people of all religious persuasions?
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a wide range of treaties such as ICCPR, ICESCR, CERD, CAT, CRC and others apply in HK. What is needed is to ensure that all HK legislation, policies and practices are in FULL COMPLIANCE with these treaty obligations.
The most important treaty to start with for full compliance is the ICCPR which HK has signed and ratified. Under the ICCPR all states must fully comply with the entire ICCPR - of course HK does not! ICCPR Article 5:
"1. Nothing in the present Covenant may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms recognized herein or at their limitation to a greater extent than is provided for in the present Covenant.
2. There shall be no restriction upon or derogation from any of the fundamental human rights recognized or existing in any State Party to the present Covenant pursuant to law, conventions, regulations or custom on the pretext that the present Covenant does not recognize such rights or that it recognizes them to a lesser extent."
Below are the aspects of the ICCPR that we consider require attention:
(i) Missing from ICCPR's local legislation the HK Bill of Rights Ordinance are Articles 1 and 20. These missing articles must be added into HK legislation, policies and practices.
Article 1 (bold format added)
"1. All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development."
2. All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic co-operation, based upon the principle of mutual benefit, and international law. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.
3. The States Parties to the present Covenant, including those having responsibility for the administration of Non-Self-Governing and Trust Territories, shall promote the realization of the right of self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations."
1. Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.
2. Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.
We note that HK currently has published substantial racial hatred in Chinese language media against mostly South Asians from newspapers, politicians, police and others.
(ii) All laws, policies and practices must be in compliance with ICCPR.
For example, Since Occupy movement in 2014 the HK government's Justice Department has repeatedly charged anyone they consider to be "protesters" under outdated colonial era HK legislation "Public Order Ordinance" (POO) which does NOT comply with ICCPR. Under the Declaration of Human Rights we have civil liberties including our human rights to peaceful protest, freedom of speech, freedom of association, etc.
ICCPR Article 21
"The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."
ICCPR Article 18
1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
3. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
Note that ICCPR Article 18 uses the term "everyone" which also includes children. It is the parents' right to choose the type of education for their children including instructions in religious beliefs. This is important because the CE has already pledged her wish to 'overhaul' the HK education system, starting with its Liberal Studies curriculum.
WTPOHK also note:
UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) supports a child's education including their families beliefs and those of the child.
CRC Article 14
"1. States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
2. States Parties shall respect the rights and duties of the parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.
3. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others."
Children have the most difficult time of all humans in HK. This is because they are not legally covered under broad human rights laws as children are in other countries. HK has so far NO legislation, provided no policy nor pactices specific for children under it's treaty obligations in the CRC. Sadly this means that children will continue to suffer the most.
The key problem with mainland China is that under CCP, despite signing the ICCPR it has not ratified it. Therefore in China the ICCPR does not apply. The rights the convention outlines are not even on the radar of most Chinese citizens. However, the broad international understanding is that if a treaty is signed then at least local legislation, laws and practice, should not be in conflict with ICCPR.
CCP being CCP could not care less about the rule OF law.
Therefore, HK can expect religious persecution should CCP under Xi Jinping ever take full control of the SAR.
How Hong Kong's National Security Legislation may affect the church, HKFP, 5 June 2020, Tony Read.
On Tibet...Read this blog on religious leader Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima
August 2019: (above) Hui Muslim protesters forced local authorities to delay their plans to demolish the newly built Weizhou Grand Mosque, in the Ningxia Hui region.
New law won't impact church freedoms: Cardinal Tong, 24 June 2020, RTHK
"I personally believe that the National Security Law will have no effect on religious freedom, because Article 32 of the Basic Law guarantees that we have freedom of religion, and we can also openly preach and hold religious ceremonies, and participate in religious activities," he said.
Tong said he believes the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong wouldn't be considered as one of those who colludes with foreign forces due to its links to the Vatican.