In mainland China and Hong Kong, Easter was a private affair again this year for the tens of millions of Christians who would normally attend church services. All churches, temples, and mosques in mainland China have been locked down since COVID began more than two years ago, meaning that Christians and other believers haven’t been able to gather to celebrate religious holidays since 2019.
Hong Kong authorities also re-imposed pandemic lockdowns from early January until this week amid China’s worst COVID outbreak in two years. Many of Hong Kong’s Christian churches offered online Easter services that parishioners and other believers could watch virtually. Still, the future of those alternatives is now in doubt as Beijing continues to tighten its grip over the once semi-autonomous city.
Under President Xi Jinping, all religions have faced persecution. So far, international condemnation has mainly focused on the more than 1 million Uyghur Muslims forced into labor camps, which Beijing cynically calls “vocational training centers” in the country’s western region.
But Chinese Christians also have faced varied forms of suppression during Xi’s time in power. Catholic churches refusing to comply with state mandates have been torn down or had their crosses removed, while images of Christ have been replaced with posters of Xi.
The Chinese government controls religious organizations by forcing them to register and submit to the leadership of approved “patriotic religious entities” that follow national guidelines, including teaching that loyalty to the country and communism are integral to their faiths. Those who refuse must operate underground, subject to government punishment.
For several years, the Christian church in Hong Kong was largely spared. But recent actions taken against Hong Kong’s Christian churches are chipping away at the religious freedom the city has enjoyed since the British established it as a colony in the early 1840s.
Reverend L., a visitor to the U.S. from Hong Kong who requested anonymity to speak to RealClearPolitics, said the Chinese government for more than 20 years has been trying to infiltrate and curtail the independence of Hong Kong churches because of their integral place in the city’s society and influence over young minds.
Roughly 60% of schools in Hong Kong are run by Christians – Catholics and Protestants – even though the government fully funds them, a vestige of the British colonial era.
“It was great because Hong Kong citizens could avoid the high tuition fees [for high-quality education], but now it’s actually bad for the church because the CCP is taking advantage of that and tries to control the church by controlling Christian schools,” Rev. L. told RCP. “Once they control Christian schools, they could basically control the church pretty easily.”
The CCP has already successfully compromised some of the principals and administrators of these schools by “wining and dining” them, the pastor said, and persuading church members to join the CCP. Meanwhile, the party is indoctrinating young priests in the Philippines and sending them to Hong Kong to replace aging clergy.
The Hong Kong government is also starting to take steps to curtail Internet freedom. On the mainland, a new law, imposed March 1, makes it illegal to share religious content online without government permission. While Hong Kong authorities haven’t gone that far, its leaders did shut down a handful of websites across the territory devoted to the 2019 citizen uprising against new laws ceding more of their autonomy to Beijing.
Tom Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, based in Washington, D.C., said Xi’s ultimate goal is “Sinicization,” which is the absorption of any autonomous Chinese entities – in this case, religious organizations – into the communist apparatus.
“The reasons are not difficult to discern,” Farr tells RCP. “Despots throughout history, and certainly the totalitarians of the 20th and 21st centuries, have understood then, and understand today, that they will not retain power if substantial numbers of their citizens are faithful to an authority greater than the party and the state.”
Great Britain handed control of Hong Kong back to China nearly 25 years ago, triggering a massive emigration as residents feared an erosion of civil rights. China agreed to accept some conditions, including allowing Hong Kong to continue its “one-country, two systems” form of government for 50 years. Hong Kong, along with Taiwan, maintains its own financial, legal, and legislative operations independent from the mainland. But Xi has vowed to reunify both Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Xi and the CCP view Christians’ strong institutional presence in Hong Kong as a significant hurdle to their goal of reunification. China’s Christians number more than 100 million (out of a population of 1.4 billion), making them the country’s largest religious minority. In Hong Kong, Rev. L. estimates there are approximately 650,000 Christians out of a population of 7.4 million. Despite their minority status, Christians have played an outsized role in resisting the CCP’s reunification efforts.
Christians were instrumental in helping organize the 2019 uprising, when millions of Hong Kong residents took to the streets to protest a proposed extradition law allowing Chinese leaders to arrest dissidents and hand them over to mainland government officials for prosecution. Moreover, many of the protesters attended Christian schools. Pastors and priests also held prayer vigils outside the legislature’s offices and often stood between protesters and police to prevent violent clashes. The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Christian Council, along with leaders from the leading Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist organizations, openly called for the government to respect the rights of citizens to march and assemble legally.
As Hong Kong police escalated the use of force against protesters, Roy Chan, a local preacher, began a hunger strike to call for withdrawal of the extradition bill, among other pro-democracy goals. When police didn’t tamp down the violence, Chan organized a team of pastors, social workers, and other volunteers to stand between advancing riot police and protesters in an attempt to mediate.
In the wake of the protests, China passed a wide-ranging “national security law” for Hong Kong that makes it easier to punish protesters and reduces the city’s autonomy. The law criminalizes any act of subversion, secession, collusion with foreign or external forces, and terrorism, defined as the use of violence or intimidation against people.
Jimmy Lai, a Hong Kong billionaire who owns an opposition newspaper, was prosecuted under the new law and is currently serving a 14-month jail sentence for unauthorized assembly for his role in the 2019 protests.
Christian clergy faced less straightforward but still severe punishments for their involvement in the protests. In October, Chan testified to Congress that HSBC, the largest bank in Hong Kong, in 2020 had frozen his accounts and his wife’s, on order from the Hong Kong government. The couple and their children fled to the United Kingdom to escape prosecution.
The day after their departure, Hong Kong police accused the couple of money laundering and fraud and arrested the church’s accounting staff.
“It’s a pity that the Hong Kong government has acted similarly to the Chinese Communist party, using economic crimes to suppress dissidents,” Chan told the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan caucus within the House of Representatives created to promote and defend human rights around the globe.
“As of today, the religious freedom in Hong Kong is being suppressed severely,” Chan added. “Quite a number of pastors who support human rights and freedoms are moving to the UK from Hong Kong due to intimidations that they faced and different political concerns.”
Religious freedom advocates in the U.S. have also recently sounded the alarm over a meeting, held at Beijing’s insistence, between Hong Kong’s Bishop-elect Stephen Chow and 15 senior Catholic priests with the mainland’s state-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
Nina Shea, senior fellow and director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, in a recent essay called the session “unprecedented,” recounting that while Chinese government officials watched on Zoom, the Hong Kong bishop and priests “were lectured on the fine points of President Xi’s religious policy of ‘Sinicization.’”
“While no directives were issued, priests knowledgeable about the unprecedented conclave reported that Xi was the elephant in the room” and viewed it as “just the first step in what the CCP calls their ‘reeducation,’” Shea wrote. “The clear takeaway was that Hong Kong’s churches, historically independent of the CCP, are having their wings clipped.”
In January, Tak Kung Pao, the Chinese government’s newspaper in Hong Kong, published several articles “angrily blaming the Christian schools for nurturing the movement against the party’s oppressive measures,” Shea noted, adding that all Hong Kong schools are legally required to provide the CCP’s “national security education” with more drastic educational changes “sure to follow.”
Some religious freedom advocates are placing partial blame for Beijing’s encroachment on the Vatican for not resisting China more vigorously. Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, hails from Argentina, which has a strong socialist government and has struck deals with Beijing that legitimize the “patriotic church.”
In 2020, Francis agreed with Beijing that in exchange for China formally recognizing the pope’s authority within the church, the Vatican, in turn, would acquiesce to the legitimacy of bishops Beijing had previously appointed. To the dismay of critics, details of the agreement remain largely confidential. (Francis has also refused to meet with the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, a move that would anger Beijing.)
Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to the Vatican in an attempt to sink the deal over human rights and religious liberty concerns but was unsuccessful. The pope lifted an ex-communication of Chinese Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu just two years earlier as a precondition for a prior agreement. After his appointment to head the Mindong diocese, he led 33 diocesan priests to a “formation course” at the Central Institute of Socialism with the CCP’s local United Front, which mainly focuses on suppressing ethnic and religious groups.
Francis’ negotiations with the CCP stand in stark contrast with Pope John Paul II, a former bishop from Poland whose steadfastness helped do away with the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s. Through a series of speeches, John Paul II expressed moral umbrage at the Soviet Union’s efforts to wipe out religion and replace it with state atheism.
When Pope Francis is working with the CCP, it becomes “very, very difficult for priests in Hong Kong to voice any opposition against registration with the government because it sounds like Pope Francis has given implicit approval,” Rev. L. said.
Dissent from Cardinal Joseph Zen, Hong Kong’s widely revered bishop emeritus, prompted CCP threats earlier this year. Ta Kung Pao accused him of abusing his position to “disrupt Hong Kong” and threatened him with prosecution under the national security law.
With Beijing appearing increasingly emboldened, religious freedom advocates in the U.S. are urging the Biden administration and other international leaders to pressure Xi to stop threatening the church’s independence in Hong Kong.
Instead, Farr said, China is seeing weakness in the U.S. and complicity on the part of the Vatican.
“While the Vatican is not a ‘great power’ like the U.S., it has traditionally been the most effective and powerful moral voice in the international community,” he said. “Unfortunately, its facilitation of the savage designs of Xi Jinping, in the form of its disgraceful accord with his regime and its failure to stand with courageous Catholics like Jimmy Lai and Cardinal Zen, has dramatically reduced the Vatican’s moral influence in the world.”
And, Farr warns, Xi’s ambitions could easily spill over to Taiwan if China decides to emulate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
“This is a dangerous moment for democracy, religious freedom, and peace in China and the region,” he said. “American weakness is a serious problem.”
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.