The third of my China series on Political Theology Today is now up – a revised version of the article on the Hong Kong Protests and Christianity in China.

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Christianity is the real loser in the Hong Kong protests of the last few months. It has become clear that some Christian groups continue to be at the forefront in organising and supporting the protests. The groups are mostly of a Protestant evangelical variety, but they include some Roman Catholic leaders. Others are opposed, producing sharp divisions within the churches. But those who foster the protests have also been providing a dimension of the theoretical justification for the protests, especially through biblical interpretation. This is not a recent development. These groups have been active since the restitution of a stolen Hong Kong to China in 1997. Over almost two decades they have engaged in low-level protests, brought in outside advisors, engaged in extensive organisational efforts to link the various organisations, and sought to develop a theological framework for their efforts.

Their efforts have been detrimental to Christianity, particularly in a Chinese situation. There are three main reasons.

Colonial Christianity

The Hong Kong protests have confirmed the connection between Christianity and colonialism. In Chinese collective memory, Christianity is primarily seen as a colonial ideology (yang jiao). It is associated with the humiliation of China in the nineteenth century, at the hands of European colonial powers. The gunboats of the British Empire, which imposed a semi-colonial status on China, also carried with them Christian missionaries. The opium wars, the destruction of the summer palace in Beijing, the imposition of unfavourable conditions, and the religious ideology of a foreign empire – these and more became signals of that humiliation.

Some missionaries did much good, seeking to understand China, to introduce its culture and history to Europeans, and undertaking translations of classical Chinese texts. Yet most were seen as ideological agents of British colonialism.

This memory has overlaid other and more beneficial dimensions of Christianity. Thus, the efforts by Matteo Ricci in the sixteenth century have been eclipsed. His efforts to develop a form of Roman Catholic Christianity – ‘with Chinese characteristics’ – no longer determine the perception of Christianity. Further, very few are aware of the development of a Chinese Christian materialism. In the early decades of the twentieth century, a number of leading Chinese Christians – W. T. Wu, W. T. Chu and Wu Leichuan – sought to engage with Marxism. They developed unique formulations that were specifically concerned with a Chinese situation. Forgotten too is the significant assistance given to the Red Army during the Long March (1934-1935) by Christian groups.

Instead, the colonial connection dominates Chinese perceptions. And the Hong Kong protestors have reinforced that impression. The active support of the protests by the UK and the USA – by means of statements and the presence of personnel to advise and assist the protestors – makes that impression difficult to deny.

Threat to Social Harmony

A central plank of Chinese government policy is a harmonious society. It may not aspire to the near utopian Confucian image of the Datong, the Great Harmony in which social strife gives way to a harmonious mediation between opposites. But the government has expressed quite clearly the desire for xiaokang, the less ambitious aim of general prosperity, peace and relative harmony. Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese dream’ is a more recent development of this theme.

Recent statements concerning the different religions in China have emphasised this desire for harmony. The China Committee on Religion and Peace regularly encourages religious leaders and believers to contribute to ‘building a moderately prosperous society in all respects’. This entails both religious freedom in accordance with Chinese law, and guiding religious groups to adapt to a socialist society. Tellingly, this policy also explicitly seeks to withstand ‘the infiltration of overseas-based hostile forces that make use of religion’.

Christianity and Liberal Democracy

Above all, the Hong Kong protests have cemented the perceived connection between some forms of Christianity and liberal (or bourgeois) democracy. A key slogan of the protests is ‘one person, one vote’, which sounds innocent enough. They also demand no restrictions on the candidates for elections in Hong Kong. Again, that sounds to an outside observer reasonable enough.

The catch is that most Chinese are not interested in liberal or bourgeois democracy. Again and again, I hear from people in China that they have seen how liberal democracy works, with its in-built corruption, its advertising campaigns, its policy inertia, its blocking out of real alternatives, and its significant restrictions as to who may vote. Thus, when President Xi Jinping says that liberal democracy is not appropriate for Chinese conditions, he is expressing a generally held opinion and not some evil desire by the Communist Party to retain its hold on the reins of power. China has tried various approaches, he points out: ‘Constitutional monarchy, imperial restoration, parliamentarism, a multi-party system and a presidential system, we considered them, tried them, but none worked’. And if they were to try liberal democracy, it would lead to chaos and catastrophe. Instead, what works in China is the long tradition of socialist democracy.

As Suzanne Ogden points out in her study of Chinese governance, for the Chinese leadership and most Chinese people, ‘the insistence on democratization for all, and right now, has led to a clichéd intoning of the words freedom, human rights, and democracy, which provide ever more ragged clothing for the export of formulaic Western political values throughout the world’.

After the Hong Kong protests, the Chinese government may well view many forms of Christianity with greater suspicion. The connection with Western colonialism, the threat to social harmony, and the linking of Christianity with bourgeois democracy, may well ensure that this is the case. I hope that this is not the case. I hope that research centres and projects on Christianity and the Bible will continue to be funded, that churches will continue to be approved and be built with government funds, and that the Christian churches will continue to explore creative ways to be part of the Chinese project.

So it seems as though the ‘hybrid Color Revolution-Arab Spring’ template is now at work in Hong Kong. No surprises there. Serbia, Ukraine, Venezuela, Egypt, and so on – they have seen variations on the template, in which Washington outsources its interference and attempted ‘regime change’ to NGOs.

As the People’s Daily astutely points out:

According to media reports, Louisa Greve, a director of the National Endowment for Democracy of the US (NED), was already meeting with the key people from “Occupy Central” several months ago, to talk about the movement. Louisa Greve is the vice-president of NED who is responsible for its Asia, Middle East and North Africa programs. For many years, her name has frequently appeared on reports about “Tibetan independence”, “eastern Turkistan”, “democracy movement” and other forces destabilizing Chinese affairs and interfering with the Chinese government. She also hosted or participated in conferences about the “Arab spring” and the “Color Revolutions” of other regions.

It is hardly likely that the US will admit to manipulating the “Occupy Central” movement, just as it will not admit to manipulating other anti-China forces … The US purports to be promoting the “universal values” of “democracy”, “freedom” and “human rights”, but in reality the US is simply defending its own strategic interests and undermining governments it considers to be “insubordinate”. In US logic, a”democratic” country is one that conducts its affairs in line with American interests.

The results of America’s “Color Revolutions” have hardly been a success. The “Arab spring” turned to be an “Arab winter” and Ukraine’s “street politics” have resulted in secession and conflict. There is little evidence of any real democracy in these countries, but the US turns a blind eye.

I must admit, I am pretty much in agreement with that. And just to make matters clear:

The US may enjoy the sweet taste of interfering in other countries’ internal affairs, but on the issue of Hong Kong it stands little chance of overcoming the determination of the Chinese government to maintain stability and prosperity.

In his ‘Lenin and Herrenvolk Democracy’, Losurdo makes an insightful observation on the policy of ex-colonial powers in relation to their former colonies. Hong Kong was, of course, forcefully stolen from China after the first opium war (1839-42), and then ‘returned’ with much reluctance in 1999. Losurdo writes:

Secessionist tendencies of every kind are once again lying in wait, regularly fed by the ex-colonial powers. When it wrested Hong Kong from China, Great Britain certainly did not conceive of self-determination, and it did not remember it [or bourgeois democracy for that matter] even during the long years during which it exercised its dominion. But, suddenly, on the eve of Hong Kong’s return to China, to the motherland, the governor sent by London, Chris Patten, a conservative, had a species of illumination and improvised conversion: he appealed to the inhabitants of Hong Kong to claim their right to “self-determination” against the motherland, thus remaining within the orbit of the British Empire (Lenin Reloaded, p. 249).

You can lay a certain bet that English, and indeed US, influences are at work in Hong Kong at the moment. That said, people in the rest of China say that Hong Kong has become much more Chinese over the last decade or more. That process continues.

Probably something like this, as he said to the wealthy, middle-class students in the 1968 protests in Italy, especially at Valle Giulia:

When yesterday at Hong Kong you and the policemen were throwing blows, I sympathized with the policemen! Because policemen are sons of the poor, they come from urban or rural outskirts.

How does a communist government negotiate its way within global capitalism? It feels each stone on the bed of the stream with its feet before proceeding. Let me give a few examples, drawn from Adrian Chan’s Chinese Marxism. Each of them provides a partial answer as to why China did not suffer any great pain with the Asian Economic Crisis of the late 1990s and now the Atlantic Economic Crisis that began in 2008. (Another part of the answer is, of course, the massive integration of the economy and the government in what some may call a planned economy, but what is perhaps better called a ‘focus-field’ system.)

An indication may be found already back in the early 90s. In 1993, inflation was running at 25%; by 1997 it was 2%. At the same time the economy ‘grew’ by that steady average of 8-9%. How was this managed? Instead of ‘opening’ the economy up to international speculation and competition, China retained control of its currency and the exchange rate, thereby protecting itself from the ravages of the international money market. Even now, the government refuses to make the currency fully convertible – much to the fury of regimes such as the USA. The result is that the state retains fiscal control and yet encourages enterprises, both local and international, to prosper and survive and thereby reduce inflationary pressure.

A similar level of control over the currency took place during the Asian Economic Crisis of the late 1990s. Despite the fact that most of the other currencies in South-East Asia did plummet, and despite the threat of Moody’s to downgrade the credit ratings of China and Hong Kong, the government refused to devalue. Why? One reason put forward was that China was thereby helping the struggling Asian economies to get back on their feet, since their exports were now considerable cheaper. Another reason is that the government was keen to block currency traders and manipulators from attacking its own banks.

Here the successful defence of Hong Kong and China shows how such a policy works. Many Asian countries were attacked by manipulators, forcing the central banks to use their reserves, usually in US dollars, and when they were depleted, to devalue and then be forced to follow the infamous harsh measures of the World Bank and IMF. In August 1997, Hong Kong itself was attacked. China immediately pledged its then considerable reserves of $140 billion (now much higher) to resist. Hong Kong threw in its own $98 billion. The result: after six weeks the attack was called off. The Monetary Authority of Hong Kong, in coalition with the Chinese central bank, had used about $30 billion to defend the Hong Kong dollar. Since that dollar had risen by $0.02, the gain was about $600 million.

Chan concludes: ‘This ability of China’s new socialists to take advantage of the contradictions of the capitalists would probably have been cheered on by Mao’ (p. 200).

I have come across a magnificent piece by Domenico Losurdo, called ‘Lenin and Herrenvolk Democracy’. Here Losurdo deploys Lenin’s critique of colonialism and Western’ democracy’ to devastating effect. Let me pick out some of the more salient points.

To begin with, in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, we find that ‘despotism is a legitimate mode of dealing with barbarians’, for liberty is only for ‘those in the maturity of their faculties’. As for the rest, they are little superior to the animals. (This is precisely the sentiment of Aristotle in relation to ethics and democracy.) In other words, liberal ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are inseparable from oppression and dispossession; one relies on the other to function.

Losurdo moves on to consider a paradox in the heart of today’s beacon of ‘democracy’ and ‘liberty’: liberal democracy developed in the white community in direct relation to the enslaving of blacks and deportation of indigenous peoples. ‘For thirty-two of the first thirty-six years of the United States’ life, slave-owners held the presidency, and they were the ones who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution’. Indeed, one cannot understand ‘American liberty’ without slavery and dispossession, for they grew together, one sustaining the other. As a further example, during the so-called ‘Progressive Age’, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, numerous ‘democratic’ reforms took place: direct election to the Senate, secret vote, primaries, referenda etc. They all took place during a rise in ferocity of the Ku Klux Klan terrorist squads and a push to deprive indigenous people of their residual lands and assimilate them. So also with the treatment of ‘rogues’ or ‘pariahs’ outside the USA (‘rogue’ was originally a term used for slaves, and when one had white semi-slaves, they were branded with an ‘R’ to signify their status): once declared a ‘rogue’ or ‘pariah’ state, the ‘world’s oldest democracy’ (Clinton) and ‘model for the world’ (Bush) can crush these ‘barbarians’ (Mill) in order to bolster ‘freedom and democracy’.

One might also compare Israel, suggests Losurdo, supposedly the only ‘true democracy’ in the Middle East, where ‘freedom of expression and association’ exist. But that can be maintained only by ignoring a macroscopic detail: ‘government by law and democratic guarantees are valid only for the master race, while Palestinians can have their lands expropriated, be arrested and imprisoned without process, tortured, killed, and, in any case under a regime of military occupation, have their human dignity downtrodden and humiliated daily’.

And then in a new twist, when fading colonial powers are losing their grip, they suddenly happen upon self-determination for valuable sections of the former colony (which have themselves been ethnically, culturally and religiously engineered). Thus, when England finally had to give Hong Kong back to China, the last governer, Chris Patten, ‘had a species of illumination and improvised conversion: he appealed to the inhabitants of Hong Kong to claim their right to “self-determination” against the motherland, thereby remaining within the orbit of the British Empire’. One might say the same about claims for Tibet’s independence.

Finally, to what do the oft-repeated and much-vaunted claims for ‘human rights’, ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ amount? Losurdo deploys Cecil Rhodes’s formula for the British Empire, which is still perfectly valid today: ‘philanthropy + 5 per cent’, where ‘philanthropy’ is synomous with ‘human rights’ and 5 per cent the profits to be made by waving the flag of ‘human rights’.

Many of these details are reasonably well-known, but the argument is usually one of hypocrisy: they don’t live up to their ideals. But Losurdo, developing Lenin, has a much sharper point. The very possibility of bourgeois ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ is directly dependent upon, and thereby unthinkable and unworkable without, systemic dispossession of the majority – and vice versa.