Hong Kong Protests: A Great Disservice to Christianity in China

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.

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Hong Kong: British imperialism by other means

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.

Cecil Rhodes: The value of imperialism

In 1895 Cecil Rhodes opined as follows:

I was in the East End of London (a working-class quarter) yesterday and attended a meeting of the unemployed. I listened to the wild speeches, which were just a cry for ‘bread! bread!’ and on my way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than ever convinced of the importance of imperialism…. My cherished idea is a solution for the social problem, i.e., in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.

(quoted by Lenin, Collected Works, volume 21, pp. 256-7)

Lenin for today: on liberty, bourgeois democracy and colonialism

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.