God-shaped hole in story on Hong Kong protests

Every now and then, when I a traveling, I discover another layer of torn-out articles for GetReligion review buried deep inside some pocket of my shoulder bag. It's sort of like the analog, portable version of the gigantic digital tmatt "folder of guilt" in my email program that I open up from time to time. You see, there's just so much to write about and so little time. There are religion-news ghosts all over the place.

Consider, for example, that recent Washington Post story about the ongoing tensions between Hong Kong and its rulers on the Chinese mainland. There was no real news hook in this one. Still I appreciated the update, since I was fortunate enough to have attended a journalism conference in Hong Kong during the final days and, literally, hours before the 1997 handover.

As you would expect, I focused -- in my writing for the Scripps Howard News Service -- on ways in which that great city's future unity with the mainland could affect human rights and religious freedom. Click here and especially here, if you wish, to see what I wrote way back then. The key, according to the people I interviewed in Hong Kong, was Article 23 of the Special Administrative Region’s Basic Law, especially the part stating that the city's new leadership:

"... shall enact laws ... to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition (or) subversion against the Central People’s Government, ... to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.”

Of course, to paraphrase a famous statement by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, during the apartheid era, one man's street-corner evangelist is another man's dangerous political activist. Anyone who has studied church-state history at the global level knows that governments often like to say that religion equals politics, when the religious believers in any way clash with the state. That's a formula for conflict in the United States, as well. Ask Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Anyway, I was disappointed -- to say the least -- that the Post team included zero, zilch, nada, religious content in this story. Clearly, the goal of the story is to talk about tensions in Hong Kong about human rights. That's clear, right up front, with its talk about protesters marching in the street waving flags "emblazoned with the British Union Jack."

The number of people parading colonial-era symbols has been minuscule and doesn’t reflect any widespread hankering for a return of British rule. But, after 15 years as part of China, a population that is overwhelmingly Chinese and deeply proud of its Chinese heritage has increasingly come to view the rest of the country as a source of trouble, not pride, that needs to be kept at arm’s length.

Britain’s retreat from Hong Kong in 1997, which turned a “crown colony” into a “special administrative region of China,” marked a singular, triumphal moment in a historical narrative at the heart of the Communist Party’s legitimacy: only the party can “wipe clean the shame” of colonial-era humiliations and fully represent the national aspirations of all Chinese. Beijing used to denounce its critics here and elsewhere as “anti-communist” but now vilifies them as “anti-China,” an insult that turns any challenge to the ruling party into an assault on the Chinese nation.

What does this have to do with religion? That's the question I would like to see addressed.

Why? Check out this crucial paragraph in this long news feature.

Promised a “high-degree of autonomy” by Beijing under a formula known as “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong still largely runs its own affairs, with the exception of defense and foreign relations. Despite growing complaints of self-censorship by journalists, Hong Kong retains a boisterous free press and has developed a booming niche publishing industry that churns out books and magazines on Chinese politics, largely for sale to visiting mainlanders who don’t believe China’s tightly controlled official media.

So things are going fine, except for those issues linked to "defense and foreign relations."

Thinking back to 1997, that leads me to ask this question: When it comes to "foreign relations," are the Chinese authorities starting to get entangled in relations between, let's, Catholics and the hierarchy in Rome? There are plenty of reasons -- millions and millions of them -- for Chinese Catholics to worry on that front. And when it comes to self-censorship, how are Hong Kong's other religious leaders doing these days?

The bottom line: Find me a land in which journalists are worrying about freedom of the press and I will find you a land in which religious believers have good cause to worry about religious freedom. The equation works the other way around, too (and more journalists need to ponder that).

So what's the state of religious liberty in Hong Kong? Are any of those flag-waving protesters concerned about that? I'd like to know, how about you?

IMAGE: Inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Hong Kong.

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