■ God or the Communist Party – who is more powerful?
At a table at the Star Ferry pier in Tsim Sha Tsui, people are handing bags to visitors from the mainland.
They do not contain free tickets to Disneyland or discount coupons to buy watches and jewelry but texts in simplified Chinese from the Bible.
On the bag is written, in Chinese and English, “Jesus loves you”.
It is one of many examples of the dramatic differences between Hong Kong and the mainland that is especially striking at Christmas.
Churches all over the city hold Christmas services, sing carols on the streets and make charity visits to the sick and elderly.
The department stores are full of the sound of religious music.
Hong Kong has an estimated 870,000 Christians, of whom about 500,000 are Protestant and the rest Catholic.
|As the number of Christians in mainland China burgeons, a
study last year showed more than 18 million mentions of
Jesus on Weibo versus only four million of President Xi
Jinping. Photo: internet
The churches are actively engaged in all areas of society, running schools, hospitals, welfare institutions and publishing houses, and their members are active in politics and civil society.
They are an essential part of Hong Kong life.
What a different story over the border.
There the churches can only operate within the walls of their buildings; they can hold services and Bible classes and engage in social services, but only on their own premises.
They cannot run schools, hospitals, orphanages or welfare institutions.
The media is banned from reporting on their activities, good or bad, and there is no mention of religion in the school curriculum.
So, if you are not a believer yourself, you have no reason to know that Christianity exists in China.
This stems from the communist belief that religion is “subversive”, with Christianity especially suspect since it came from the West and may be used by “foreign anti-China forces” to overthrow the government.
Since 1978, the Christians of China have enjoyed a greater degree of religious freedom than during the three decades of Maoist rule.
But they are still regarded with suspicion, must keep a low profile and not be involved in political or social affairs.
Over the last 18 months, the government of Zhejiang province has demolished several large churches and 1,500 crosses and detained more than 20 ministers, church workers and legal counsel for over two months in Wenzhou.
The city is known as the “Jerusalem of China”, because 15 per cent of its 15 million people are believers, the highest proportion in China.
“This campaign must be understood in the context of the Xi Jinping government’s tightening control of ideology,” said a Wenzhou pastor who declined to be named.
“The authorities see Christianity as something outside their authoritarian sphere and an imperialist legacy …
“[Christians are] one of five categories of citizens whom the government deems a threat to the security of the regime, along with rights lawyers, dissidents, internet opinion leaders and disadvantaged social groups.”
The Christians of Hong Kong cannot be indifferent to this persecution.
The Bible instructs them to spread the good news of the Gospel and help their fellow believers.
So Hong Kong has become the world center to evangelize China.
Mainland pastors come here to acquire religious learning and attend classes not available to them at home.
Many believers go from Hong Kong to give classes and assist their brothers and sisters in the mainland.
In July, Reverend Philip Woo, leader of the Christian Church of Chinese Ministry, was summoned to Shenzhen and ordered by officials of the State Administration of Religious Affairs to stop posting online messages calling on mainland Christians to come to Hong Kong for training.
Woo said Hong Kong churches had been told to check the identities of all worshippers and that mainlanders should not be allowed to take part in church services.
“We have organized activities for mainland Christians every year and never had any problems,” he said.
The increasing intolerance of Beijing may be due to the rise in the number of mainland Christians.
Government figures show there are about 25 million Protestants in the official church – but unofficial estimates say there are as many as twice that in “family” churches, which are unregistered.
Foreign specialists estimate that, by 2030, China will overtake the United States as the country in the world with the most Protestants.
The needs of this growing congregation are enormous, in terms of money, materials and religious instruction.
Hong Kong is the most important place in the world willing and able to supply these needs.
The question is how much Beijing will tolerate — and whether and when it will begin to interfere with the churches in Hong Kong to prevent what it regards as this foreign interference.
God or the Communist Party of China – who is more powerful?
A Hong Kong-based journalist and author. He had worked as a correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Beijing and Shanghai.