New York Times: I Won’t Make Jesus Bow Down to Xi Jinping

The New York Times
By Derek Lam

Aug. 23, 2017

HONG KONG — Since I was 16 years old, I have wanted to be a pastor. I was raised in a Christian family in Hong Kong that urged me to live by biblical principles. I was taught to love my neighbor as myself and that all human beings are created in the image of God.

Those teachings about love and equality are what inspired me to study theology at Chinese University of Hong Kong. They have also informed my democratic activism for the past six years — and it is for that reason that I am likely to be jailed next month and that I will be barred from ever becoming a pastor.

Derek Lam, second from right, marches in
Hong Kong on Sunday to protest the jailing of
Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Cho.
Isaac Lawrence/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

My personal plight is inconsequential, but it aptly illustrates how the freedoms granted under “One Country, Two Systems” are being dismantled by the Chinese Communist Party. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, Beijing is encroaching not only on Hong Kong’s political freedoms but also on the most personal ones, such as religious beliefs, as part of a larger strategy to shut down any kind of organizing outside of the party.

According to Hong Kong’s Basic Law, we have myriad freedoms. Article 27 grants city residents “freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration.” Article 32 grants us “freedom of conscience” and “freedom of religious belief and freedom to preach and to conduct and participate in religious activities in public.”

Hong Kong’s Basic Law insists that these rights are “inviolable.” But the reality is quite different. Just last week, my friends Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow were imprisoned for peaceful protests we organized in 2014. Never mind that they had already served their sentences. Never mind that the charge — “unlawful assembly” — was spurious.

Increasingly, we are also unable to express our faith freely. This year in particular saw an unprecedented erosion of religious freedom in Hong Kong, especially for Christians.

Every summer, Hong Kong’s Christians organize youth camps in which thousands of teenagers gather to have fun, dance to Christian rock and learn about Christian values. During the last evening of one of this summer’s camps, the leaders of the camp told the campers that “God would make China prosperous” and that Xi Jinping’s pet infrastructure project known as “One Belt, One Road” was “the path that God had prepared.” The organizers of the camp then had the audacity to claim that “One Belt, One Road” would help spread the gospel.

This perverse co-opting of Christianity is consistent with what I have witnessed myself.

In 2011, when I was 17, I spent the year founding and organizing a student organization called Scholarism along with Joshua Wong, now Hong Kong’s most well-known political activist. That year, our government had announced a plan to overhaul the curriculum to what amounted to a mandatory course in nationalistic brainwashing. Scholarism helped mobilize protests and the “patriotic” curriculum was scrapped.

That summer I attended one of the city’s biggest Christian youth camps. I was eager to share my democratic views with my fellow campers, but instead I witnessed young people being encouraged to proudly declare themselves as Chinese, waving the Chinese Communist Party’s flag, singing the national anthem and praising the “motherland.”

The tension between the Chinese leadership in a country that is officially atheist and its Christians runs deep. Millions of Christians on the mainland attend underground churches, which have largely been tolerated so long as they stay quiet and relatively small. But in the past few years, things have boiled over. Beginning in 2014, the government of Zhejiang Province began a policy of removing crucifixes from the top of churches. The policy soon evolved to razing churches to the ground. The only way for Chinese Christians to protest was to sit silently while their churches were torn down.

Hong Kong’s new bishop, Michael Yeung Ming-cheung, clearly sees which way the political winds are blowing. During a news conference on Aug. 1, his first day as bishop, he emphasized several times how important pragmatism was to him, saying, “We should not rush into a wall if we already know that the wall is solid.” And instead of expressing his concern for the members of the demolished churches in Zhejiang Province, he toed the party line and claimed the churches were bulldozed because of “structural safety concerns.”

In rural Henan Province last year a pastor and his wife tried to stop the destruction of their church and were buried alive. But for the bishop of Hong Kong, the case was not about human rights but about illegally built structures. “If it wasn’t against safety regulations, of course we wouldn’t allow crosses to be taken down. But if they are considered as illegal structures, I can’t say that churches can be dominant” over the law, he said at the news conference. It has become abundantly clear that the bishop of Hong Kong, despite being appointed by Pope Francis, looks to Xi Jinping for his spiritual guidance.

Of Hong Kong’s six major religions, five are already firmly under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. Judging by recent events, the party is very close to completing its mission of bringing Christianity under its thumb.

Although there is nothing I would love more than to become a pastor and preach the gospel in Hong Kong, I will never do so if it means making Jesus subservient to Xi Jinping. Instead, I will continue to fight for religious freedom in Hong Kong, even if I have to do it from behind bars.

What I ask of you is to keep Hong Kong in your prayers as we seek to find light amid the sea of darkness descending upon us.

Derek Lam is a member of the democratic political party Demosisto and is studying theology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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