Religion News Service: Hong Kong protests and the Chinese fight for religious freedom

Religion News Service
Bob Fu
Brynne Lawrence
November 18, 2019

(RNS) — It all started with a bill.

To the untrained eye, it was innocuous: a proposal that would allow China to bring indicted Hong Kong residents to the mainland for trial. But it drove millions into the streets and has resulted in the deaths of two people. Two others have been shot.

A long history of Chinese human rights abuses drives these protests.

Beginning early in the 1950s, China has conducted decades of anti-religious campaigns, leaving a trail of destroyed churches, mosques and temples and thousands of people behind bars.

In particular, religious persecution has spiked under the rule of current Chinese President Xi Jinping. After taking power in 2013, he ordered religions to conform with new regulations designed to secure allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party.

These restrictions limit who can attend religious events, who can preach and which types of religious venues are allowed to exist.

Because of this, many Chinese Christians choose to attend unofficial churches. Their technical illegality makes them prime targets for the Communist Party, and many of their attendees are arrested and tortured.

Early Rain Covenant Church is a clear example of China’s swelling animosity toward religion. On Dec. 9, 2018, around 100 of the church’s leaders and attendees were taken into police custody. The church’s pastor, Wang Yi, and his wife, Jiang Rong, were among those seized — leaving their child in the care of Wang’s elderly parents.

Both Wang and Jiang vanished.

Ultimately, more than 150 members of the church were arrested that week. While most have been released, a few key leaders, including Wang, are still behind bars. Jiang has been freed on bail and reunited with her son.

This isn’t even the worst of it.

In China’s northwestern Xinjiang region, between 1-3 million people from Turkic minority groups — known as Uighurs — have been rounded up and imprisoned in internment camps. The Chinese government claims they are receiving vocational training.

However, camp survivors have reported starvation, forced labor and torture.

If a child’s parents both have been taken to the camps, then the child is placed in an orphanage and forced to speak Mandarin instead of their native language, effectively erasing their identity.

China alleges this approach curbs extremism among these mostly Muslim people, but many are arrested for non-violent actions, such as posting Quranic verses online. Others simply disappear with no charges provided.

Those not held in the camps are forbidden from leaving the country, with their passports confiscated, and they live in constant fear of the police. Even routine parts of their lives, such as eating halal food, has been forbidden.

Many households are also required to take in a government minder, who watches their every move.

To people living in so much oppression, Hong Kong has seemed free.

For more than two decades, measures guaranteeing that the former British colony would retain its legislative and justice systems until 2047 have been held in place. This shielded the region from experiencing the full scope of China’s injustices and provided a relative safe haven for religious adherents and human rights activists.

Because of this, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam sparked immediate fear and outrage when she introduced the bill earlier this year. After all, if China targeted people in the mainland for their beliefs, what would stop it from reaching into Hong Kong to do the same?

Desperate, Hong Kong locals took to the streets by the millions to protect their rights. First, they demanded the withdrawal of the bill, which Lam granted after the protests continued for weeks.

But a withdrawal wasn’t enough. People living in the region now knew that their government was not interested in protecting their rights. They feared the looming hand of the Chinese government, ready to strangle their freedoms.

So, they drew up five demands, including the resignation of Lam, an investigation of the city’s police force and increased democracy. Now, these demands spearhead their protests.

However, riot police are often dispatched to the protests, equipped with tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds. Two demonstrators have been shot at close range, and an additional two people have died because of the violence.

Protesters offer prayers at the site where student Chow Tsz-Lok fell during a recent protest in Hong Kong, on Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. Chow, a Hong Kong university student who fell off a parking garage after police fired tear gas during clashes with anti-government protesters died Friday, in a rare fatality after five months of unrest, fueling more outrage against authorities in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Upon hearing of the death of the second person, killed by a brick thrown during a clash with police, President Xi urged the city to “end violence and restore order.”

Instead of protecting the legal rights of Hong Kong’s people, however, China has remained firmly on the side of the Hong Kong government. It even has amassed military in Shenzhen, along its border with Hong Kong. This has caused many to worry that China plans to invade the region and squash the protests, much as it did in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago.

The world’s reaction to Hong Kong will be telling.

The region is the last bastion of relative freedom under Communist Party control. The vocal cries of Hong Kong’s residents are the silent cries of the Chinese people, who live under so much control that they are not allowed to speak out.

If the world will not listen to Hong Kong, then what will stop China from continuing its oppression?

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