While details of the outworking of the proposed national security bill have not yet been announced, many sectors of Hong Kong society are already beginning to express concern about its potential impact.
At first sight, it might seem that there should be little expected impact on the operation of Christian churches, since freedom of religion and freedom to publicly practice and preach are already protected by the Basic Law under Articles 32 and 141.
However, the overall impact on the delicate balance of Hong Kong’s autonomy is still to be realised, and there are uncertainties about the changes it will create in societal norms and expectations.
At the moment churches are afforded a wide range of influence and operational scope both in the freedom of belief and expression within their assembly and within society at large. It is assumed that this will continue under ‘one country two systems’ but the proposed new law does pose some immediate political challenges that could lead to future potential restrictions.
The first potential challenge concerns the protest movement itself. It has been well documented that both the 2014 Occupy Central action and the current protest movement arising out of the now withdrawn extradition bill have been well supported by a significant number of young Christians.
Furthermore, there have been a number of theological arguments put forward to support such action.
In general most churches and denominations have not been outwardly supportive of the protest movement in name because most congregations contain Christians holding a wide range of different political opinions.
However those churches that outwardly support such action or have been seen as providing pastoral support to more radical protesters could come under scrutiny by the widely announced activity of mainland security agents.
Attempts have already been made by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) controlled Hong Kong media to question and vilify the actions of some churches that remained open to provide prayer, rest and relief for protesters during the earlier demonstrations.
It is also known that mainland agents have warned churches about participating in the protests, with implied threats about the future of their mainland compatriots. It can be seen that such concerns are fully justified and expected to increase.
Since in general China considers that all Christians in Hong Kong are supportive of greater democracy, and therefore represent a threat to its attempts to bolster a stronger pro-establishment sentiment, we should also expect that there will be attempts to influence church leaders to join the present chorus of support for the national security law, and be more vocal in supporting government policy.
The second challenge comes from the proposed law’s concern with foreign interference and influence. There have already been attempts by both the Hong Kong government and its mainland support agencies to provide a strong link between the protest movement and terrorist-inspired radicals who might in turn be encouraged and supported by foreign influence.
Such links have yet to be established in a court of law but it would no doubt be the job of security agents to seek out and uncover them.
Given the already established connection between Hong Kong Christians and the protest movement, and China’s perception of Christianity as a “western imperialist religion”, it would not be surprising if Hong Kong churches also came under scrutiny for connections with foreign organisations that support anti-China sentiment.
The greatest uncertainty about the proposed bill seems to be in its scope of operations. The fact that Beijing has said that it is still necessary for Hong Kong to pass its own national security bill — presumably focused on activities specifically within the HKSAR — suggests that the scope of the presently proposed national law will cover the activities of all people, including Hong Kong citizens, which might be perceived as also harming the greater objectives of the CCP within mainland China.
While the stated aim of the proposed new national security law is reported as being targeted at a “small number of people” who might try to harm national security by “organising or carrying out terrorist activities,” it also seems to target “subversion” without any detailed definition of what that might mean.
This presents a third challenge for Hong Kong churches and Christians, in that Beijing’s recent record of control and suppression of churches in mainland China does not bode well for Hong Kong. What would be considered as normal Christian community in Hong Kong has been considered subversive on the mainland and has led to the imprisonment of church leaders.
It is well remembered amongst Hong Kong Christians that Pastor Wang Yi and other leaders of the Early Rain Covenant church in Chengdu were not imprisoned for being pastors and preaching the Christian gospel in a communist country but for the criminal charge of subversion.
This raises all sorts of concerns about China’s long term objectives for Hong Kong churches and the spectre of state registration and control of activities.
Even though this may well seem overly dramatic at this stage it is not unrealistic to expect that Hong Kong will most likely be operating under a more authoritarian environment in the future.
As churches begin to take stock of the new environment in which they will be working there are two different time frames they will need to consider: The ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’. For the “now,” things will probably not be too different in terms of present operations and services but “now” will be the time to prepare for the “not yet.”
It will be necessary to make a careful review of governance, church policy, statement of faith and legality in order firstly to make sure that they are in alignment with what the church wants to see as its current mission in Hong Kong; and secondly to make sure that there are no easy targets for which they can be discredited.
Church leaders will remember that on the mainland churches were closed down for simple things like failure to obtain the right permits, or follow correct financial procedures, or be operating within their own stated objectives.
For the “not yet,” churches will, of course, be seeking God’s will for their future but will need to see how they can best serve Hong Kong society within the constraints of a more authoritarian environment.
They will remember that Jesus is not just to be found within the walls of a church building or amongst the ministry of the faithful but in the needs of a society that has the God-given expectation to be able to flourish in all aspects of its humanity.
There will be plenty of need for the church in Hong Kong’s future and if eventually it is forced to be silent on matters deemed to affect politics it can still fill a very influential role in society.