By Benjamin Harbaugh
On July 1st, Hongkongers awoke to a new reality. The draconian National Security Law, drafted secretly in Beijing, was signed into law and came into full effect. While the new law openly targets dissent and freedom of speech, it does not mention religious freedom. However, this should not give the faithful a false sense of security. The new law gives Beijing the power to substantially restrict religious freedom in three ways. Authorities can take advantage of the new law by interpreting terms like “subversion” or “collusion” to persecute the faithful, increase pressure on religious leaders, and circumscribe Hong Kong’s ability to send missionaries to the mainland.
First, authoritarian regimes across the world overuse murky language to restrict individual liberties, China being no exception. Article 22 of Hong Kong’s National Security Law states that “a person who organizes, plans, commits or participates in any of the following acts by force or threat of force or other unlawful means with a view to subverting the State power shall be guilty…” According to this language, any person who subverts the Chinese Communist Parties’ (CCP) power using other (unspecified) unlawful means can be tried for crimes against the state. In effect, subversion will be defined by the whims of the CCP. If the rest of China is any indication, religion could easily fall into this category. Unfortunately, subversion is only one example. Ambiguous terminology throughout the law may seriously harm religious practitioners in the territory moving forward.
Second, the new law may push key religious figures in Hong Kong closer to the CCP. This seems to already be taking place as seen in comments made by the head of the Anglican Church in Hong Kong, Archbishop Paul Kwong. When asked about the new law and social unrest, Archbishop Kwong, said, “It does not undermine any freedom of Hong Kong, in particular the freedom of religion. It does not affect the church or any other religious organisation.” In his comments, Kwong referenced nearby Macau, a former Portuguese colony under a similar agreement as Hong Kong, to support his position. He claimed that Macau previously enacted its own national security law and religious freedom was not affected. However, Macau and Hong Kong are extremely different. According to Derek Grossman, a national security expert at the Rand Corporation, Macau’s economy was oriented towards the Chinese gambling industry and relied less on interactions with the West. As a result, citizens of Macau looked to the mainland for identity and solutions to their problems. More informally, this author taught English in the territory and experienced pro-CCP sentiment much more frequently than in Hong Kong. While Archbishop Kwong’s position between Beijing and Hong Kong is unenviable, he has chosen to err on the side of the CCP and offered a false comparison as his justification for supporting the new law.
In contrast, Cardinal Joseph Zen, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, believes that the new law could lead to religious restrictions. Zen listed the long record of the CCP’s interference in religious matters on the mainland and said that he has “no confidence” that the National Security Law won’t be used to bring the Catholic Church in Hong Kong under Beijing’s control. For Cardinal Zen these words don’t come without consequence. Indeed, he said in a Facebook video that he was prepared to suffer trial and arrest under the new law. Clearly, China will continue to pressure figures like Archbishop Kwong to counter advocates like Cardinal Zen and give religious communities false comfort.
Lastly, Hong Kong has historically functioned as a jumping off point for religion in the mainland. Time magazine published an exposé on a “reverend C” who shares sermons and manuscripts with the mainland at the risk of imprisonment. Most of his work is oriented towards establishing and cultivating China’s vast network of underground churches. Even though Time piece was published a year before massive protests against the CCP began in earnest, the reverend’s predictions appear to have been prescient. He says that Christians in Hong Kong are increasingly viewed as a threat by Beijing and that the CCP fears their influence. This may explain in part why Beijing chose to enact the National Security Law now. Although the protests last year were certainly the catalyst behind the new law, China under CCP Premier Xi Jinping has sought to ‘sinicize’ religion as far back as 2016. The CCP sensed an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Simply put, protests and religious freedom could both be squashed with a well-worded national security law.
In the end, Hong Kong appears to be another casualty in Beijing’s war against religion. From the repression of Tibetan Buddhists to the forced internment of millions of Uyghur Muslims, the CCP has systematically abused religious groups. On the morning of July 1st, the CCP’s war came to Hong Kong in the form of the National Security Law. If history is any guide, it is only a matter of time until Beijing uses its power against the religious in Hong Kong as the world looks on.
Benjamin Harbaugh is a former intern in the Office of International Religious Freedom at the Department of State and a graduate student at The American University in Washington D.C. where he currently studies U.S. foreign policy and security. He is passionate about supporting vulnerable communities around the globe and has worked alongside the persecuted Church in countries such as Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, and more. Engaged in the relationship between government action and religious freedom, Ben believes in the importance of U.S. involvement for Christians around the world. When he isn’t studying, Ben enjoys long-distance running and traveling with his wife.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.