|HONG KONG: THE HANDOVER|
July 3, 1997
in this forum:
Did the sheer numbers of reports alter the atmosphere? What did you see that was beautiful, human and funny? Will Tung Chiwah be independent enough to make critical executive decisions? What's it like with Chinese Liberation Army troops in Hong Kong?
Online NewsHour Links
Read our last forum with Professor DeGolyer in Hong Kong.
June 23, 1997: How the British will retreat from Hong Kong.
June 16, 1997: Will China's communism bring drastic change, or business as usual?
June 10, 1997: Just who is Tung Chee-hwa--the man who will take over Hong Kong when it is returned to Chinese control?
December 17, 1996: Human rights abuses in China.
November 21, 1996: Asia's dynamic and fast-growing economy. .
The NewsHour Asia Index.
A question from T. R. Moore of Pittsburgh, PA:
There are many western Christian who are watching the Hong Kong story with baited breath. I know of several who were in China for years and have recently left for fear of their personal safety. Yet, I know of others who are heading over to Hong Kong to celebrate the "turn over" and have expectations that a new era in Chinese relations is about to begin. Who is right? How can we support the progress that is possible with this historic event? Should we boycott or celebrate? Our media news about China carries so much spin. What is your opinion? Signed, a concerned Christian who wants to do the right thing.
Professor DeGolyer of the Hong Kong Transition Project responds:
I appreciate your concerns. Again, just to clarify my position and the Hong Kong Transition Project's. While I am at Baptist University, most of the members of the Transition Project are not, and while Baptist University has a historical relationship with the church of that name, it was assumed by the government in 1983 and is now non-sectarian, as am I. And, unlike Harvard University (also historically Christian in origin), Baptist University has no School of Theology. (We do have a School of Business, however!) So my perspective is simply from an analyst on the scene who has interviewed and surveyed many people, some of whom have a religious perspective (most in Hong Kong practice only either the worship of ancestors or the worship of money.)
First, the treatment of religion in China of Moslems, Buddhists and Christians, especially Catholics, is a very touchy subject. Muslims dominate the western regions of China and many support a secessionist movement. Buddhists dominate in Tibet and Inner Mongolia, both border regions, and again, in Tibet at least, there is an independence movement. One of the bloodiest civil wars in history wracked China for an entire generation in the Taiping Rebellion, a rebellion driven in large part by a variant interpretation of Christianity. And, the intrusion of the west into China in the 19th and 20th centuries was often led by Christian missionaries, who, if they got into trouble, then often provoked western military intrusion coming to their rescue. The Boxer Rebellion circa 1900 was a case in point. So, religion of any type, and especially religion with external relations to other powers, makes the government in China very nervous.
Second, China is a big country, with five times the population of the U.S. in an area of roughly the same size. It also has very rudimentary government in a number of places. In the U.S. we have many stories of backwoods sheriffs abusing the law and police beatings take place even in places like Los Angeles. In a society which still has a majority of peasants, in which perhaps only 70% are literate, which does not have a common language which everyone speaks or reads, abuse of laws and central government regulations can and does happen, and in some areas fairly often. Yet, as the central government tries to give more power and hence freedom to local officials, such abuses become even harder to control from the more enlightened center. So while religious freedom is somewhat tolerated, there is also great concern about it and some local officials simply don't like any organized groups forming spontaneously, without government supervision and permission, and especially not if foreigners are involved in them.
As China modernizes and reforms, and as more foreigners enter China as tourists and entrepreneurs and workers and investors, and as more Chinese travel within China and abroad, and as China urbanizes rapidly (some 2/3 are still peasants on the land), many of these abuses will lessen. Perhaps the most intelligent behavior would be for religionists to work in the cities and let their converts spread out into the countryside, but I have never met a Christian missionary who had the patience to limit themselves to more enlightened areas. They always want to convert as many as possible as quickly as possible in as many places as possible, and in China, that sort of attitude, and a similar one of impatience and lack of sensitivity on the part of business people, invariably leads to conflict and misunderstandings.
Third, as to personal safety, I have felt, and been, safer in China than in many places in the U.S. The gun laws, severe, quick justice, and fairly common police presence actually means that the average person has a lot more personal security than in most U.S. inner cities. If you stick to the major cities and more educated, well governed areas, like Beijing or Shanghai, you would be surprised at your level of safety in comparison to Washington D.C. or even New York (despite its recent improvements in crime control). Some people feel they must smuggle in Bibles, but China prints as many as demanded and legal means of import may be employed as well. As I understand the law, imports of many kinds are restricted (not just Bibles, for example) and quotas for imported goods are a matter of negotiation between trading partners. This is what Most Favored Nation status and World Trade Organization membership is all about. Christians should obey the law, and the law here, as in the U.S. requires proper procedures for import of goods.
I would neither celebrate nor boycott. China has changed a great deal in 20 years, and despite enormous challenges ahead, the Hong Kong return seems to indicate a considerably heightened degree of commitment to continue developing a modern economy and with it, a modern society. Both of these aspirations eventuate in greater freedom, and already the economic freedoms have increased tremendously, even over the last six or seven years. There will be occasional glitches, but after all the U.S. had the riots of the 1960s and then again in the early 1990s, and outrages like the Unabomber and Oklahoma City, so no society will ever be perfectly peaceful and uniformly free of violence. Normal relations and normal development result in normal freedoms and normal behaviors.
Michael Browning of the Miami Herald responds:
There are nearly half a million Christians in Hong Kong, of all denominations. Although they are outnumbered by the Buddhists, Taoists and Confucians, the Christian community here is one of the strongest and most active in the Orient, with many charities, hospitals and schools attached to churches that go back almost to the founding of the colony. St Pauls University, for example, was founded here in 1851, just 10 years after the British flag was raised. China has guaranteed religious freedom in the new Hong Kong, but the fact is, religion of all denominations is kept on a very short leash in mainland China. Catholics are not allowed to maintain ties with the Vatican, and other denominations have to report to so-called "patriotic associations" which manage religious life pretty strictly. You can go to church, or to your mosque, but you are not allowed to preach or proselytize outside of the church or mosque walls.
I do not think there will be any sudden, dramatic curtailment of religion here in Hong Kong in the next few years. But I would be surprised if the Chinese authorities did not attempt to bring it under state control in little ways, by asking churches to register with the government etc. The new legislative council has already passed a law forbidding local political groups to accept money from overseas. That could apply to religious organizations in the future.
I have been listening to the radio a lot in the past two weeks, especially to the "Morning Prayers" program on RTHK and there is a real sense of unease, even fear, on the part of the Christian community here. The Mass at St. Joseph's Catholic church last Sunday featured a text from the Book of Job, on faith tried by affliction. There is a sense that hard times are coming. Interestingly, I think the religious communities here could be a real bastion of freedom and set a shining example to the rest of the territory, by sticking to their guns. I think they may prove to be the toughest adversaries the Beijing authorities face, in the years to come. Democracy here is only a few years old, but religious freedom goes back a century and a half.
Freelance reporter Samy-Leigh Webster-Woog responds:
There is no indication that the new government of Hong Kong will be making any moves against the freedom of religon here. Indeed, on the day after the hand over Mr. Tung Chee-Wha (the new chief executive attended a mass meeting of Bhuddists. And in the nighttime celebrations on July 1, one of the lighted floats parading around Victoria Harbor appeared to be a redendition of the Three Wise Men. Take these observations as you will.
Church services continue unabated and those people I've interviewed who have chosen to identify their religous denomination (Anglican, Hindi, Jewish and Roman Catholic, have all been fairly secure and optimistic in assessing the future for their various faiths under the new regime.
I should say that a Chaplin Susan Hewitt who's with the main Anglican cathedral here (St. George I think), did off-handedly and half jokingly mention that the cathedral, which is in the center of town right next to the main government offices, was a very prominent symbol of the colonial regime, and was also sitting on top of extremely valuable real estate.
Finally i would like to note that the new laws in effect ban political groups and parties (in a strech the Church could be considered such I suppose) from receiving and funding from foreign groups and from maintaining any ties to foreign groups.
All that said I believe that while there will definitely be a tightening of certain freedoms and liberties in Hong Kong under the new government, I do not believe that there will be any sort of crackdown on religous freedoms. As for doing the right thing...you're on your own I'm afraid. Certainly the majority of the people here seem happy or at least indifferent with the changes. Personally though I aside from its international flair I would not hold up Hong Kong as any great model any time soon.