Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Crackdown on faith in Hong Kong is a warning to the West

The Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation

Following a 2004 visit to the bright lights of Shanghai, columnist Peter Hitchens gloomily acknowledged that China, then approaching the zenith of its economic growth miracle, “proved that police states can also be prosperous”.

It led him to caution: “If the world discovers that liberty is an optional extra, rather than a necessity, how long will freedom last?”

Twenty years later, those words – and their implicit warning for the freedoms we take for granted, including religious practise – are, unfortunately, being born out both in Hong Kong and here in the West.

The decline of religious freedom at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is explored in all its grim detail in a new report from the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong (CFHK) Foundation.

Since its 1997 handover from the United Kingdom to China, this city, once a bastion of opportunity, civil liberty and rule of law, increasingly reflects the brutality of its mainland overseers.

For many, the brutal crackdown of pro-democracy protests during 2019 and the subsequent imprisonment of over 1,000 political prisoners for charges as bogus as lighting candles at a Tiananmen Massacre memorial, marked the twilight of liberty in Hong Kong, including that of religion.

Western culture often misunderstands faith, with the uber-secular among us treating it with the same level of contempt as dictatorial regimes like Beijing. Of course, religion can become warped itself and there are brutal governments ruled by oppressive theocracies, such as China’s steadfast allies in Tehran. 

But freedom to believe, or not, is an integral pillar of any society hoping to truly flourish. Religion is not apolitical. Nor should it be. The CFHK Foundation’s report details how Hong Kong residents who follow so-called “foreign” faiths such as Catholicism and Protestantism are generally more friendly toward Western values and democratic systems. 

The city’s Catholics, especially, are noted for being “more involved” in politics than other Christians. Jimmy Lai, 76, the founder of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, and a Catholic convert currently undergoing a sham trial under the Beijing-imposed National Security Law, is a prime example of such faith-based proactiveness and fearlessness. It is reportedly his faith in the Gospels that allows him to transcend beyond the grisly reality of his hundreds of days spent in solitary confinement for the “crime” of journalism.

In mainland China, it’s estimated that 10,000 churches were forced to close in 2023, and new regulations force the remaining ones to display signs reading, “Love the Communist Party, love the country, love the religion”. Digital advancement has inaugurated a new, all-seeing Eye of State Surveillance. In one Chinese province, all Christians are legally required to register on a state-controlled app before attending services.

As CFHK’s new report details, Hong Kong has not quite yet reached the same levels of religious oppression in mainland China, but it is rapidly heading down the same road. Already, the Catholic Church in Hong Kong “is suppressing information on religious persecution in China”, the report notes. Meanwhile the Diocese’s ironically named “Justice and Peace Commission” has diluted its focus on Chinese affairs and human rights, even though CCP restrictions have grown, and despite the fact that clergy, Catholic or otherwise, face extensive intimidation and persecution.

Popular memory in the United Kingdom and among its cultural neighbours remains dominated by what happened in the latter half of the twentieth century. We are naive enough to assume that harsh regimes are doomed to quickly collapse because of poor economics, madness or corruption, basing our conclusion on what we perceived as happening to both the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. We forget, though, that China’s bloody civil war and revolution – prompting over 1 million people to flee to then British Hong Kong – remains in full swing, albeit with operational tweaks.

Our forgetfulness also means that the West seems to find itself taking prompts from Beijing. During 2020, there were at least 168 incidents of religious freedom violations against Christians in Western countries, as Covid-19 provided a convenient smoke screen. As churches closed, and Mass was “conducted” online, obligation for Catholics to physically attend Mass on Sunday and Holy Days was only re-introduced in England and Wales from Pentecost in 2022. 

Lord Greenhalgh of Fulham, a Conservative peer who served as a junior minister during lockdown policies, admitted that churches and other places of worship were closed because “people at the heart of power did not understand faith”. 

Conversely, the CCP do appear to understand why faith is important and is consequently desperate to crush its threat to their lust for power and monopoly of thought.

While the treatment of believers in the West does not yet resemble the hardline measures in China – and increasingly taken in Hong Kong – we ought not get too comfortable. 

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction,” the late US President Ronald Reagan once lamented. Indeed, within the space of a generation we are already seeing some startling changes when it comes to the ideas and principles of freedom of religion and conscience in the West that were, until recently, assumed to be inviolate. 

Arrests for “thought crimes” (also known as prayers) in so-called buffer zones around abortion clinics, the curtailment of freedom of conscience in the workplace and a creeping push towards State-sanctioned euthanasia offer frightening indications of the current direction of travel in the UK and across the water in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

In his ground-breaking book The Psychology of Totalitarianism, Belgian professor and psychoanalytic psychotherapist Mattias Desmet parses the horrors of communist Russia under Stalin in order to analyse the group-think and collective illiberalism that ran amok in proclaimed liberal democracies during the Covid-19 pandemic and accompanying lockdowns.

“The regime constantly targeted new groups of the population, to be identified as ‘objective enemies’—people who had not committed any hostile act but were deemed capable of doing so [author’s italics] by virtue of the group to which they belonged….They started by deporting the bourgeoise, then the army officers who returned from abroad (they were too indoctrinated with capitalist logic), then anyone who had anything to do with religion” – because, Desmet explains, they were “not convertible to communism”. 

Desmet notes how people who adhere to religion have an annoying habit, in the eyes of the State and anyone trying to create a collective movement, of remaining particularly individualistic and nonconformist on certain matters. He also highlights the strange role reversal in recent times that has seen the previously perceived “restrictions of religion” outdone by a new and far stricter secular code of conduct.

“Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, a new morality has arisen from the belly of Enlightenment thinking, which in a number of respects is stricter, more vagarious, more irrational, and more hypocritical than the prior religious morality, which the Enlightenment sought to obliterate in order to set people free. With the rise of the woke culture, society fell prey to implicit and explicit rules that made every detail of human interaction more precarious.” 

As Desmet argues, what underpins ideological movements such as communism is a type of psychological mass formation among much of the population that remains nebulous and thus is far harder to get a grips on and to counter. 

Today it is the former British colony of Hong Kong that has been robbed of so much of its former prosperity, demographic vibrancy and liberties by the particular ideology of communism. But tomorrow, it could just as easily be our corner of the World that is undone by ideologies against which we do not have some magically bestowed immunity. 

Liberty was shown to indeed be “an optional extra” during the pandemic – when the church door was firmly shut.