Christian Social Discourse in Postcolonial Hong Kong

Shun-Hing Chan. Postcolonial Studies. Volume 10, Issue 4. 2007.


During the colonial period, the Christian churches enjoyed a close relationship with the Hong Kong government. Over the years, the churches launched many educational, medical and social services and received funding from the government, with their relationship developing into a close ‘partnership’. On the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, that partnership underwent a change, and the churches have been learning to deal with Hong Kong’s new leaders, both in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) and central Chinese governments. The various churches or Christian denominations responded differently to the changes, however. By my reckoning, these responses can be divided into two main categories. Some churches adopted a more critical stance, while others actively sought to build close relations with the two governments. The former can be called a ‘protest model’ and the latter a ‘pragmatic model’. The question is, what kind of behaviour can be defined as ‘protest’, and what ‘pragmatic’? A study of the different churches’ discourses on socio-political matters reveals the categories to which their responses can respectively be assigned. In this article, I shall examine four types of Christian social discourse, and analyse their socio-political implications.

A related question to the one just posed is this: as the churches are all Christian, why are their responses so different? This question has to do with the social teaching of each church and their different concepts of identity. Generally speaking, Christians in Hong Kong have dual identities: as believers and citizens. Whether the two identities are in conflict or complement each other is a differential factor that affects the socio-political orientation of individual Christians and the various church organizations. Furthermore, although the Christian churches place a priority on their religious beliefs, they all have practical interests in protecting and developing their organizations. The question is, if their religious ideals/beliefs and organizational interests come into conflict, how do the churches respond? In this article, I shall explore this issue in detail.

The question of identity and of making a choice between the pole of ‘protest’ and that of the ‘pragmatic’ is an issue that confronts all Hong Kong citizens, not merely the Christian communities. A study of how the churches responded to the changes in the postcolonial era is useful to understand social change in the wider Hong Kong context.

The research questions of this article are twofold. First, how have the Christian churches responded to the social developments in postcolonial Hong Kong and what are their expectations? Second, how do their responses reflect the different identities of the diverse Christian communities in the postcolonial era? Over the past ten years, Catholics and Protestants have been actively responding to social, political and moral issues in Hong Kong, and their responses form the basis of their Christian social discourse. By examining this form of social discourse, we are able to grasp how Christians perceive social developments and what their expectations are for postcolonial Hong Kong society. In addition, examining the different social discourse methods of the different Christian communities will reflect how they each understand its identity in the postcolonial context. I will examine how the churches’ different identities have determined the nature of their respective social discourses.

Before beginning my analysis, I will briefly introduce the general characteristics of the Christian communities in Hong Kong. A wide range of Christian denominations can be found in Hong Kong, including the Catholic Church, various Protestant churches and the Orthodox Church. However, because the Orthodox Church is relatively inactive in Hong Kong, this article will not be covering its social discursive activities. The term Protestantism covers a complex web of different Christian communities. In terms of theological stance, Protestant communities can be classified into mainline, evangelical, fundamentalist and charismatic. For example, the Church of Christ in China, the Methodist Church and the Anglican Church can be considered mainline; the Baptist Church and the Christian Alliance Church can be regarded as evangelical; the Evangelical Free Church of China falls under the heading of fundamentalist; and the Pentecostal Church and the Praise Assembly can be considered charismatic. The relationship between the evangelical and fundamentalist communities is close; Christians in Hong Kong usually do not differentiate between the two.

In addition to the formal Christian church organizations, there are also para-church organizations and cross-denominational bodies. Generally speaking, a para-church organization is a Christian group that acts independently of an official church but is linked to it through a shared mission and common beliefs. Para-church organizations are usually more flexible in their organizational structure than official church bodies. As independent groups, para-church organizations can usually respond to social issues more freely than official church bodies—for example, in making public statements, church leaders might feel constrained about commenting on issues in an official capacity. Para-church organizations in Hong Kong include the Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission, the Hong Kong Christian Institute for the Protestant mainline churches, and the Society for Truth and Light for the Protestant evangelical churches.

A cross-denominational body is an organization that unites different Christian communities which have some common theological views. For example, the Hong Kong Christian Council acts as such a body for the mainline churches, and the Hong Kong Chinese Christian Churches Union (HKCCCU) plays this role for the evangelical churches. The Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement also acts as an umbrella for the various evangelical communities, but, in addition, makes an effort to coordinate the mainline and evangelical churches.

The data used in this article come from various sources. First, data were obtained from a wide range of church and para-church publications and websites—for example, the Hui sheng (Convergent Voices) newsletter published by the Church of Christ in China, and church documents, including Stepping into the 21st Century, issued by the Methodist Church. The public statements of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission and Hong Kong Christian Institute can be found on their websites. Second, data were collected from newspaper reports, including public notices and statements published by churches and para-church organizations. Third, data were obtained through in-depth interviews. I interviewed thirteen clergy and church leaders from Catholic, mainline and evangelical Protestant churches. The interviews were conducted from 17 July to 1 August 2006, and from 4 May to 17 May 2007.

Christian Communities in the Colonial and Postcolonial Setting

During the colonial period Christian churches and the Hong Kong government enjoyed close relations. This relationship was largely due to the special position held by the Church of England/Anglican Church in British politics and society. In Hong Kong, this position of privilege could be seen in the ranking given to the Anglican bishop on the government’s Protocol List. The Anglican bishop of Hong Kong was ranked fifth—after the Governor, the Chief Justice, the Chief Secretary and the Attorney General. Prior to 1981, no ethnic Chinese ever held the post of Anglican bishop in Hong Kong.

Due to its ideological affinity with the government, the Anglican Church was entrusted with running many educational and social services. This relationship was extended to the other Christian churches, and the Catholic and other Protestant churches also enjoyed close partnerships with the colonial government. In such an environment the Christian churches in Hong Kong flourished. This situation differed significantly from that experienced by Christians in mainland China, where a Communist government, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, was determined to eradicate the influence of religion in society.

Due to different theological teachings and beliefs, the missions and social programmes of the Christian churches can differ widely. By studying their teachings and activities it is possible to grasp an understanding of the churches’ different work models. The Catholic and Protestant mainline churches are quite similar. Both put equal emphasis on evangelism and social service. The Catholic Church in Hong Kong actively began to take part in social affairs after the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s issued new instructions on Catholic social teaching. As for the mainline Protestant churches, the running of schools and various social services was seen as a form of evangelism. Since the 1970s, some para-church organizations, linked to Protestant mainline churches, have been acting as pressure groups seeking to influence government (colonial and postcolonial) policy in order to improve the livelihood of Hong Kong people.

The evangelical churches also run schools and social services, but they see evangelism as the ‘great commandment’, or chief priority. As a result, their social service work often serves to promote their evangelical goals. And although the evangelical churches have been active in social services in Hong Kong, mainland China has always been their ultimate target for evangelism. Because the political situation in China prevents the open proselytizing of religion, the evangelical churches have had to support their communities on the mainland in secret. The evangelical churches kept their distance from the colonial government, but managed to tap its resources to fulfil their evangelical goals. During the colonial era, they rarely criticized the government, but at the same time made little effort to build close relations.

The charismatic churches’ inward focus on each individual’s charismatic experience has meant that they have had little interest in setting up formal social service organizations or building relations with the colonial government.

The change from a colony to a Special Administrative Region under Communist China in 1997 confronted the Christian churches with many challenges. First, the goals and the ideology of atheist Communist China conflicted with those of the Christian churches. Second, the record of religious oppression in mainland China troubled the churches in Hong Kong. They questioned how they should interact with the new regime and what role the churches would play in the postcolonial era. The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, drawing upon the principles of ‘one country, two systems’, had spoken of ‘Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong’ with ‘a high degree of autonomy’, but the Christian churches were unsure whether to believe these promises or not. The churches faced difficult choices. If they were to assert the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ and thereby challenge the SAR government when it appeared to favour one country over two systems, it could create tension and thus be detrimental to church–state relations. However, if the Christian churches were to work closely with the new SAR government they could find it difficult to pressure the government to respect the principle of ‘one country, two systems’. The sort of church–state relations they chose to follow could have far-reaching implications for a church’s future. Choosing a path that would create tension with the government could marginalize a church and thus weaken its development. However, if a church chose to maintain good relations with the government, it could secure resources that would strengthen its development.

Christian Social Discourse in the Postcolonial Setting

From 1997 to 2007, the Christian churches have been actively engaging in a wide range of social issues in Hong Kong. They often address such issues with particular religious terminology and from a Christian perspective, creating a unique style of social discourse in Hong Kong. According to my observations, there are four prominent themes in Christian social discourse, namely, defending the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, emphasizing communication with the government, boosting reconciliation and reconstruction, and improving morality in society.

Upholding the Principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’

The most prominent socio-political issue raised by Christian churches since the 1997 handover has been the need to uphold the ‘one country, two systems’ principle. Addressed mostly by the Catholic and Protestant mainline churches, this subject has been raised in response to issues such as political reform, the re-interpretation of the Basic Law by the National People’s Congress (NPC), and human rights. The churches have insisted that the principles stipulated in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration—principles of ‘one country, two systems’, of ‘Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong’, and of this governance being conducted with ‘a high degree of autonomy’— be rigorously upheld. Over the years, the churches have worked closely to monitor the government’s defence of or failure to defend this principle. Below are examples illustrating the discourse characterizing this monitoring work.

The Catholic and mainline Protestant churches have repeatedly spoken out on the issue of political reform. The focus of their criticism has been the central Chinese and the Hong Kong SAR governments’ failure to uphold the principle of ‘Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong’, and the failure to honour the assurance that Hong Kong would enjoy ‘a high degree of autonomy’ after the 1997 handover. The churches have also been outspoken in their demand that the Chief Executive and members of the Legislative Council be chosen through direct election in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

On 29 December 2003, six Christian organizations, including eight Catholic and Protestant clergy and church leaders, issued a joint statement entitled ‘Christians Call for Democratic Election’. The statement presented their religious arguments for democratic reform.

We believe that God created human beings in his image and as a result their human dignity and rights should be respected. Christians have a responsibility to care for others and the world and therefore should uphold democracy and build democratic systems that allow all citizens to take part in public affairs.

The Christian organizations condemned as undemocratic the election of the Chief Executive by a select committee of 800 voters. Their statement demanded that the District Board commission system be scrapped and that the Chief Executive and members of the Legislative Council be chosen through full democratic elections in 2007 and 2008 respectively.

Early in 2000, the Methodist Church issued a document entitled Stepping into the 21st Century in which the church stated its expectations regarding the responsibilities of the SAR government and openly criticized its poor governance. The document pointed out that:

We are still growing accustomed to the new social environment of ‘one country, two systems’, which stated the promise of ‘Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong’ with ‘a high degree of autonomy’. Hong Kong citizens believe that the Chief Executive lacks experience in governance, that the government lacks authority, and that there are clear contradictions of interest between the Hong Kong and central governments.

On 1 April 2004, the Ministerial Session of the Methodist Church issued a public statement in the newspaper Ming Pao, expressing the church’s position on political reform:

Hong Kong citizens have been concerned about the governance of the SAR since its return to China. They have deep resentment because there are no effective channels for them to express their opinions or allowing them to take part in public affairs…. Hong Kong’s economic and legal conditions and highly educated population are mature enough to support universal suffrage, as the level of democratic participation has already shown. The National People’s Congress in Beijing should therefore seriously consider allowing universal suffrage in Hong Kong in 2007 and 2008.

The Church of Christ in China is another mainline Protestant community which has frequently expressed concern about political reform in Hong Kong. The Concern Group for Social Affairs of the Theological and Ministerial Department of the church issued a public statement regarding democratization in the newsletter Hui sheng in April 2004. Entitled ‘The Question of Principle regarding Institutional Development suggested by the Institutional Development Task Force of the Hong Kong SAR Government’, the statement expressed the church’s position in support of democratic reform:

Based on Christian doctrine, we believe that human beings bear the image of God and thus should enjoy equal rights from the time they are born. This logic extends to the equal rights of Hong Kong citizens to elect their chief executive and Legislative Councillors of the Hong Kong SAR government …. We strongly demand universal suffrage should be used in the election of the Chief Executive in 2007 and the Legislative Council in 2008.

In 2005, the Hong Kong SAR government released The Fifth Report on Constitutional Development, outlining the government’s views on political reform. On 7 November 2005, a group of Catholic and Protestant clergy and church leaders held a press conference and issued their ‘Christian joint statement on The Fifth Report on Constitutional Development’. The statement criticized the report on the grounds that it did not indicate the direction to be taken, nor provide a timetable, steps or the procedures that would be adopted to achieve universal suffrage. They called for the government to make another proposal which would contain details about when and how general elections would be held for the post of Chief Executive and membership of the Legislative Council. Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun criticized the report as ‘leading Hong Kong citizens to roam around the garden’ (meaning it failed to offer direction for democratic reform), and said the government was being deceptive by calling the proposal democratic and progressive. Reported conspicuously by journalists in the media, the Christian statement and Cardinal Zen’s criticism changed the position of many pro-democratic LegCo members. In the end, LegCo rejected the government report.

In 1999, the Final Court of Appeal ruled that under the Basic Law mainland-born children of Hong Kong citizens had right of abode in Hong Kong. But the Hong Kong government blocked the ruling by calling on the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) to re-interpret the Basic Law.

In response, Cardinal Wu Cheng-chung issued a pastoral letter entitled ‘God is Love’ in which he expressed concern about the ban’s impact on family life and criticized the SAR government’s request for a re-interpretation as violating the principle of ‘one country, two systems’. He said:

The present question of the right of abode belongs within the competence of Hong Kong’s autonomy. The S.A.R. should itself give its own interpretation, but it has not done this. Asking for a reinterpretation from the Standing Committee of the N.P.C. cannot help but damage the foundation of the autonomy of the S.A.R., shake the foundations of the Hong Kong family, raise doubts in people’s minds about the central government’s promise of ‘one country, two systems with a high degree of autonomy’, undermine the confidence of the international community towards Hong Kong. Who can be sure how far-reaching the effects will be?

On 9 April 2004, the Ministerial Session of the Methodist Church issued a second public statement in Ming Pao, in which the church said that the NPC’s re-interpretation of the Basic Law had undermined the Basic Law or Hong Kong’s ‘mini-constitution’ and weakened Hong Kong’s autonomy. This action, the statement said, would have:

[a] detrimental effect on Hong Kong citizens’ right to a high degree of autonomy under the principle of ‘one country, two systems’. This practice is harmful to Hong Kong citizens’ opportunity to shoulder a greater responsibility in self-governance, and also has set restrictions on institutional development in the SAR.

The Concern Group for Social Affairs of the Theological and Ministerial Department of the Church of Christ in China issued two public statements in 2004 and 2005, respectively, criticizing the NPC’s re-interpretation of the Basic Law. In May 2004, the Concern Group published a statement entitled ‘A Response to the NPC’s Re-interpretation of the Basic Law and the Chief Executive’s Report to the Central Government’ in Hui sheng. It said the re-interpretation had been ‘a blow to citizens’ confidence in the principles of “one country, two systems” and “Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong” with “a high degree of autonomy”’. In May 2005, the Concern Group published another statement criticizing the SAR government for seeking the NPC’s re-interpretation regarding the Chief Executive’s term of service. The statement held that such an act ‘harmed the rule of law in Hong Kong, hampered “Hong Kong people’s governance of Hong Kong”, and undermined the implementation of the “one country, two systems” principle’.

In 2001, the Hong Kong government started a consultation process on a new law it was proposing to ban ‘evil cults’. The move came shortly after the mainland Chinese government banned the Falun Gong movement. Twelve Catholic and Protestant para-church organizations, including the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission and the Hong Kong Christian Institute, launched a signature campaign entitled ‘View Falun Gong with an open heart’. The statement said:

We urge the central government Liaison Office, the SAR government, political leaders and people of influence to stop making speeches that divide and promote animosity toward any of Hong Kong’s people and to respect the ‘one country, two systems’ principle and the Basic Law that acknowledges the rights of the people of Hong Kong to freedom of association, of assembly, of procession, of demonstration and the freedom of conscience to practice their religious beliefs.

In 2002, the Hong Kong SAR government began a consultation process on a new national security (legislative provisions) bill it wanted to introduce under Article 23 of the Basic Law. In December 2002, the Social Concern Group of the Church of Christ in China issued a public statement entitled ‘A Response to the Consultation on Legislation according to Article 23 of the Basic Law’, criticizing the law for damaging social harmony and destroying mutual trust between the SAR government and Hong Kong people. It also demanded that the SAR government refer itself to the Johannesburg Principles issued by experts on law and human rights in 1995 to protect civil rights when making any principle of law regarding national security.

In March 2003, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission issued a public statement entitled ‘Christians’ Response to the National Security (Legislative Provisions) Bill’. The statement said that the law would harm the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, and pointed out that the legislation ‘is equal to introducing the laws governing national security in mainland China into the legal system in Hong Kong. This would introduce mechanisms for banning organizations used in mainland China […] and would threaten the protection of freedom of assembly and religion, etc.’

At the same time, a group of mainline Protestants issued a paper entitled ‘Opposing Harsh Legislation, Building Democratic Institutions’. The position paper pointed out that:

The present Chief Executive and Legislative Council in Hong Kong are not elected through universal suffrage. To legislate on national security without a solid base of democracy would undermine the legal foundations of Hong Kong and hamper freedom of the press, speech, organisation, assembly and religion.

Mainline Protestant para-church organizations also expressed concern over the civil rights of homosexuals, and supported the SAR government’s proposed legislation on ‘Anti-Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation’. In July 2005, a group of mainline Protestants issued a public statement in the form of a prayer entitled ‘Love Without Fear’. The prayer said that Hong Kong should ‘gradually introduce laws, consistent with the principles of freedom of religion and speech, to protect the human rights of homosexuals’. However, evangelical Protestants opposed the legislation, and launched a campaign to counteract the mainline Protestant appeal. I will discuss this issue in a later section.

Emphasizing Communication with the Government

The second theme running through Christian social discourse in Hong Kong is an emphasis on communication with the government. Some church leaders insisted publicly that such communication was essential. Surprisingly, most of those who took this view were from the Protestant evangelical and charismatic churches. Before 1997, the evangelical churches tended to avoid developing close relations with the government, and the charismatic churches were more inwardly focused on personal charismatic experience and generally avoided political issues. These public calls post-1997 for communication with the government reflect a change in the political orientation of some evangelical and charismatic leaders.

Christian social discourse over the election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive was likewise enlightening. Under the electoral system set up for the post-handover era, an Election Committee made up of 800 select representatives from business, government, social and religious groups has the sole voting right to choose Hong Kong’s top leader. Seven seats on the Election Committee are assigned to Protestant representatives. From 1997 to 2007, three elections for the Chief Executive were held with only pro-Beijing government candidates being put forward. However, in the 2007 election a pro-democracy candidate stepped up to challenge the government-nominated candidate.

When the government commissioned the Hong Kong Christian Council to provide representatives for the Election Committee, the council decided to hold direct elections within the Protestant churches. Five pro-democracy Protestants formed an alliance and took part in the direct election. They declared they would cast their vote for the pro-democracy candidate in the Election Committee if they won the seats assigned to Protestant representatives. However, some leaders of the evangelical and charismatic churches also took part in the Protestant election, with two candidates attracting the most attention: Chung Ka-lok, the former General Secretary of the HKCCCU; and Hugo Chan Sai-keung, an elder of the Praise Assembly.

According to media reports, the Chinese government invited members of the HKCCCU to an exchange programme in Beijing where members met with officials from the United Front Work Department, State Administration for Religious Affairs, and Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. Reverend Chung Ka-lok attended the meeting then as Deputy General Secretary of the HKCCCU. Later, during the election period, Chung openly declared the importance of building a good relationship with the Chinese government.

In addition to his post as an elder of the Praise Assembly, Hugo Chan was also the vice-president of the Hong Kong Professionals and Senior Executives Association. Two honorary sponsors of the association were Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, the current Chief Executive, and Gao Siren, the top Beijing government representative in Hong Kong. Two months before the Protestant direct election, the association was invited to meet Chinese government officials to learn about ‘issues related to the nation’ at the Communist Party School in Beijing. During the election, Hugo Chan emphasized that his principles for voting for the Chief Executive were ‘trusted by the Central government’ and he was able ‘to communicate effectively with the Chinese government’.

Chung Ka-lok and Hugo Chan’s political views and public statements differed significantly from those of the two elected representatives from the Methodist Church. Methodist leader Reverend Li Ping-kwong held that it was important to ‘strive for universal suffrage to elect the Chief Executive according to the Basic Law’, and Ng Sze-yuen openly expressed his support for those ‘favourable to democratic development and universal suffrage’.

The comments of church leaders provide further evidence of a difference in political views amongst the different Protestant churches. Reverend Ralph Lee Ting-sun, General Secretary of the Hong Kong Christian Council, criticized the pro-Beijing attitude of the evangelical and charismatic churches without naming them. ‘Some organisations and churches that emphasised “church–state separation” and “charismatic experience” in the past have unconsciously and unknowingly changed direction, and they appear complacent about it.’

Judging from Chung and Chan’s rhetoric and behaviour, one could ask whether the Chinese government applied pressure on them to take part in the Protestant direct election in order to block pro-democracy Protestants from winning seats on the Election Committee. A report from the Chung Chi Divinity School of the Chinese University of Hong Kong commented as follows:

According to our sources, the officials of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong SAR actively supported and encouraged some church leaders, church organisations and denominations to take part in the Protestant direct election. In fact, many elected representatives were these church leaders.

Boosting Reconciliation and Reconstruction

The third theme raised by Christian social discourse can be called ‘boosting reconciliation and reconstruction’. In May 2004, fifteen evangelical church leaders drafted a mission statement entitled ‘Reconciliation and Reconstruction: The Mission of Christian Churches in Hong Kong’, expressing their views on society and the role of the Christian churches after 1997. The mission statement was signed by 178 evangelical Protestants and was published in Ming Pao on 12 July 2004.

The statement reflects the chaotic situation faced by Hong Kong society at the time. It said social discontent had been triggered by political problems and the economic downturn, as well as the effect of global disconnection. The cultural conflict of values between Beijing and Hong Kong had also contributed to social disintegration. It went on to outline the duties of evangelical Protestants ‘to be confident, seek communication and interaction with others and care about people in society’; and added that the churches envision ‘hope for cultural reconciliation and the building of constructive relationship’.

The statement listed four goals for Protestants. First, it stated that Protestants should: help Hong Kong people search for spirituality; tolerate people who are different; overcome the obstacles of individualism and consumerism; and respect and care about others. Second, the statement said that the church should: mobilize Christians to fulfil their civic responsibilities; uphold the rule of law and human rights; share the burdens of others; and build a caring and righteous civil society. Third, in response to the ‘clash of civilizations’ experienced in Hong Kong, the church should seek to resolve conflict and build cultural reconciliation between Beijing and Hong Kong. Lastly, it stressed that Christian educational bodies should shoulder the responsibility of equipping future generations with leadership skills and cultural values.

The mission statement provides insight into how evangelical Protestants viewed the situation in postcolonial Hong Kong and their role in society. In my view, the statement and mission of the evangelical churches failed to recognize the reality of what was happening in Hong Kong. Instead, it brushed over the problems, and ignored the relationship between civic participation and social conflict.

The statement is an oversimplification of Hong Kong’s social and political problems. Evangelical Protestants suggested that political problems, the economic downturn and the effect of global disconnection were the three major factors behind the SAR’s social problems. Yet, other Christian groups were arguing that the political and economic problems were due to poor governance on the part of the Hong Kong government. If social problems were, to a large extent, due to poor governance, then the best way to rectify the problem would be for citizens to criticize government policy and seek change.

The statement also provides insight into the relationship between mainland China and Hong Kong. Evangelical Protestants suggested that the problems expressed were due to a ‘cultural conflict of values between Beijing and Hong Kong’. It held that individuals should try to reconcile the values of Beijing and Hong Kong. In my view, the statement is merely a description, rather than an explanation, of the conflict between Hong Kong and mainland China. If the Beijing government and Hong Kong citizens disagree on a political issue—for example, the re-interpretation of the Basic Law by the NPC—they should be allowed to present and discuss their views, and be allowed to decide whether to accept a re-interpretation by the NPC. The statement fails to offer practical solutions.

Finally, the statement advocates civic participation for Protestants in Hong Kong in so far as they should fulfil their civic responsibilities, uphold the rule of law and human rights and build a caring and righteous civil society. However, as described in the previous section, the demand for institutional reform, the criticism of the re-interpretation of the Basic Law by the NPC, and the defence of human rights by Catholics and mainline Protestants were already a form of civic participation. To issue statements and take action to oppose government policy reflects the churches’ attempts to build a caring and righteous civil society, and does not reflect an attitude of pessimism or the behaviour of a bystander. Monitoring and criticizing the government is an effective way of solving social problems, although it may produce conflict in society. The statement may show that some leaders of the evangelical Protestant churches do not understand the meaning of civic participation, or that they were simply selective in their explanation of it, through which simplification they have attempted to mobilize evangelical Protestants to support their proposal.

The themes of ‘reconciliation’ and ‘reconstruction’ have actually urged Protestant communities to support the government, to accept the discrepancies between Beijing and Hong Kong, and to display a kind of cooperative attitude rather than one of critical civic responsibility.

Improving Morality in Society

Protestant communities have expressed concern about many moral issues over the past ten years; those issues include gambling, poverty, sexual views, homosexuality, etc. Both mainline and evangelical Protestants have addressed these issues, but the evangelicals have been much more active. Some para-church organizations, such as the Society for Truth and Light, the Hong Kong Alliance for the Family, the Hong Kong Sex Culture Society, etc., have been outspoken on a number of controversial cases. During the colonial period, evangelical Protestants were less publicly active on these issues. This is a new development in postcolonial Hong Kong. In the following, I shall cite some examples to illustrate this aspect of Christian social discourse.

From 1999 to 2002, the Hong Kong government changed its policies on gambling. Youth under the age of 18 were allowed entry to the Happy Valley racecourse for the Millennium Horse-Racing Day in 1999, and soccer gambling was legalized in Hong Kong in 2002. In December 1999, various Protestant communities issued statements opposing the Millennium Horse-Racing Day by placing full-page adverts in local newspapers. The first statement, issued by evangelical Protestants, said: ‘We are deeply worried and outraged about recent proposals to legalize all kinds of gambling, on the grounds that this could cause social and family problems in Hong Kong.’  The second statement, issued by mainline Protestants groups, stated that: ‘many people have suggested introducing soccer gambling and other gambling enterprises. These suggestions will open the flood gates on gambling, which could have a negative impact on young people. Yet the government is silent on the issue. We are deeply concerned and outraged about it.’ From May to September 2002, some evangelical denominations, including the Christian Alliance Church, the Baptist Church and the Evangelical Free Church of China, issued statements separately in full-page notices in Ming Pao, opposing the introduction of soccer gambling by the Hong Kong government. The HKCCCU also issued a similar statement, in which both the mainline and evangelical Protestant churches declared their opposition to the introduction of soccer gambling.

The financial crisis that hit Asia in 1997 made life very difficult for lower-income earners in Hong Kong. The Chief Executive announced a policy to help the poor in his 2002 Policy Report. In December 2002, seven evangelical organizations launched a programme in response to the Chief Executive’s policy. The programme sought to raise tens of millions of Hong Kong dollars to establish an emergency fund to help 1,000 low-income families and individuals. In an open letter published by the Protestant communities, the leaders of seven church organizations made the following statement:

Regarding the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the Chief Executive, in his Policy Report, proposed ways to solve the problem. We, both pastors and directors of Christian organisations, launch the programme ‘Christian Care for the Poor’, through which we express the spirit of Christ to serve the poor and to witness the full Gospel in action. We call on churches and Christian organisations in Hong Kong to join the programme.

In April 2002, three cross-denominational church organizations joined together to launch a programme called ‘Christian Care for the Unemployed’, which aimed to mobilize the resources of the Protestant communities. The organizations included the Hong Kong Christian Council, HKCCCU and Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement. They planned to raise HKD3 million to help the unemployed find jobs, to provide a career hotline for job seekers and counselling services. A focal point was ‘cross-generation poverty’. The programme called for Protestant churches in various districts to care for the children of poor families by, for example, setting up free study groups and providing social activities. Reverend Li Ping-kwong, the spokesperson of the programme, expressed in a public letter that the action was in response to the call of the government to combine their efforts to solve the problem of poverty in Hong Kong.

One participant in the ‘Christian Care for the Unemployed’ programme said in an interview that Philemon Choi Yuen-wan, an evangelical Protestant church leader, was key in promoting the programme. Choi is the former Chairperson of the Commission on Youth, a government advisory body. He persuaded church leaders to organize the programme at an internal meeting by saying that the government would value the churches if they backed such social services.

The para-church organizations of the evangelical Protestants often issued media statements and entered into public debate with other organizations on various moral issues. One such organization was the Society for Truth and Light (STL). According to their publications, STL has three key concerns: media, sex culture, and social and family ethics. In their publication Network of Candle Light one can find articles related to the above issues. STL has not issued any statements on socio-political issues, such as political reform and the re-interpretation of the Basic Law by the NPC. On issues related to human rights, the para-church organizations of the evangelical Protestants, including STL, are at odds with the para-church organizations of the mainline Protestants. An example of this was the debate over homosexuality.

On 29 April 2005, the Hong Kong Alliance for the Family, a sister organization of STL, launched a signature campaign in opposition to the government’s proposed legislation on ‘Anti-Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation’, in Ming Pao. Spread over four pages, the group’s statement contained signatures from 374 organizations and 9,800 individuals. The statement read as follows:

We hold that society should reflect deeply on and closely consider the legislation on ‘Anti-Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation’. We should strike a balance between the rights of homosexuals and the rights of those who disagree with homosexuals, and consider the long-term impact of this legislation on society. Our basic position is: society should be tolerant on homosexuals, but citizens should also have the right to oppose homosexual behaviour. We disagree with those who discriminate against homosexuals, but we also disagree that the law should be used to punish those considered to have discriminated against homosexuals.

Christian Social Discourse and Identity

We can find the following patterns in the social discourse of the Catholic and the mainline Protestant churches. They have responded to both socio-political and moral issues, although they have been more outspoken about socio-political issues. In their view the government should uphold the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, and Hong Kong society should have its own agenda for social development. Concerned about the direction of Hong Kong in the postcolonial era, the churches have often criticized the SAR government and its policies and practices, as well as condemned cases of ‘interference by the mainland Chinese government in Hong Kong’s affairs’. For example, they urged the SAR government to introduce political reforms and to respect human rights according to international conventions, and criticized the NPC’s re-interpretation of the Basic Law.

The social discourse of the evangelical Protestants has emphasized reconciliation and civic responsibility. In concrete terms, they have supported the SAR government’s policies and sought to reconcile any differences between Beijing and Hong Kong. They have criticized the SAR government on some public issues, such as the introduction of soccer gambling and the legislation on anti-discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, in general they have mostly spoken out about moral issues. What is interesting to note, however, is that the socio-political issues making an impact on Hong Kong in the postcolonial period are more complex and critical than those faced by the territory when it was under colonial rule. At the same time, the moral issues faced by Hong Kong citizens are no different or more urgent in the postcolonial period than they were during the colonial period. As a result, it is surprising that the evangelical churches chose to speak out about moral issues only after the 1997 handover and not before.

In the evangelical and charismatic churches, some church leaders have actively and openly supported the Chinese government’s political mobilization. For example, they took part in the direct election of the Protestant churches to choose representatives for the Election Committee and supported the pro-China candidate in the election for the SAR Chief Executive. These churches set China as a priority at the expense of Hong Kong, and in particular at the expense of democratic reform in the SAR.

The various forms of Christian social discourse listed above reflect the different identities of the churches. Generally speaking, Christians have two identities: they are members of a church and members of a society. As members of a church, they should follow their church’s doctrines and moral teachings. Due to differences in doctrine and teachings between the churches, their members therefore also have diverse views and act differently. At the same time, as citizens, they have a duty to uphold the law and civil rights.

The Catholic and Protestant mainline churches stated their mission and role in the postcolonial era in church documents issued before 1997. These documents reflected what sort of socio-political scenario the Christian churches anticipated after the return of Hong Kong to China, and outlined how they should respond to the expected changes.

In the Catholic Church, Cardinal John Wu Cheng-chung issued his ‘March into the Bright Decade’ pastoral letter in May 1989, delineating how the church should prepare itself for the transition from a British colony to a special administration region of Communist China. The pastoral letter stated four main goals of the church, namely, the overall development of the Catholic diocese, its pastoral ministry work and Christian education services, social affairs of the diocese, and the relationship of the church with China. Regarding the diocese’s role in social affairs, the pastoral letter held that the church should be a ‘servant’ and ‘prophet’. As a ‘servant’, the church needed to serve the physically handicapped, elderly, disabled, mentally retarded, refugees and marginalized. As a ‘prophet’, the church needed to be concerned about human rights, upholding justice, labour issues and protecting the poor. At the same time it had a duty to study and comment on the government’s welfare, labour, housing and health policies. The church’s understanding of its role as ‘prophet’, however, had significant ramifications for its relationship with the state. Following the traditional role of the prophets, who spoke out about injustice and criticized kings and state leaders who failed to uphold the will of God, the Catholic Church in Hong Kong chose to be outspoken about government policies in the postcolonial era.

The Methodist Church in Hong Kong issued a pastoral letter in 1997, expressing the church’s mission and role in the postcolonial period. The church also adopted the roles of ‘prophet’ and ‘servant’. As a prophet, the letter stated that the church ‘will not compromise with evil, unjust or oppressive powers but will oppose and condemn them’. As a servant, ‘the church will seek ways of serving others and the church will not become a political party or try to further its own interests or privileges through the exercise of political power’. The other two documents of the Methodist Church, namely, Stepping into the 21st Century (2000) and Redirection in the Second Half of the First Decade of the 21st Century (2005), provide detailed explanations of the church’s role as a prophet. A statement indicative of the two documents is as follows:

As a prophet, our church should display concern for society. In view of the unjust and demoralising forces in the political, economic, social and cultural spheres, as well as the oppressive, enslaving and damaging institutions, the church should spiritually maintain its discerning and analytical powers. At the juncture, our church should demonstrate specific and appropriate attention to social problems like the sharp disparity of wealth, pornography, gambling, drug abuse and the reforms of medical service, education and social welfare systems, as well as freedom, democracy, and the development of human rights and the rule of law.

A study of the social teachings of the mainline Protestant church leaders reveals how they sought to integrate their dual identities as members of a church community and citizens of a nation. Reverend Kwok Nai-wang of the Church of Christ in China and Reverend Ralph Lee Ting-sun were two influential mainline Protestant church leaders during the handover period. Early in 1996, Kwok held that ‘while the British are leaving Hong Kong, Hong Kong is not heading to a wide road of “decolonisation”, but a narrow alley of “re-colonisation”’. He said, ‘The church in Hong Kong must re-learn how to confront the rich and the powerful, for the powerful Chinese regime will assume responsibility for Hong Kong in 1997.’

Lee pointed out that Christians have responsibilities both as citizens of a nation and as members of a church. If the government forgets its responsibility to the people, Christians as citizens have a duty to call officials to account. He suggests, ‘We believe that this world is easily corrupted and distorted. If we want the ideal of a heavenly kingdom to be realized in this world, then we need to keep reminding ourselves not to be bystanders who forget their responsibilities as “citizens”.’ However, he also emphasized that the identity of the people of God is more important than that of a ‘citizen’, and a Christian needs to carry the cross, to have a sense of mission and responsibility. Lee stressed, ‘He should not live for himself, but to build the kingdom of God on earth. This is the responsibility of a people of God.’

According to the social teachings of the Catholic and mainline Protestant churches the dual identities of Christians as members of a church and citizens of a nation do not contradict each other, but rather the former supports the latter. This explains, in part, why these churches have chosen to speak out on socio-political issues and at times criticize government policies.

A study of the evangelical churches’ teachings and actions reveals a very different socio-political view. Since the 1997 handover, the church leaders have actively sought to build a close relationship with the Hong Kong SAR and Chinese governments. The social discourse shows that there have been at least three kinds of strategy at work: to mobilize the Protestant community to support the government (for example, the discourse on ‘reconciliation and reconstruction’); to support government policy with concrete action (for example, ‘Christian Care for the Unemployed’); and to play a role in the government’s political mobilization (for example, the ‘direct election’ of Protestant representatives).

The evangelical churches have proven to be powerful mobilization forces, as was seen in the anti-gambling campaign and their opposition to the government’s proposed legislation on sexual orientation. Yet, the churches have otherwise remained largely silent on other socio-political issues, such as political reform and the re-interpretation of the Basic Law by the NPC. Although the evangelical churches have on occasion criticized government policy, they have narrowed their focus to moral matters and avoided socio-political issues.

In one interview that I conducted, a pastor commented on the position of the evangelical Protestants as follows: ‘The evangelical churches put much emphasis on evangelism. To build a good relationship with the government is useful in evangelism. This is especially important in Hong Kong after 1997 because China is a large “field”’ (a ‘field’ is a term used by Protestant churches to mean a place/community ripe for evangelism, implying that evangelism is similar to the work of a farmer who sows seeds in a field). My follow-up question to the pastor was: ‘The mainline churches also evangelize in Hong Kong. How do you explain the differences between the evangelical and mainline Protestants?’ He replied: ‘The mainline Protestants are different from evangelical Protestants who take evangelism as the “great commandment” from God. To mainline Protestants, serving people is also a form of evangelism.’

A pastor of a mainline Protestant church provided an effective gloss on that remark: ‘My denomination holds that the local churches should do their work [in Hong Kong]. Let the Christians in mainland China do their work in evangelism. We can support their work at best, but we should not evangelise in mainland China like an international enterprise.’

The conversations above provide further insight into the socio-political orientation of the evangelical churches. For evangelicals, evangelism takes priority over everything else. Performing social services, therefore, is useful only in so far as it allows the churches to spread their beliefs among society. The evangelicals seek to maintain good relations with the government because it ensures that they will be able to continue their evangelical work. In addition, the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 held the promise that a door would be opened to allow the evangelical churches to evangelize in the greater China region. In a similar fashion to businessmen hoping to gain access to the greater China market, the evangelical churches sought to build good relations with the Hong Kong and Chinese governments in the hope that it would build trust and open doors. The evangelical churches choose to remain silent on socio-political issues because speaking out could harm that relationship. The question of whether Hong Kong should have its own agenda for future development was not an issue for them in the postcolonial era. The case of the evangelical churches shows that members place a priority on their identity as believers over their identity as citizens.


This article provides an analysis of four kinds of Christian social discourse, namely, upholding the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, emphasizing communication with the government, boosting reconciliation and reconstruction, and advancing the level of social morality. The discourse above can be further divided into two categories: socio-political and moral. Although the Catholic and mainline Protestant churches have addressed both socio-political and moral issues, these churches have been more outspoken on socio-political matters. Evangelical Protestants, on the other hand, have concentrated mostly on moral issues. In addition, some evangelical and charismatic church leaders have displayed an openly pro-government attitude and have sought to build good relations with the state. The above analysis shows the political orientation of Christian communities in Hong Kong.

The social discourse of the different Christian communities has been determined by their religious beliefs and sense of identity. I argue that Catholics and mainline Protestants have embraced a dual identity as both members of a church and members of society. As Christians they are taught that it is God’s wish that they should stand up for justice, serve others in society and protect human rights and dignity; while as citizens they have a duty to defend the best interests of Hong Kong. This dual identity has been the driving force behind their outspokenness and activism on socio-political and moral issues. Evangelical Protestants, however, see their identity as believers as more important than their identity as citizens. As a result, their evangelical work has taken priority and their involvement in social discourse has served only to further their evangelical goals. Evangelicals have remained largely silent on socio-political issues but have spoken out more on moral issues, and in the process have ensured good relations with the state. In my view this has been unfavourable to political reform and the realization of human rights in postcolonial Hong Kong.

The case of the Christian communities is not unique in postcolonial Hong Kong. Although Christian communities may have their ‘other-worldly’ religious ideals, they are at the same time social organizations. When faced with an undemocratic authoritarian regime, the Christian churches need to make choices: should they play the role of ‘prophet’ in accordance with their religious principles, or keep silent in order to preserve their organizational interests. Many other social and business organizations have faced similar choices. As was proposed at the outset of this article, the former can be called a ‘protest model’, and the latter a ‘pragmatic model’. Some groups choose to fight for universal values, such as democracy and human rights, while others choose to befriend the government in order to protect their economic interests or gain access to the huge mainland Chinese market. I argue that a study of Christian social discourse over the past ten years reveals the existence of both the ‘protest model’ and ‘pragmatic model’ and is also a reflection of the general situation in postcolonial Hong Kong.