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Hong Kong Catholics navigate conflict.

"Everybody is watching this," China expert and Passionist Fr. Rob Carbonneau told NCR a few days before hundreds of thousands once again took to the streets of Hong Kong to assert prodemocracy views, this time over the Christmas holidays.

Hong Kong protestors are instantaneously showing the world, via social media, an uneasy standoff.

"The people fear the government. The government fears Hong Kong," said a native of Hong Kong, now living in New Jersey, who didn't want his name revealed because he did not want to be quoted about the controversy, which has sparked divisions among those with connections to the city.

Hong Kong, with its long tradition of capitalism and democratic rights imported from its former British colonists, is different from the rest of China. It is those differences that are now a point of contention, noted Carbonneau, the holder of a doctorate in American and East Asian history from Georgetown University, now teaching at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

The roots of the current conflict began in 1997, when the British government handed over control of the then-colony to China. The Chinese government left Hong Kong with a degree of autonomy, hoping that its international financial connections could assist the development of the mainland if largely left alone.

The goal, as the Chinese government then described it, was "one country, two systems." But the emergence of China as an economic superpower has tested that relationship.

A proposed extradition bill, which would have allowed suspects to be sent to the mainland, sparked the protests last year, as hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong citizens saw it as an attempt to circumvent the city's tradition of respect for law and as overly deferential to the mainland government.

One of the demands of the protestors is for direct elections for the Hong Kong government, in contrast to the current complicated system dominated by pro-Beijing elements in Hong Kong.

As part of a worldwide church and with a small but significant presence in the city, at 5% of the total population of more than 7 million, Hong Kong Catholics are right in the middle of it.

Cardinal John Tong Hon, the 80-year-old leader of the church in Hong Kong, acknowledged the crisis in his annual Christmas letter, stating that the protests over the extradition bill, proposed by the Hong Kong government last June, "have led to a socio-political turmoil that has rocked Hong Kong over the past six months."

"The conflicting views of the government and the protesters, and those of other people, have torn our society apart, and many people have suffered from distressing traumas, psychologically or emotionally" he wrote.

Tong was named apostolic administrator for the Hong Kong diocese by Pope Francis after the death last year of Hong Kong Bishop Michael Yeung. Tong previously led the diocese from 2009 to 2017.

He urged the Hong Kong government to listen and conduct inquiries into violent incidences between the police and demonstrators.

"Only when the truth is made known can the basis of mutual trust between the government and the people be re-established. It is then that we can pave the way for a dialogue of reconciliation," he wrote.

Catholics in Hong Kong who have taken the side of the protesters, along with sympathetic emigres in the United States, agreed that the church should promote peaceful solutions. But some argue that church leadership has not been out front as much as it could be.

Some pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong expressed disappointment that Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chishing has not been named to lead the diocese. Ha, 6Q, has a reputation for outspoken advocate for democracy.

Ha, Hong Kong protestor Louisa Chow told NCR via an email, "has shown care about the youth and demonstrators based on justice and human rights, conscience and love. He urges people to show our conscience and have wisdom to make decisions. He has led people to march for peace and pray for Hong Kong. He does not agree with violence, but pays sympathy to the youth."

Anna Cheung, a microbiology professor at Manhattanville College in New York, noted that Hong Kong is a connecting point between the West and China. That unique status has played a role in keeping the Chinese government from cracking down on the demonstrators.

Hong Kong, she said, "is like a little golden egg," a place for Chinese oligarchs to do business away from the strictures of the mainland. Because Hong Kong has a long tradition of British law and respect for capitalism, the Chinese government has been able to use its location to expand the mainland's economy. That is a major reason, she said, why the mainland government has yet to fully crack down on the demonstrators.

The Hong Kong emigre previously quoted now living in New Jersey, said that the church is divided, much like the rest of Hong Kong. While most support what is known as the democracy movement--democracy advocates took 87 percent of the vote in elections late last year--there is considerable debate about how far the demonstrators should go. There have been occasional outbursts of violence, which some demonstrators attribute to government provocateurs.

Both Cheung and the emigre in New Jersey said Catholic Hong Kong citizens living in the U.S. are watching events closely, with most supportive of the democracy movement.

Hong Kong Catholics interviewed by NCR expressed admiration for Pope Francis yet are concerned that he is not getting the full story about their plight. They say he is walking a careful tightrope, along the tentative agreement with the Chinese government reached in 2018 that would allow the church to assert more authority over its internal governance on the mainland.

But the church in Hong Kong operates with understandable caution, said Carbonneau. "They are under the umbrella of the Chinese mainland. They breathe in that environment."

Hong Kong has served as one of the few unifying elements of politics in the U.S. The U.S. Congress passed a bipartisan measure sanctioning Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses, with the support of President Donald Trump. The economics of both the mainland and Hong Kong continue to play a role in the future of the city.

Maryknoll Sr. Betty Ann Maheu, who lives in Ossining, New York, worked in Hong Kong for the Holy Spirit Study Center for more than 17 years. While living there, she got the chance to visit the mainland. She saw the development of the economic colossus China has become. "It was a miracle what China was achieving in development," she said.

When an agreement was reached between the British colonial government and China to hand over authority, the city and the mainland became more strongly linked. The agreement indicated that the Chinese government would take full control of the bustling city in 50 years. At the time, it seemed a long way off.

"It seemed to everyone that China would become a democratic system, so no one was worried," she said. But while China has embraced a capitalist-style development, its political control rests in authoritarian rule. That inspires fear among Hong Kong citizens, especially the young.

The struggle is about more than capitalist development, however. Faith inspires many in Hong Kong. Maheu noted that at her parish it was common to welcome up to 3,000 new converts every Holy Saturday.

At the time, she thought, as the mainland developed economically it would emerge as mirroring the values lived in Hong Kong, a largely safe and prosperous city.

Carbonneau, as an historian, said today's Hong Kong needs to be seen in its full context. The Catholic Church is involved, he said, because there are Catholics both in Hong Kong and on the mainland who are watching the situation carefully.

Always lurking is the fear that the Chinese government might respond like it did during the brutal take-down of the protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 even if, at this point, most see that as unlikely, arguing that the Beijing rulers do not want to kill the golden goose of economic growth that Hong Kong provides.

Whatever happens, said Carbonneau, the Catholic Church is expected to play a role.


[Peter Feuerherd is NCR news editor.]

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Author:Feuerherd, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jan 24, 2020
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