by Stan Guthrie
Visit Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and you’ll see an enormous digital clock. It proclaims to the world how many days, hours, minutes, and seconds are left until Hong Kong reverts to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997. While there is no corresponding clock in the prosperous, freewheeling British colony of 6.3 million people, alarm bells have been ringing for some time.
Visit Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and you’ll see an enormous digital clock. This 30-foot-high timepiece doesn’t tell passersby what time it is. It proclaims to the world how many days, hours, minutes, and seconds are left until Hong Kong reverts to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997. While there is no corresponding clock in the prosperous, freewheeling British colony of 6.3 million people, alarm bells have been ringing for some time.
Rumblings from China
And not without reason. Despite communist China’s repeated assurances of noninterference and “one country, two systems,” recent events and statements by Hong Kong’s coming masters have not been encouraging. Beijing has vowed to dissolve Hong Kong’s Legislative Committee, the colony’s first-ever elected body, and replace it with an appointed Selection Committee packed with business leaders who will toe Beijing’s line. This body will in turn select a chief executive for the colony to succeed Christopher Patten, who will set sail for Britain after midnight on July 1 once the Chinese flag is raised.
China’s foreign minister, Qian Qichen, who also chairs the Preparatory Committee that is deciding how Hong Kong will be run, has warned Hong Kong residents not to hold any more commemorations of China’s brutal crackdown against democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. (The first one, a day after the violence, drew a million protesters, or a sixth of Hong Kong’s people.) Last year, however, Qian said, “Hong Kong should not hold these political activities which directly interfere in the affairs of the mainland of China.”
After Beijing handed down an unexpectedly severe 11-year prison sentence against well-known Tiananmen Square democracy protester Wang Dan, 3,000 people in Hong Kong held a protest march. Qian warned them, “This is interfering in China’s judicial affairs and is not allowed.”
Other rumblings from China have been unsettling. The government’s “Strike Hard” anti-crime drive has resulted in 160,000 arrests and 1,000 executions. The campaign has led to mass arrests of Muslims in Xinjiang and Buddhists in Tibet. In June, the Ministry of Public Security decreed a fresh offensive against religion in general and Christianity in particular. Hundreds of house churches have been shut down. Just in Zheijiang, authorities have destroyed 15,000 unregistered houses of worship from several faiths.
Feeling the pressure
Fear is just below the surface. An estimated 1,000 Hong Kong citizens are leaving the territory every week. Some observers estimate that one in eight Hong Kongese have left the territory or will be holding foreign passports prior to the takeover.
“I’m very pessimistic about the near future,” Martin C.M. Lee, a leading democracy activist in Hong Kong, told the New York Times. “They don’t trust us, so they want to control us from Beijing.”
Although several observers say that Westerners are probably more nervous about the situation than is Hong Kong’s minority Christian community, believers too are feeling the pressure. One in four Christians will have emigrated or will be holding foreign passports by the deadline, roughly double the average. According to the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, three-fourths of the colony’s older pastors have left. The average age of those who remain has dipped to 30 or younger. The Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement provides counseling and current research to help the young and stressed-out pastors who remain to cope with the day to day pressure and encourage them toward spiritual renewal.
Crisis and opportunity
Despite the stress, the mood in the churches generally is one of cautious optimism, according to Sam Ling, consulting director of the Institute for Chinese Studies, which is affiliated with the Billy Graham Center of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. Ling uses words such as “prayerful,” “thoughtful,” “subdued,” and “acceptance” to describe it. However, he says Hong Kong’s new generation of church leaders, who don’t carry the painful memories of communistoppression, identify more with the mainland and are more open to dialogue with the communists than are the average people in the pews.
Reasons for optimism abound. The Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, which was founded in 1984, shortly after church leaders discovered that the colony would be returned to China, estimates that church growth has strongly outstripped emigration.
“Roughly speaking, during the past 10 years about 19 percent of the Christian population emigrated out from Hong Kong,” said Fai Luk, general secretary of the movement. “(On the surface) it looks like the Hong Kong churches are declining, but on the contrary, the Hong Kong churches are growing faster than before.”
Indeed, statistics indicate that the number of churches increased from 872 in 1989 to 1,056 in 1994, and from just over 200,000 in registered membership to nearly double that. David Wang of the Hong Kong-based ministry Asian Outreach told National and International Religion Report that more than 300 churches have been started in the last three years, with untold numbers of new cell groups forming.
Spiritual openness has been evident ever since the takeover was announced. In 1987 international evangelist Luis Palau held a crusade at which 31,000 people made public Christian commitments. Palau has been invited back by the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement to preach again from April 10-13. He visited the colony in October.
“The crusade is the last opportunity before the change in government for the church in Hong Kong to unite to proclaim the gospel,” Palau said. “A spirit of fear and anxiety casts a dark shadow over every event, every business transaction, every relationship.”
Brent Fulton, associate director of the Institute for Chinese Studies, explained the allure of the gospel. “It’s a time when people don’t have a lot of security,” he said. “A lot of the things they are looking to for security are not there, so they are more spiritually open. After 1989, after the (Tiananmen Square) massacre, a lot of Hong Kong people had crises and were very open to the gospel.”
Donna Cheung, editor of the weekly Hong Kong Christian Times newspaper, attributes much of the recent growth to the “1997” issue. “From my point of view, to a certain extent the trend of church growth is accelerated by the ’97 issue,” she said. “Moreover, the Hong Kong church is trying to turn the crisis into an opportunity, with God’s providence and abundant grace.”
Preparing for the future
One of the key prayer requests Hong Kong believers are voicing, not surprisingly, is for unity. Hong Kong Christians, led by their younger leaders, are cooperating in massive ways to get out the message in the days leading up to July 1. In 1989, inspired by the global AD2000 and Beyond Movement, a key overarch-ing strategy called Hong Kong Evangelism 2000 was launched. Organizers identified seven areas for work: local church evangelism, people group evangelism, regional evangelism, church planting, leadership training, research, and publishing. Starting in 1990 a church survey was conducted, and handbooks for pastors were published. A series of “Rainbow Crusades” were held in stadiums to help Christians witness to friends, colleagues and relatives.
Following the Global Consultation on World Evangelization in Seoul, South Korea, in May, 1995, the movement received a fresh jolt of energy. Hong Kong participants in the AD2000 event identified three areas in which to focus cooperative efforts—prayer, citywide evangelism, and missions. Leaders have invited prayer advocates such as David Bryant and Ed Silvoso to promote the prayer movement. According to Fai Luk, prayer cells are being organized, and regular prayer meetings for pastors are being held.
In the time remaining before the takeover, Christians are doggedly pursuing many strategies, Fai Luk says, with most choosing to stay above ground. “By using all kinds of methods and mobilizing all the sectors of the Christian community, evangelism moves on intensively and extensively, including prayerevangelism organized by local congregations in different regions, people group evangelism amongst different professions and ethnic networks, personal evangelism together with large scale crusades, using traditional methods with modern media, leadership training together with church planting,” and so on, he reported.
David Wang said churches are holding prayer rallies and mini-crusades in each of the colony’s 19 districts, plus a continuing citywide crusade called “Capture Today.” Churches are also jointly mailing gospel booklets to 1.5 million households, then following up with home visits.
The international March for Jesus has had an increasingly high profile. In 1994, the march’s first year in Hong Kong, 11,000 people participated. Some 20,000 people, from 800 of Hong Kong’s 1,100 churches, marched in 1995. And while no final attendance figures were available for the July, 1996, March for Jesus, afterwards the Fifth Chinese Congress on World Evangelization commissioned 1,000 people as long-term missionaries. (CCOWE meets every five years.)
The Hong Kong Baptist Convention, with 140 churches and 52,000 members the colony’s largest Protestant denomination, has announced plans to double the membership and increase the number of churches to 200. Stated Cecil Chan, president of the convention, “We face a new day and there are numerous challenges for individual Christians and churches, but Hong Kong is situated at the gateway to China and can be the path to bring the gospel to people in China.”
Relating to the mainland
Fai Luk, a pastor who is involved in both Hong Kong Evangelism 2000 and CCOWE, sees Hong Kong Christians having more opportunities to relate with China’s thriving but often untrained Christians as the colony becomes the possession of the mainland. He says the No. 1 priority as Hong Kong reaches into China should be leadership training, not evangelism.
“In spite of the 1997 crisis, we expect to continue in mission and to extend our vision from Asia to the other parts of the world,” he said. “Local mission, ministry into China, and over the world are equal in importance in order that the church is fit and available whenever the opportunity arises.”
Sam Ling stated, “Every indication tells me they will continue reaching out to the mainland.”
There’s just one problem with that scenario. Under the Basic Law agreed to in 1989 by China and Great Britain, China will not allow ministry from Hong Kong to the mainland by virtue of a policy of “mutual noninterference” in religious matters. The communists have promised to keep their hands off of Hong Kong churches and agencies that do evangelism in Hong Kong and even in other countries. China, however, is strictly off limits.
At least one agency doing ministry in China has repositioned itself so as to not draw scrutiny from Beijing. Meanwhile, China Ministries International, which works extensively with China’s illegal house churches, has announced that it is moving its headquarters, library, and publications department from Hong Kong to Taipei, Taiwan, although it will retain a smaller presence in Hong Kong.
“China ministries which use Hong Kong as a base for conducting China field work, such as Bible delivery and training, can expect some pressure from the new government because such activities would be considered abnormal interference,” said Jonathan Chao, president of CMI.
But it will be hard for communist authorities, who are encouraging links between friendly Hong Kong churches and the government-approved Three-Self churches, to stem the flow of “interference” from Hong Kong.
“They can’t help it,” Brent Fulton said. “They welcome seminaries in Hong Kong to work with seminaries on the mainland. There are some joint publishing efforts. Business, education, and social service are all areas where Hong Kong people are welcome to work in China. That opens up a host of opportunities.”
If authorities in Beijing decide to get tough, however, Christians in Hong Kong are vulnerable. Sources havetold News Network International that because of the scarcity of space in Hong Kong, perhaps a quarter of the churches are in technical violation of zoning laws. While police in the colony rarely enforced the law against them, there are no guarantees after July, 1997.
Brent Fulton doesn’t predict any outright persecution. “I think that would be too blatant,” he said. “If China has certain people that they just don’t want in Hong Kong, they’ll just make life very difficult for them in things like renting buildings and getting basic services and permits and visas, and so on. It will become very problematic. It will be clear that they’re not welcome.”
Christians are also at risk by virtue of their social involvements, NNI notes. Comprising less than 10 percent of the population, Protestants and Catholics nevertheless provide 60 percent of Hong Kong’s social welfare programs, 40 percent of its secondary and primary schools, and 20 percent of the hospitals. But they rely on government subsidies to pull it off.
Glen Kauffman, who works with Hong Kong’s Mennonite churches in church planting and leadership development, doesn’t expect a sudden change in religious freedom once the Union Jack is lowered. “The date to watch is not July 1, 1997, but rather a date after that, yet unknown, after the international media have forgotten Hong Kong, and the human rights watchers in Britain and the U.S.A. have turned their attention elsewhere,” he said.
While the 600,000-strong church community—roughly half evangelical—traditionally has been apolitical, its leaders are being forced to make some hard choices. Beijing asked the churches to send representatives to serve on the Selection Committee. After much debate, the Hong Kong Christian Council, a representative group for mainline churches, decided to send two representatives, sparking protests from dissenters. Beijing also asked churches to participate in the annual National Day celebration on October 1, which marks the coming to power of the Chinese communists. While most ignored the invitation, 100 Christians gathered for a prayer meeting on the day.
“The churches in Hong Kong have never experienced so many heavy issues,” stated Tso Man King, director of the council.
Brent Fulton detects the communist-approved religious organizations on the mainland using a classic “United Front” strategy—dividing and conquering. “You identify your friends and isolate your enemies, and you turn your friends against your enemies,” he said. “The Religious Affairs Bureau and the Three Self Patriotic Movement are definitely courting the people in Hong Kong whom they feel they can trust—people who are cordial to them. At the same time, they are making it clear that there are certain people in Hong Kong they don’t like: ‘If you hang around with these folks, it may not be too good for you in the future.’ They are trying to isolate them.”
Believers in Hong Kong, traditionally focused on “spiritual” activities such as evangelism and social work, understandably today are taking a crash course in government relations and other practical matters to which they have previously given little thought.
The Hong Kong Christian Times was founded in 1987. “It provides an arena for dialogue among Christians who have different views on social, political, and even church matters,” Donna Cheung said. “This newspaper is trying to encourage Christians to understand the times.”
Kim Lawton of NNI reports that since 1988 the Hong Kong Christian Institute has encouraged biblical reflection and action on the transition through its newsletters, books, editorials. Kwok Nai Wong of the institute is one of the relatively few Christians in Hong Kong willing to speak out publicly for democracy. “If the church is not going to be around to stand with (the rest of Hong Kong’s citizens) and articulate their fears and concerns to those in authority, then I think the church has failed miserably.”
On balance, optimism
Fai Luk, however, says Christians must take Chinese assurances ofautonomy at face value. “Our basic attitude is conservative-optimistic,” he said. “We have to honor the Joint Declaration signed by Britain and the People’s Republic of China, and to live as if it works, yet we still have doubt whether the terms will be implemented fully, so we have to walk step by step. We’ll continue to strengthen local churches, including leadership, continue the renewal and evangelistic movement, which is getting momentum now, while anticipating more opportunities of sharing our experience and resources with the Chinese churches.”
What can Western Christians and missionaries do to help while the clock continues to click for Hong Kong’s churches? First, Hong Kong leaders say, pray. For some missionaries, however, it goes beyond praying. Glenn Kauffman, his wife June, and daughter Lia, who represent Eastern Mennonite Missions, plan to remain even after the transition. “As the Hong Kong people realize that our future might be affected by China’s decisions toward Hong Kong, they begin to trust us more,” he said.
Brent Fulton counsels missionaries to make sure that what is done is indigenous, so that Hong Kongese are equipped and doing the ministry, both in Hong Kong and beyond.
“A lot of people are asking how China is going to change Hong Kong,” Fulton noted. “Many Hong Kong people would ask how Hong Kong is going to change China. I think it’s really an opportunity for the church in Hong Kong to use all the resources and gifts that have been given over the years to bless China. The church around the world needs to get behind the church in Hong Kong with prayer and support and help that happen.”
Copyright © 1997 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.