The pro-democracy demonstrations, begun on September 28 in Hong Kong, seem to be reaching their end, as Hong Kong police dismantled tents and barricades Friday morning in the Mong Kok area of the city center. Despite this temporary political defeat, Christians have emerged as a significant cultural force to be reckoned with.
The mostly student demonstrators have been protesting China’s restrictions on candidates for Hong Kong’s next leadership election in 2017. Beijing has insisted on vetting all candidates for the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive, which tips the balance toward supporters of the Communist Party.
Chinese government officials have blamed pro-Western, anti-China forces as the catalyst behind the protests, and in a certain sense they may be right.
The story within the story is that the key leaders of the pro-democracy movement have turned out to be Christians, despite the fact that less that 12% of this predominantly Buddhist/Taoist country is Christian.
Earlier this month, a Wall Street Journal article explored the religious background of some of the movement’s main organizers, and found them to have an important Christian component.
One of the leaders of Occupy Central, one of the groups behind the protests, is a Baptist minister named Chu Yiu-ming, and its founder Benny Tai is also a Christian, who considers himself a “part time theologian.”
The Christian presence has been evident throughout the protest, as demonstrators have engaged in public prayer and reading their Bibles in the streets. Crosses have been visible everywhere.
Seventeen-year-old Joshua Wong, another central figure of Occupy Central that has played a key role in launching and organizing the demonstrations, is an evangelical Protestant.
A prominent supporter of the pro-democracy movement has been Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former archbishop of Hong Kong who retired in 2009. According to Zen, the struggle for democracy is “a question of the whole culture, the whole way of living, in this our city.”
Cardinal Zen was also critical of Hong Kong’s current leadership as a pawn to mainland Chinese interests. Beijing’s influence, he said, “brings to Hong Kong the whole culture which is now reigning in China, a culture of falsity, of dishonesty, a lack of spiritual values.”
The setback for the pro-democracy movement may be only temporary, as public opinion seems to be shifting slowly in favor of free elections. A survey conducted by researchers at Hong Kong Polytechnic University revealed that nearly 60% of the population believes that Hong Kong should reject the national government’s restrictions on the election of its chief executive.
Beijing may have further cause for worry as well, if the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is any indication.
China itself now hosts some 58 million Protestant Christians as well as 12 million Roman Catholics. The scholar Fenggang Yang projects that China is on track to become the world’s largest Christian country by 2025.