Hong Kong connection to mainland China’s Christians threatened but not likely cut

Hong Kong, long a stepping-off point for evangelization and Christian education efforts in China, is becoming a special target of Communist Party efforts to stem the growth of Christianity in the country, Time magazine (March 5) reports. China’s President Xi Jingping has recently kicked off a new effort to bring Christianity under control by instituting new regulations against clergy in Hong Kong. With more than 60 percent of Hong Kong’s churches involved in some form of ministry (especially Bible and Christian book distribution and short-term training for church workers) on the mainland, the recent revision of religious regulations threatens religious exchanges with both Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. In response, “many Hong Kong pastors are suspending or outright canceling their work for fear of endangering their followers,” writes Laignee Barron. The regulations may also be a way of trying to reintegrate Hong Kong into the mainland after its 150 years of independence from China. Sociologist Fenggang Yang sees the change as “trying to legitimate the repressive measures in the past few years,” which have included destroying underground churches and detaining church leaders in China.

Barron adds that “[t]rouble was brewing even before the rollout of the new regulations. Mainland Christians were sporadically barred from attending conferences and conventions in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong pastors have increasingly paid a price for trying to spread the gospel beyond the territory’s border.” This crackdown has especially targeted the growth of unofficial churches in China, but a recent article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (online in January) suggests that such an effort of repressing both Hong Kong’s and the mainland’s churches is unlikely to succeed due to the growth of transnational activism and mission in China. Ray Wang of National Chengchi University looks at four Chinese cities and finds that government-approved churches represented by the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) and foreign church workers (including those from Hong Kong) have formed a quiet strategic alliance, creating a “backdoor listing” effect that allows “illegal” practices to exist. Another tactic is a minority-majority alliance where TSPM churches predominate in an area and allow underground activity to continue. Because of this type of alliance, foreign missionary funding and services have flowed into the city with few obstacles. These alliances and forms of activism are influential in determining whether religious freedom and tolerance gain traction in a given city. Wang concludes that such a diverse pattern of religious freedom in the country suggests the difficulty of enforcing national religious repression.

(Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1468-5906)