While attending a World Catholicism Week event at DePaul University recently, I heard a fascinating presentation by Justin K.H. Tse, a professor in the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University. He spoke eloquently about the complex geopolitical and religious realities involved in post-handover Hong Kong, especially in the student protests there over the last few years.
Though our South Jersey Diocese is blessed to be home to many communities of Asian Christians, some background may be in order for much of the reading audience. The transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong took place in July 1997, when the United Kingdom ended colonial rule over Hong Kong and the Kowloon Peninsula and returned governance of the community to the People’s Republic of China. Yet, it remains a unique political location. Today it is still officially described in the Hong Kong Basic Law, their de facto constitution, as: “one country, two systems.”
In 2014, a series of protests erupted over what the Hong Kong residents saw as restrictive encroachment into their civil affairs by Beijing. Because of the prevalence of the accessories in the crowds used to shield the marchers from pepper spray and tear gas, it is often referred to as the Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution.
Professor Tse’s presentation explored the role Christians played in the movement and the ongoing socio-political controversies in Hong Kong. The overall conference was devoted to ecumenical conversations unfolding in the global church beyond Europe and North America. Tse’s work then explored both the ecumenical implications of Protestant and Catholic voices in the Umbrella Movement and the grassroots public theology’s relationship to what he called the “micro-arena of the home,” where pro- and anti-Beijing voices often live side by side. There were some obvious parallels to red-and-blue state discussions unfolding here in America around many dinner tables and BBQ grills. The centrality of issues surrounding migration, human trafficking, universal suffrage, international civil rights, interpretations of marriage laws, and human dignity were also interwoven into the discussions. Because of the vast array of complexities in Vatican-Chinese relations, Cardinals Tong Hon and Zen are important figures in these conversations.
Tse’s book on this topic is called “Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement” (Palgrave, 2016). While realizing the distinct contours that constitute the Hong Kong historical experience, Tse engages the tradition of liberation theology to help situate the Umbrella Movement “as a contemporary challenge for how to do theology in solidarity with the materially oppressed in both Hong Kong and around the world.”
The church adamantly continues to support the full flourishing of the human person, and this includes one’s political agency. While the means to achieve a peaceful resolution and end to state-sanctioned violence are not always unanimous, the Christian community’s commitment to such ideals remains resolute all around the world.
Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., a native of Collingswood, teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.