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Church jittery over new security laws in Hong Kong

Beijing will only tolerate religion in a very strict sense inside registered and heavily surveilled places of worship

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Church jittery over new security laws in Hong Kong

Pro-Beijing activists hold placards and flags outside the US consulate in Hong Kong on June 26, a day after the US Senate approved a bill that would impose sanctions on Chinese officials who undermine Hong Kong's autonomy. (Photo: AFP)

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There is a good reason that the Justice and Peace Commission of Hong Kong Diocese joined other social justice organizations in signing a letter against the Chinese government’s upcoming security laws for the former British colony.

And that is because under Xi Jinping, charities and non-government organizations (NGOs) have been squeezed like never before, making operating on the mainland too difficult for most. Catholic organizations are all but absent from the People’s Republic except in Hong Kong and Macau. This is largely because of the collapse of relations between the Vatican and China in 1951. They remain threadbare despite the still-secret deal on the appointment of bishops signed for a temporary period of two years in September 2018.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has never had much time for civil society, which embraces NGOs, charities and community-based groups, because its model of government is not pluralistic; rather, the focus is on the primacy of the CCP and the party’s ability to control all organizations that operate in China.

During the reform started by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s following the death of the dictatorial Mao Zedong — and continued by and large by his handpicked successor Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao — the space for NGOs increasingly opened up. Organizations focused on pushing for more equality for women, gay rights and workers’ rights (ironically enough in a so-called worker’s paradise). For sure, there were crackdowns from time to time, but under China’s current supreme leader, who has concentrated power in both his own hands and more broadly in Beijing, things have become increasingly difficult.

In particular, Xi has waged war on civil society and the brave band of human rights lawyers who have tried to wield China’s constitution that claimed to uphold all sorts of rights — including religious freedom — in the country’s courts. He has, in particular, played the nationalistic card of “foreign influences” in his campaign against NGOs.

In March 2015,  barely two years after he rose to the top job in the CCP, Xi passed new laws aimed squarely at international NGOs, placing them under the supervision of the Public Security Bureau (police) instead of  the Ministry of Civil Affairs. They were required to find a government agency to sponsor them, a requirement that saw many leave the country.

On the domestic front, the government began to actively incorporate NGOs it considered useful and innocuous into an increasingly institutionalized system of social governance.

The Hong Kong Diocese joined 85 other human rights and social justice organizations in signing the letter with the overall fear that what had occurred on the mainland will be exported to Hong Kong on the back of the new security laws. It says that the restrictions the new laws will introduce contravene the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is binding on Hong Kong.

“People’s Republic of China law conceptualizes national security in such a broad manner that peaceful activists, human rights lawyers, scholars, ethnic minorities, journalists and netizens are detained, charged and imprisoned for years — sometimes for life — for vaguely defined crimes such as subversion, inciting subversion, splittism and leaking state secrets,” the letter states.

“The law’s expected prohibition on foreign intervention is another vague term that could apply to any group or individual perceived to be interacting with those outside Hong Kong.”

The letter also points out that Beijing and Hong Kong governments and officials have already alleged that NGOs and activists are steered by “foreign forces” and that their peaceful activities — including attending protests, receiving donations and criticizing the government — constitute “foreign intervention.”

From the Hong Kong Diocese’s point of view, what it sees across the border must fill it with dread. The Church’s official social services agency, Caritas International, has no local partner in mainland China.

Indeed, the lone Catholic charity at work on the mainland is Jinde (the word means “advancing love”), which was formed in 1997 but not officially recognized until 2006.

There are no justice and peace commissions in mainland dioceses and recent moves to further restrict religion include increasing bans and restrictions on activities outside churches. It’s very clear that the CCP is only interested in tolerating religion in a very strict sense inside registered and increasingly heavily surveilled places of worship.

Anything outside of this could be deemed interference by foreign forces. The Church is right to be deeply concerned about the new security laws in Hong Kong. It is also right to be taking a stand. The shame is that the Vatican has remained uncomfortably mute on the issue.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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