Hong Kong 'cyberchurch' equipping Christians to push for democracy

Patrick Chu prays during a recent church service. Photo by Anna Kam.

Patrick Chu prays during a recent church service. Photo by Anna Kam.

HONG KONG — Judgement Day seemed like it flashed in front of Patrick Chu’s eyes when he walked past some shops with their gates half closed, the sounds of police sirens bouncing off them from the busy streets of Mong Kok. Then the tear gas hit.

“Those who are choosing to ignore some of the hard facts of politics are selfish,” said Chu, a pastor at Umbrella City Cyberchurch, at a recent church service. “There is a clear right or wrong here, for the human conscience. The five demands that the protests are requesting are achievable.”

Violent outbursts in Hong Kong became frequent this summer. Though the protesters’ highest demand -- the withdrawal of Beijing’s extradition bill -- was met on Sept. 4, experts and organizers agree that the movement’s steam is likely to continue, pressing for the other demands, including holding police accountable for excessive violence, the resignation of the city’s chief executive Carrie Lam and amnesty for arrested protesters. 

After the arrests of high profile pro-democracy leaders on Aug. 30, including Christians Joshua Wong Chi-fung and Agnes Chow-ting, Hong Kongers coined the arrests “white terror.” 

Umbrella City Cyberchurch (UCC) formed amidst the Umbrella Revolution in 2014, 79 days of protests for democracy resisting Beijing’s planned changes to school curriculum that critics called an attempt to brainwash China’s Communist Party ideals into children. Protesters used umbrellas to protect themselves during clashes with the police, and they became a symbol for justice and freedom.

UCC’s founders, Common Chan and Lau Tsui-yuk, a married couple, attended divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Reverend Chan grew up in a fundamentalist church, where he saw faith taught as a private matter, separated from society. During the Umbrella Revolution, he saw many Christians having to battle between their faith, which sometimes told them to stay quiet and obey the authorities, and their identity as a “Hong Konger” in conflict with mainland China. 

A founding principle of the church is that too many local churches in Hong Kong are detached from social issues and that Christians have a responsibility to engage in political advocacy for human rights. 

The UCC acts as network church, disseminating its theology to partner churches and organizations, mostly on online platforms like Facebook. It also has church services in physical locations and describes itself as “alternative.”

The extradition bill would have allowed those accused of a crime in Hong Kong to be extradited to China for a trial. In fear of this bill being used on political prisoners, human rights activists and potentially religious leaders, Hong Kongers demonstrated in the streets and the airport shouting slogans against the bill. Peaceful protesters have sometimes been met with police brutality. The UN has condemned the excessive use of police force in Hong Kong, saying the “Hong Kong police’s use of weapons has defied the international guidelines and norms.”

As a teacher that leads a youth group at UCC, Terence Ho, tries to protect his young flock when the protests become more violent, such as an incident in Yuen Long, where 45 people were injured by a mob wielding batons.

Ho said his faith compelled him to attend the protests because he was concerned about the youth’s participation. 

“Strangely, I trust that God is watching and has sovereign control, hating injustice and aggressive violence,” he said. “Though I do not see a solution, I trust that all will be made just in His due time, whether in this world or not.” 

The God-given authority to govern

At a recent service, Chan spoke about Romans 13, the famous Biblical passage that says all power on earth is given by God and God’s people should obey those earthly authorities or suffer the punishments that may come for rebelling. Some church leaders in Hong Kong appeal to this passage to steer Christians away from protesting. There’s a caveat though, which Christians like Chan and Chu are quick to point out: the Bible is also full of stories of God’s people rebelling against governing authorities who go against God’s principles, like justice and free will for all people. Just war theory, laid out in the Catholic Church, operates on the same thinking.

“In fact, the police who represent authority are those who are doing evil and that is ironic,” Chu said.

Chan said that the extradition bill goes against his faith, and to an extent, so does the election of Lam.

“Carrie Lam was elected only by a small circle of Hong Kong’s elites and indeed, Beijing,” Chan said. “In the Christian faith, all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Chan explains that his study of theology and upbringing in Germany changed his perspective on how his faith should fuel the protests, especially to maintain non-violence and petition for changes from within the government itself. He compares the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong to Jesus’s struggle against the Roman Empire. 

“Jesus was an exemplary martyr-warrior,” he said.

The future of the protest

Lam officially announced that the extradition bill will be withdrawn on Sep. 4, but going on 14 weeks of protests, the mass public is not enthusiastic that Lam refused to meet the other four demands.

A leaderless movement, the protests are led by netizens on LIHKG (Hong Kong’s version of the online social forum Reddit) and through groups on Telegram (a messaging app). Chu thinks that successful movements are often led by leaders who believe in a faith, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi because they have high moral consciences and are able to rally support through their communities. 

Since China’s Communist Party does not allow the free practice of Christianity, Hong Kongers know it’s impossible for the faith and Communism to coexist, especially with the Christian beliefs of human dignity and the importance of free speech on social justice and human rights issues.

While UCC leaders trust that God is watching and has sovereign control in the political movements and they believe that God has a plan for the future of the protests, they also fear China could crack down on religious freedom in Hong Kong in similar way it has persecuted religious groups like Falun Gong and Uighur Muslims in the mainland.

“We think that we will see that what will happen in Hong Kong if China takes over will be that they will try to diminish religion,” Chu said.