Four Freedoms, Three Observations: Stephen Lam Reflects on Deng’s Pragmatism

Former Hong Kong Chief Secretary Stephen Lam has a unique understanding of "One Country, Two Systems," the policy whereby Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. As director of the office that oversaw the Handover ceremony and related events, Lam worked with both British and Chinese officials to write a significant chapter in China's contemporary history.

Lam recently reflected on the transition at "Context of the Church in China," a forum organized by The Kaifa Group and hosted at Island Evangelical Community Church in Hong Kong. Looking back on those years, Lam sees "One Country, Two Systems" as evidence of China's pragmatism. It was in China's own interest, Lam says, in resuming the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong to allow Hong Kong to maintain its own economic and social systems for 50 years after 1997.

That pragmatism unleashed four freedoms that have shaped life in China for nearly 35 years since Deng Xiaoping came to power and initiated China's "open door" policy.

  1. Freedom to handle one's assets and wealth. Deng Xiaoping said famously, "Allow a few to get rich first", and thus inspired the rest of Chinese society to follow suit. Much capital has been accumulated in China. Chinese enterprises are investing in and buying businesses around the world. This has also set the stage for what would ultimately become the world's largest consumer class.
  2. Consumer choice. Beginning with individual household enterprises, Deng opened the door for competition in the private sector that would lead to a plethora of choice in the consumer market.
  3. Information and speech. There is relative freedom to circulate information quite widely within China. This works "after a fashion," according to Lam. He gives the well-publicized example of "Brother Wristwatch" Yang Dacai, an official who received a 14-year sentence for corruption. Yang's nickname derives from the expensive watch he was wearing in a news photo that circulated widely on the Internet, causing a nationwide furore over official extravagance.
  4. Religion. Lam cites the role of Nanjing's Amity Press, the world's largest Bible publisher, as evidence of both of Beijing's pragmatism and of the freedom for religion that has opened up in the past three decades.

Lam offers three observations on how Beijing's pragmatism relates to the church in China:

  1. Mankind was not created to serve mammon but to worship God. While China's economic development has been nothing short of spectacular, the current common aspiration to "get rich" ultimately cannot satisfy the human heart. We should pray that the current campaign against corruption would succeed.
  2. Noting the rapid increase of private wealth in China, Lam wonders whether now is the time for Chinese enterprises such as Tencent and Alibaba to set up its own "Chinese Carnegie Foundation" as a way of giving back to society.
  3. Just as "One Country, Two Systems" came about as a result of Beijing's pragmatism, it is possible that China's rulers today will see further development for the Christian church as being beneficial to China.

China's open policy has given China "a second chance" to respond to the Gospel (the first being the spread of Christianity that occurred in China from the early 1800s to the middle of the 20th century).

Self-interest, says Lam, is the best guarantee of procuring such a development. For example, Christian churches and NGOs in Hong Kong have considerable experience in running social services such as hospitals, schools and elderly homes. These organizations should be prepared to share their experience with counterparts in the Mainland. If leaders in the Mainland can see the Christian church contributing to the well being of Chinese society, they will be more likely to give the church greater latitude of operation. Lam urges Hong Kong's Christians to pray toward that end.

Image credit: MacDonalds Nanhai China, by Ian Southwell, via Flickr