In her recent policy address, the chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, painted a bright future for society through incorporating the strengths of Hong Kong into overall national development. She put forward a plan to build up a huge metropolitan area, including over one-third of the population in Hong Kong, close to Hong Kong’s northern border which would become a center of growth in the next twenty years. This program reflects a further merging of Hong Kong and neighboring city, Shenzhen, creating an innovation hub as envisioned in Beijing’s latest national development plan.
As a Christian in Hong Kong, I am not only interested in the economic aspects of consolidation with our neighboring city, I am also interested in cross-border and cross-cultural exchanges of spiritual life between the communities. While the government creates synergy through conjoining the strengths of the two cities, we should explore whether the interaction between the Christians of the two locations can give rise to new opportunities for kingdom ministries.
But before we can be too optimistic, we should be aware of the extent of differences in religious restrictions between the two cities as shown in the diagram below based on data drawn from the recent Pew report with survey results from 198 countries. This diagram is intended to show the various levels of religious restriction in the 15 most populous countries, measured by social hostility on the y-axis and government control on the x-axis. The size of the circle is proportional to the size of its population. Although Hong Kong is not populous enough to occupy even a tiny dot on the original diagram, I added Hong Kong for comparison with other major countries.
Hong Kong has been privileged to retain a very high level of religious freedom for years. Only 4% of the world’s population enjoys the level of freedom Hong Kong has had with minimal social hostilities and government restrictions on religion. In contrast within its borders, the China government exerts very tight control over religious activities. This significant difference may be one of the factors creating contradictions within the multiple identities in Hong Kong as mentioned in my previous post.
Faith communities in Hong Kong worry that the religious policies in Hong Kong will follow the pattern in China as government-led assimilation increases across the two neighboring cities come into place. I believe churches in Hong Kong should learn humbly from their counterparts in Shenzhen who know how to get along in difficult situations. They are accustomed to strict control in preaching, gathering, and expressing religious ideas on the internet. With their wisdom and prudence, most churches there have survived and thrived in the stringent conditions of the past.
Indeed, if we can adapt to the changes, the integration of Hong Kong and Shenzhen has the potential to provide connections for expanding the kingdom of God through joint efforts involving both cities. Whether this dream can come true depends on whether the faith communities in the two cities are ready to share visions. As people in Hong Kong grapple with the Hong Kong and China identities, it is difficult to share dreams in unity. In my last article, I proposed that we should hold our kingdom identity first and ethnic identity second.
Holding to kingdom identity helps promote unity among faith communities across the border. To be clear, I am not disparaging either Hong Kong or China identity as I believe that our ethnic identities reflect the beauty of God who has created us in his image.2 Certain distinctive features of a group of people are conducive to the formation of ethnic identity, including ancestral origins, affiliation, bodily features, religion, culture, and geography.3 I would like to take the ethnic identity of the Jews to illustrate how God intentionally molded a distinguishing identity for the Israelites in the Old Testament.
The Scripture provides a very clear narrative of the origin of the Israel people. With Abraham as the patriarch of a special people group with a mission to bless all nations (Genesis 12:1–3), the Israelites lived in clans with close social ties. They bore the same bodily mark of circumcision. They venerated the only true God who granted them the gift of Mosaic Law to guide their livelihood. The law also shaped their culture in the promised land. These distinguishing ethnic components forged into such a strong identity that the Jews retained their ethnic vitality for two thousand years after the loss of their homeland and atrocities of antisemitism.4 Until now, they are overwhelmingly proud of their Jewish identity no matter if they live in America5 or Israel6 according to the surveys of Pew Research Center. It is notable, and surprising, that surviving one of history’s most unbearable persecutions has reinforced rather than diminished their identity. Most of them consider that the Holocaust is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them personally.
In the same way, God also shaped Christians in the New Testament era with an even more highly esteemed ethnicity. In terms of origin, the kingdom of heaven is founded by the Son of God, not by man. We grow in close affiliation with one another in the body of Christ (Romans 12:5). Jesus has promised his presence with us whenever we gather in his name (Matthew 18:20). Although we do not have a bodily mark like the Jews, the emblem of the cross is deeply inscribed in the mind of every Christian. We not only worship the only true God, but we also work with him to transform the cultures of the world. He blesses us and sends us forth to bless all nations (2 Corinthians 13:14; Matthew 28:19). We hold on to the same hope for the promised heritage that is much better than any land on earth (Acts 20:32, 26:18). God has enriched the whole set of ethnic components with bountiful blessings until eternity, building up an honorable identity for his citizens in his kingdom. If the identity carried down from the Old Testament has been so resourceful for enduring trials and hardship for the Jews, how much more Christians today should embrace our kingdom citizenship and its eternal value.
By upholding our shared identity in the kingdom, we can see more commonalities than differences between the faith communities of the two cities. We look forward to enrichment in our spiritual life when more integrative development comes into place. We will be able to work together in ministries with mutual interests. To cite a practical idea, social service organizations with Christian values in Hong Kong can exchange and collaborate with the NGOs in China to reach out to more diversified communities. Many faith-based organizations in Hong Kong have a wealth of professional experience in cultural transformation through community services. There is also ample space for reaching out to the needy through carrying the sacrificial love of Christ.
As I deliver seminars in various churches in Hong Kong in understanding and coping with the new normal, I have found that most of them focus on how to protect themselves against violating the more stringent regulations. They also plan to disperse congregations to worship in small groups like house churches in China. I believe that these are good preparations but not enough to go beyond coping to participating in God’s mission in the new normal. I trust that God is in control of the developments, and that he has a plan. Let us pray for wisdom to discern our part in God’s plan.
- Source of data: “Globally, Social Hostilities Related to Religion Decline in 2019, While Government Restrictions Remain at Highest Levels,” Pew Research Center, September 30, 2021, https://www.pewforum.org/2021/09/30/globally-social-hostilities-related-to-religion-decline-in-2019-while-government-restrictions-remain-at-highest-levels/ (accessed November 15, 2021).
- Sarah Shin, Beyond Colorblind: Redeeming Our Ethnic Journey, (IL, InterVarsity Press, 2007), pp. 29–30.
- May Sheung Yip, “Nuba in Sudan: Ethnicity at Risk and Response,” Dissertation for Cook School of Intercultural Studies, Biola University, 2011, p. 7–8.
- John J. Collins, The Invention of Judaism: Torah and Jewish Identity from Deuteronomy to Paul, (US, University of California Press, 2017), pp. 184–190.
- Luis Lugo, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews,” (US: Pew Research Center, 2013), p. 7.
- Alan Cooperman, “Israel’s Religiously Divided Society”, (US: Pew Research Center, 2016), p. 72.
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