Ann Gillian Chu is a PhD (Divinity) candidate in the Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics at St Mary’s College in the University of St Andrews. Her doctoral research investigates how Christians conceptualise civic engagement in light of Hong Kong’s resistance movements. Follow her on Twitter: @agillianchu
Offering an understanding of the Bible from Chinese philosophical, religious, and cultural traditions, Khiok-Khng Yeo asks, What has Jerusalem to do with Beijing? My own scholarship likewise explores how the Christian faith interacts with Hong Kong’s sociopolitical context after the Handover from British colonial governance to Chinese communist rule. As an aspiring theological ethicist and a Hong Kong Christian, I ask questions about how Christians in Hong Kong reconcile their religious convictions with their political inclinations. From my observations in the field, my academic position has been challenged by animosities within the Christian community.
Through this series of posts, I shall focus on the current communication breakdown that plagues the Hong Kong Christian community, which is divided along pro-establishment and pro-democracy lines. After which, I shall propose a way forward by applying the concept of incarnational humanism. In this current post,I will frame the current situation in Hong Kong by illustrating and analysing snapshots from my fieldwork.
Pro-establishment Christians see themselves as wanting political stability where their freedom and rights can be exercised. In contrast, pro-democracy Christians view the current non-democratic system as unjust and requiring fundamental changes before people can exercise any freedom. These labels are unhelpful because they obscure the nuance of each person’s political stance in relation to the overarching grand narrative of the Christian tradition. Some leaders of, say, the Anglican Church are seen as accomplices to the unjust government by pro-democracy Christians, while individual Christian protestors are seen as provoking the Chinese authorities by pro-establishment Christians. This turns the situation from where dialogues might be possible into a hostile environment. While blaming, othering, demonising, and patronising may make one feel better about a situation outside of one’s control, it is unhelpful for building consensus. This challenges me as a researcher since my interview participants often assume I must neatly fit into one of those oversimplistic categories as well, simply based on my age, social class, and research interest. This makes meaningful dialogue challenging to ignite.
Without a common understanding of the Hong Kong context and the overarching Christian story, the Enlightenment concepts of democracy and rights do not give a full understanding of how human flourishing can look like in Hong Kong. There are tendencies to compartmentalise our world—a trend deriving from Enlightenment humanism, where rigid divisions between reason and faith, fact and value are encouraged. I propose that Jens Zimmermann’s theology of incarnational humanism, a holistic worldview inclusive of faith and reason, can recast the dignity of humanity and nature, both of which are created, through the overarching Christian grand narrative of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. Framing divergent political views as evil does not resonate with Christian values of sisterhood—Christians are called to ‘speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ’ (Ephesians 4:15 NRSV), and not to demonise fellow Christians. As such, rather than trying to convince others to think like us, we could try to grieve the current sociopolitical circumstances and personal experience of hurt collectively. This could begin with seeing those with different views as also created in the image of God and equally deserving of human dignity. This shift in perspective could bring us a step closer to communal healing.
Stories from an Insider Researcher
As an insider researcher, my motivation for this project is owed to the fact that I am myself a Hong Kong Christian. In Hong Kong’s very polarised context, as a researcher, I experienced added pressure when I shared my own opinion on the current state of affairs. In my experience, people tend to think in clear cut terms and focus on relatively minor differences in our views. They lecture, berate, and patronise me on one specific point, building up a straw man they need to defeat, rather than embracing the similarities in our views. They view others as either subscribing to everything one side stands for, or belonging wholly to the other side, with no room for nuance.
Two experiences illustrate this either-or mentality that characterises faith and activism in Hong Kong. In a conversation with a leader of a Hong Kong Christian College, a baby boomer in age, I mentioned that Hong Kong is not a democracy (which it is not). He berated me for blindly believing in America’s version of liberal democracy over Chinese socialism and argued that not everything is rosy in America (which I had not suggested). Conversely, I was catching up with a fellow Hong Konger PhD candidate in the United Kingdom; she is a Gen Xer who has not been back to Hong Kong for years. I casually mentioned that the Hong Kong people are weary and tired after months of protests in 2019. Although I was in Hong Kong during the summer of 2019 while she was not, she lectured me for supporting the government’s draconian laws (which I did not) and condoning police brutality (which I did not), simply because I said people were physically and psychologically drained. These two encounters challenged me to think about my relationship with the field and to fellow Hong Kong Christians since it is difficult to articulate my stance with nuance, when each person only hears what they want to hear. How can I present my views to be heard by the intended audience the way I intend, and to hear others the same way in return, to facilitate understanding and commonality within the Hong Kong Christian community?
As you can see from these two snapshots of my experience, the labels of pro-establishment and pro-democracy Christians need to be interrogated, nuanced, and developed. ‘We need to hear and understand people in the languages they themselves speak, for every language contains irreducible subtleties of meaning,’ which is why humanism’s emphasis on language being more than just a medium is important in this context. In the current sociopolitical climate, people are ready to attack at any glimpse of difference. However, in reality, people often agree on most things. Still, some Hong Kong Christians are ready to die on a relatively small hill.
In this seemingly impossible situation, how can Hong Kong Christians move forward? In the next post, I will provide a nuanced perspective of the theological convictions and political convictions, and propose a way forward through applying the concept of incarnational humanism.
Written by: Ann Gillian Chu
Image Credit: Joseph Chan (@yulokchan) @Unsplash
Yeo, Khiok-Khng. What Has Jerusalem to Do with Beijing? Biblical Interpretation from a Chinese Perspective. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018. Kindle Book.
 Yeo is a Malaysian-born Chinese American New Testament scholar who adapts Tertullian’s famous question about Jerusalem (religion) and Athens (philosophy). See Khiok-Khng Yeo, What Has Jerusalem to Do with Beijing? Biblical Interpretation from a Chinese Perspective, (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018), Kindle Book. Location 176-259.
 Norman Klassen and Jens Zimmermann, The Passionate Intellect: Incarnational Humanism and the Future of University Education, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), Kindle Edition. 19.
 I also wrote about my experience conducting fieldwork with COVID-19 looming: https://alumni.wp.st-andrews.ac.uk/2020/07/15/fieldwork-in-the-time-of-covid-19/
 Klassen and Zimmermann, The Passionate Intellect: Incarnational Humanism and the Future of University Education. 65.