Published: 19:13, May 25, 2023 | Updated: 09:38, May 29, 2023
Religious freedom: HK's faith protections belie US slurs
By Grenville Cross

“The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse,” said Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish statesman.

The Office of International Religious Freedom (OIRF) is an agency of the US Department of State. Its mandate is to promote universal respect for freedom of religion or belief, such being “a core objective of US foreign policy”. If places are found wanting, the Secretary of State can, under the International Religious Freedom Act 1998, designate them as “countries of particular concern”. This may have consequences, including economic sanctions, and it is no coincidence that countries like China, Iran and Russia, all geopolitical rivals of the US, have been designated as being “of particular concern”.

Although religious freedom is fully protected in Hong Kong, this has not shielded it from US criticism. On May 15, the OIRF issued its 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom, and in line with Washington’s overall strategy, it took potshots at the city. Heavy reliance is placed upon the claims of particular sources, some named, whose assertions the reader is expected to take at face value. As with other such disinformation exercises, hearsay, innuendo and smear, all play their part in this report.

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Once again, the State Department is using one of its agencies for political purposes. Not content with trying to undermine the city’s economy (by cancelling trade preferences) and weakening its judiciary (by threatening its judges), the US now wants to besmirch its commitment to religious freedom. As usual, this has involved criticism of the National Security Law for Hong Kong (NSL), even though it has, after the insurrection of 2019-20, proved to be the city’s salvation.

Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed, and the report’s “evidence” simply does not stack up. The impression is given of an agency which already has predetermined conclusions and wants to shoehorn into them such slurs as it has been able to unearth

This, not surprisingly, triggered a furious reaction from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government, which, since 2019, has become familiar with such tactics. It condemned the attempt “to smear and attack the HKSAR in its dutiful, faithful and lawful implementation of the NSL, using the name of religious freedom to disguise its despicable political motives.” 

In opening this new front against Hong Kong, the US, however, is on the weakest possible ground. After all, religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed, and the report’s “evidence” simply does not stack up. The impression is given of an agency which already has predetermined conclusions and wants to shoehorn into them such slurs as it has been able to unearth.

The OIRF claims that US officials in Hong Kong have “repeatedly raised concerns regarding the arrest of religious figures and the shrinking space for civil society, including religious groups.” It then homes in on two religious figures, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun and Pastor Garry Pang Moon-yuen, whose activities have landed them in difficulty, and quotes various sources as claiming that religious groups are facing greater pressure. Although the report acknowledged that religious practices have remained “largely intact,” several sources are quoted as saying religious groups have faced greater pressure since the NSL was enacted.

One source, however, who is not quoted, is the former Archbishop and Primate of Hong Kong, Paul Kwong. Having “welcomed” the NSL’s enactment, he said it was “necessary for our well-being”. He explained how the “new law targets only law breakers, and it does not undermine any freedom of Hong Kong, in particular the freedom of religion. It does not affect the Church or any other religious organization.” 

Indeed, Kwong understands US motivations perfectly. He has pointed out that “China is consistently portrayed as evil, trying to destroy everything that is Hong Kong, in much of the Western media and by Western politicians, whereas the British or American government is praised as the benevolent protector and savior of Hong Kong. In fact, China has been helping and supporting Hong Kong and our people all these years.”

This, of course, was the very last thing the US wanted to hear, which is undoubtedly why the US officials in Hong Kong did not report Kwong’s views. They had no interest in a different perspective, let alone a balanced report.

In reality, religious freedom is a cherished asset in Hong Kong, with the Basic Law guaranteeing freedom of conscience. It stipulates that Hong Kong residents “shall have freedom of religious belief and freedom to preach and to conduct and participate in religious activities in public” (Article 32). This, moreover, is buttressed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which provides that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” (Article 18), and the ICCPR applies to Hong Kong under its Basic Law (Article 39). The icing on the cake, however, is that the ICCPR is also specifically incorporated into the NSL (Article 4), and this means that religious rights and freedoms “shall be protected” in its application, which should have delighted the US.

It was, however, less than ecstatic, and chose instead to simply bury this information. This, unsurprisingly, contributed to the HKSAR government’s conclusion that “the US’ so-called annual report has once again turned a blind eye to such reality and blatantly spread misleading and unfounded remarks relating to the NSL”.

In reality, Hong Kong is a multifaith society. The faiths include Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Judaism. Most have sizable followings, and some have established schools and provided health and welfare facilities. Their adherents are invariably law-abiding, and whenever troublemakers have infiltrated their organizations, steps have usually been taken to neutralize the problem. 

In 2022, there were, for example, approximately 379,000 Catholics served by 297 priests, 64 brothers and 481 sisters in 52 parishes, comprising 40 churches, 31 chapels and 26 halls for religious services conducted in Cantonese. Three-fifths of the parishes also provided services in English and, in some cases, Tagalog.

Whereas there are about 480,000 Protestant Christians living in Hong Kong, they comprise over 70 denominations, with at least 1,450 congregations. There are, moreover, about 300,000 Muslims, of whom 50,000 are Chinese, 150,000 are Indonesians and 30,000 are Pakistanis, with the remainder coming from around the world, including the Middle East, and they worship in five main mosques. The Jewish community, which dates back to the 1840s, is vibrant, and worships at three main synagogues. While the Hindu community is about 100,000 strong, there are approximately 12,000 Sikhs who, as with all their co-religionists, freely practice their faith.

The pulpits, of course, should never be used to preach hatred, to promote secession, or to radicalize congregations. Faith leaders are invariably highly responsible individuals, although difficulties can arise if they dabble in politics or encourage confrontation. In every faith, there will always be grandstanders, some naive but others sinister, and the worry is always that they may lead the gullible astray. The US, of course, lionizes such people (in Hong Kong, but not the US), and it invariably seeks to propagandize whenever such people find themselves in hot water.

When, for example, Cardinal Joseph Zen decided to make common cause with five political activists, including former legislators Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee and Cyd Ho Sau-lan, he was asking for trouble. This, however, has not deterred the OIRF from seeking to make political capital out of the situation. By becoming a trustee of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which was created to pay the legal fees and medical expenses of protesters involved in the insurrection of 2019-20, it became incumbent on Zen and his fellow trustees to comply with the Societies Ordinance (Cap.151).

The fund raised no less than HK$270 million ($34.5 million) in over 100,000 separate donations, yet it ignored the rules. The Societies Ordinance requires a society to apply for registration or an exemption from registration within a month of being set up, but this was disregarded between 2019 and 2021. When convicting the six trustees on Nov 25, 2022, the magistrate, Ada Yim Shun-yee, said they were the “Office-bearers,” and the fund was a “local society,” subject to the rules. It had, she concluded, “political objectives and thus it was not established solely for charitable purposes.” 

After he was fined HK$4,000, Zen, to his credit, explained his predicament. He told reporters that he had only participated in the fund as a “Hong Kong citizen,” and that his religious identity should not be emphasized (something the US has deliberately ignored). He frankly declared that “Hong Kong has not seen any damage to its religious freedom”, a truism the OIRF has shamelessly suppressed in its latest report. 

Indeed, contrary to Zen’s wishes, the US has sought to sensationalize his conviction, portraying it as an assault on religious freedom. It is, of course, nothing of the sort, and his prosecution simply showed that, whatever their status, nobody in Hong Kong is above the law. In any event, Zen has lodged an appeal against his conviction, and, in its haste to besmirch Hong Kong, the US has not even bothered to await the outcome. 

Similarly, the OIRF highlighted Zen’s arrest, in May 2022, for the NSL offense of “collusion with foreign forces”. It quoted sources claiming this had “led to fears that other religious figures who supported the pro-democracy movement could face similar prosecutions”. This, of course, was alarmist nonsense, which simply demonstrated the authors’ legal ignorance, as Zen, after 12 months, has not been prosecuted for any NSL offense. An arrest is not a prosecution, and many people who are arrested are never ultimately prosecuted if, after investigation, the evidence does not suffice.

In October, moreover, a Protestant pastor, Garry Pang, was convicted of sedition, and the OIRF has also dramatized this. The magistrate, Cheng Lim-chi, found that he had performed an act or acts with seditious intention over six YouTube videos critical of the judiciary. He had also made “unfounded” allegations against the city’s judges and brazenly challenged a magistrate during the trial of a political activist, Chow Hang-tung. His actions, said Cheng, “seriously undermined the rule of law, damaged judicial officers’ credibility and trampled on the court’s dignity”, and nobody should have been surprised by his sentence of 12 months imprisonment.

Although Pang’s activities had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with politics, the US has sought to make a song and dance about his imprisonment under what it calls a “colonial-era sedition law”. As even the OIRF should appreciate, anybody who maligns the judiciary, disrupts court proceedings and demeans the rule of law must expect consequences. After all, even preachers are not above the law.

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Although, moreover, the practice of Falun Gong is lawful in Hong Kong, its adherents also have to observe the law. There are red lines they cannot cross, not least because every faith must comply with the NSL and be respectful of the rights of others. Although the OIRF gleefully regurgitated the Falun Dafa Association’s claim that “the government used the NSL to harass Falun Gong practitioners, including during the period prior to President and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping’s July visit to the SAR”, it failed to acknowledge that particular precautions are inevitable at sensitive times like that (not only in Hong Kong, but globally).

The real story, however, is that, far from being suppressed, the Falun Gong practitioners informed the US “they still operated openly” in Hong Kong. This is irrefutable testament to the city’s commitment, even in the most extreme situations, to freedom of religion and belief. In other words, it shows how the HKSAR government leans over backward to protect people’s faiths, however unpalatable they may be. This message, however, emerges neither from the OIRF’s reporting nor, more generally, from the West's overall coverage of faith affairs in Hong Kong. 

In its determination to tarnish Hong Kong’s reputation and embarrass China, the US is prepared to use any tactic, however disreputable. When, however, it comes to religious freedom, it is on a hiding to nothing. After all, scare mongering by the OIRF is no substitute for objective analysis, and flawed reporting ultimately diminishes its authors, not its victims. 

The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.