As Sing Hallelujah to the Lord has become the unofficial anthem of Hong Kong’s protest against the proposed extradition bill, elements of Daoism, Buddhism, and popular religions have also made their mark on recent events in the city. This was most evident at a makeshift shrine outside a shopping mall in the city center at which individuals left offerings to a young protestor, who tragically died the night before the 616 march. These prominent religious elements reveal an often-neglected complex religious ecology that has historically contributed to the emergence of Hong Kong’s civic community, social development, and political dynamics.
This religious ecology deserves more scholarly attention. It may help us better understand the social and political situation of Hong Kong, not only in terms of governance, but also in terms of solidarity and autonomy. Furthermore, this ecology underscores the quest for identity in Hong Kong, which has become more urgent through the political tensions between Hong Kong and China demonstrated by the 2014 Umbrella movement and the 2019 anti-extradition protests.
Buddhist Funeral Chants with Sing Hallelujah around the Block
On the evening of 15 June, a young protestor died falling off Pacific Place 太古廣場, the largest shopping mall in Admiralty, next to the Legislative Council and Central Government offices.
That night, Hong Kong protestors messaged each other to not only attend a planned march the next day, but also to dress in black and bring white flowers in remembrance of him. Memes, cartoons, and other expressions of grief and solidarity soon circulated on social media. The 616 march had become more than a protest; it was now also a funeral attended by almost two million people. It was dubbed, “ the most solemn funeral in the history of Hong Kong.”
The small, makeshift shrine to mark the young man’s death included candles, incense sticks, and fruit, all elements commonly seen at shrines reserved for one’s ancestors, Buddhist and Daoist temples, and funerals for the Chinese community. Namo Amitābha (南無阿彌陀佛), a well-known Han Chinese Buddhist chant, also played in the background. The sounds of chants, combined with the repertoire of Cantonese and English hymns sung over loudspeaker at the nearby protest at Statue Square, presented a cacophony of diverse sounds that represent Hong Kong’s multifaceted society.
While Christianity may appear more like a public institution, with Buddhism or Daoism seemingly confined to private events such as funerals or domestic settings or even associated with pro-establishment camps, it is not the case that Buddhists lack social and political engagement. For instance, the Hong Kong Network of Engaged Buddhists香港入世佛法網絡organized a group to join the 616 protest. In addition, meditation organization Still Together一起靜 posted on their Facebook page about civil disobedience and mindfulness. In Southeast and South Asia, Buddhism is a socially engaging and politically outspoken institution. Within Han Buddhism, the Tzu Chi Foundation in Taiwan has also been challenging the argument that Buddhist institutions lack interest in social and political engagement.
Buddhist organizations in Hong Kong have been socially active in providing social services since late imperial times, and especially during the Chinese civil war when refugees flooded in from mainland China. Buddhist-run schools and hospitals were established, with today’s Tung Wah Group of Hospitals 東華三院 the inheritor of a tradition that started from a Man Mo Temple 文武廟 in 1870. Tung Wah Group remains the oldest, and arguably largest charitable organization in Hong Kong, with a wide range of ventures like iBakery 愛烘培, a café and bakery chain that trains young people with disabilities.
Nonetheless, Buddhist institutions appeared to take a backseat to Christian institutions at the recent protests. At first glance, it may appear that the visibility of Christian organizations at the protests is related to the colonial history of Hong Kong, where Christianity was the officially-sanctioned and therefore relatively more institutionalized religion of the colonial master. This explanation, however, ignores a long history in which Christianity was appropriated as a resource collaborator and ideological instrument in the post-war and Cold War eras, while Buddhism, Daoism, and popular religions have been associated with mainland ideology on the one hand, and contributing to the formation of social institutions and local Chinese identity on the other. This is especially the case in rural Hong Kong, as scholars such as David Faure and James L. Watson have demonstrated.
The Church as an Ideological Instrument against Communism: Historical Conditions for Christianity’s Participation in Politics
In addition to hymns, Christian discourse has been commonly applied against police brutality, with protestors displaying signs that read: “Stop shooting the people. Jesus loves you.” During the 616 protest, the way in which protestors gave way to an ambulance making its way through the crowd was likened to Moses parting the Red Sea. Not to mention the official namesake of #OccupyCentral in 2014, “Occupy Central with Love and Peace,” and the Christian identity of some of the most prominent activists, including Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man, Reverend Chu, and Joshua Wong.
This visible/public display of Christianity is related to Hong Kong’s colonial history, but it was not until the 1940s and 50s when refugees fleeing civil war on the mainland that the Hong Kong government began officially cooperating with churches — many of which had access to resources through international connections — on social and welfare issues for the locals. Churches offered higher quality service at a quarter of the cost than if the government ran the service itself. As church historians have pointed out, Catholic and Protestant missionaries served British troops who were dying at a rapid rate from the plague and tropical diseases. Missionaries were also asked to educate the children of British troops and government officials.
The colonial government also found that it was ideologically aligned with churches and organized religious organizations owing to their anti-communist stance. This ideological consideration also stemmed from a fear that local Chinese charities and organizations might sympathize with the mainland on patriotic grounds. Indeed, the British colonial period was punctuated by episodic eruptions of Chinese politics that penetrated into Hong Kong. The 1967 riot, for example, was a movement led by underground communists in Hong Kong. The colonial government therefore favored churches as agents that might curb the activities of communists and resist communist infiltration. In 1950 for example, Anglican Bishop Ronald Hall wrote to the Secretary of the Board of Education, suggesting:
The Government both in the United Kingdom and its colonial policy recognizes that by-in-large only religion can resist Communism and that non-religious secular primary education on a large scale will produce an atheistic proletariat as prepared ground for Communism sowing [Hong Kong Record Series 147 2/2(1), 119].
This approach took the form of a contractual system through which churches became the “clients” of the government. Churches were given authority and funding to provide education and social services through institutional channels. By enlarging the Protestant and Catholic networks through schools, hospitals, and social organizations, the colonial government was able to conveniently establish a social system against communism. In 1966, Christian political activism also led to the establishment of a Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee to tackle labor issues, which aimed to replace labor unions established by pro-China organizations. Christian labor organizations, such as the Methodist Committee for Overseas Relief and the Presbyterian Mandarin Casework Center, worked on behalf of the colonial government and helped pacify the workforce by providing limited social welfare.
As religious scholars Vincent Gossaert and David A. Palmer point out, by 1996 Christian churches operated half of Hong Kong’s 1,354 primary and secondary schools. This helps explain why hymns are a popular repertoire for the protest, as most people are familiar with them from school. Most of the schools with a religious background, however, are located in privileged areas and considered elite institutions, meaning that Hong Kong’s religious institutional history also offers an angle to examine issues of class.
Diffused Han Chinese Religions as an Identity Marker
Although only around 10% of the Hong Kong population identifies as Christian, as a result of institutionalized support Christianity has been historically more equipped, involved, and experienced in engaging with social and political issues than Buddhism, Daoism, or indigenous forms of religious institutions.
In addition, while Christian organizations catered to the British colonizers or elites, non-Christian institutions served as governing and judicial institution for the local Chinese in the colony. In other words, the divide between the religions was not only spiritual, but racial, cultural, political, and social. Subsequently, Daoism, Buddhism, and popular religions in their diffused forms became an identity marker for Hong Kong Chinese. This history may help to explain why religious institutions other than Christianity have been less vocal about their political stance, and similarly less public when it comes to political issues in general. This religious history also emphasizes the difficulty of identity formation for Hong Kong Chinese beyond a binary framework, as the “ethnic minorities” and “new immigrants” in Hong Kong have also been struggling for recognition in everyday life, social and political institutions, and recent protests.
As religious institutions, popular religion, Buddhism, and Daoism also increasingly compete for space, resources, and official support. At the same time, they have transfigured into what sociologist C.K. Yang refers to as “diffused religions,” insofar as they are less distinct as distinct institutions that are separate from each other, with their theologies and rituals intimately merged with secular institutions, social orders, and everyday life. At the same time, practices of such diffused religions do not conflict with other religious affiliations or identities. For instance, one could be a middle-class Christian who retains diffused religious/cultural elements in family and private life. This marks and preserves a specific type of Cantonese Han Chinese identity with roots in late-imperial China, exhibited in diasporic Cantonese communities, and often in resistance to assimilation.
As an identity and community marker, this religious/ethnic/racial/cultural/linguistic identity therefore implies the difficulty of identity formation in today’s “global city” in the age of protest. The protests will likely be a long fight, one that includes changes in everyday attitudes and social institutions guarding the frontier of cosmopolitan sensibility.