South China Morning Post Hongcouver Blog: How Hong Kong’s history helps explain the Umbrella Movement and Vancouver’s activist evangelicals

I’m grateful that Ian Young has taken the time to post thoughts from my lecture at Regent College on his blog at the South China Morning Post, The Hongcouver. The argument in my lecture was fairly big, so I appreciate how Young has digested the work and tailored it to a Hong Kong-Vancouver public sphere.

Photo: Yu Chung-yin/SCMP

The main point I was trying to make in this lecture was that Hong Kong can be theorized as having what public sphere theorist Michael Warner calls an ‘evangelical public sphere.’ This term is based on recent developments as social theorists, sociologists, and historians have begun thinking about how the Anglo-American public sphere came about. It turns out that in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the structures of the public sphere had a lot to do with evangelical Protestants circulating their materials for moral reform. As it turns out, events like the Golden Jubilee Incident in 1978 – far into the twentieth century – set the tone for much of the protest culture that is to come. Moreover, this protest culture bifurcated into two understandings of democracy – one very much based on this sort of protest culture that may not even be dominated by evangelicals anymore, and one that seems to get a lot more evangelical attention which focuses on maintaining the rule of law for economic stability. The Umbrella Movement, as I suggest, is the climax of these two protest cultures going head to head, and while the Umbrella Movement is most certainly not dominated by evangelicals, what I am saying is that the structures of the evangelical public sphere put in place a sort of anti-corruption strategy through ‘genuine universal suffrage.’

These suggests raise several points of clarification that I need to make to this Hong Kong-Vancouver public sphere. As an academic, most of my arguments are targeted toward intervening into what we still need to know more about. What we don’t know much about in the academy is the role of evangelicals in Hong Kong’s public sphere – there has been much more substantial talk about mainline Protestants (historic and official Protestant denominations) and the Roman Catholic Church in Hong Kong, and this is arguably the same in the Vancouver and San Francisco Asian Canadian and Asian American studies contexts as well. With this massive gap in the academic literature about the role that evangelicals have played in shaping these trans-Pacific public spheres, it makes sense to understand their centrality in pushing back against some of the more dominant social, political, and religious forces in this region’s cities. These knowledge gaps are important for the public to know about because they inevitably affect public discourse later down the road, especially when the public comes calling for academics to weigh in.

However, I still need to make some clarifications. First, to the Vancouver public sphere. My work in this lecture suggested that the Umbrella Movement demands a recalibration of how Chinese Christians in Vancouver are understood, including in the ways that they have protested, including for socially conservative causes like traditional family values politics. Indeed, the larger point that I made was that Vancouver’s public sphere itself needs to be reconceptualized as perhaps more theological than we think, for the conversations on racialization, indigenous sovereignty politics, environmental issues, sexuality politics, and property values have a lot more theological lacing than perhaps the participants in this public sphere have realized. However, I did not flesh it out more fully, so do hold your breath for how that will come about – I have stuff coming through my own academic pipeline, so to speak (with apologies to the actual pipeline debates). There is some talk, for example, about how many of the more recent traditional family values politics in schools have been populated by more recent Putonghua-speaking migrants from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). That is only a surface observation. Stay tuned for more work from me.

As for the Hong Kong public sphere, I recognize that in an era of post-1980s and post-1990s local identity politics, observations made in a Hong Kong-Vancouver transnational public sphere can be received as ‘not local.’ I agree that Hong Kong issues should be framed in Hong Kong terms – and I hope that the lecture does indeed just that – but I disagree that Hong Kong issues should only be spoken to Hong Kong people.

And thus, a few clarifications.

In terms of traditional family values politics, I fully recognize that Hong Kong has had its fair share of evangelical Protestants working this vein of the public sphere, including the Hong Kong Sex-Culture Society, the Society for Truth and Light, and the Alliance for Family Values. I have kept up with the debates about the Hong Kong Cathedral protest in 2003, the Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance and its effect on the 2005 1 July Demonstration, the Gay Lovers documentary fiasco and the subsequent Cho Man Kit v. Broadcasting Authority, the Family Domestic Violence Ordinance, 113, and etc. This will require a separate paper to flesh out, and indeed, I’ve begun revising a conference presentation from a few years back to do just that.

Also, it’s fairly important to notice that I’ve titled the paper ‘the Hong Kong protests and evangelical theology.’ While the impetus for this paper is certainly the Umbrella Movement, the paper was not about the Umbrella Movement, per se, but about the emergence of a Hong Kong protest culture that may have roots in the participation of evangelicals in the nascent democratic activism of the 1970s and its effects on contemporary democratic geographies in Hong Kong, including the Umbrella Movement. A deeper analysis of the Umbrella Movement’s protest landscapes and religious participation in creating them is still necessary, and indeed, is coming out of more than one academic’s pipeline, including mine. Stay tuned.

Many thanks to Ian Young for reporting on the talk, and I hope that this will generate a lot of conversation in this trans-Pacific public sphere.

Regent College: ‘What Can I Do For This City?’ The Hong Kong Protests and Evangelical Theology

On January 22, I gave a talk at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia titled ‘”What Can I Do For This City” The Hong Kong Protests and Evangelical Theology.‘ It was a noon hour talk. Here was the description:

Known as the “Umbrella Movement,” the 2014 Hong Kong protests for democracy have captured the world’s attention, not least for the participation of Christians. This talk will trace this Christian democratic tradition to the rise of an evangelical tradition in Hong Kong, emphasizing the separation of churches and the colonial state, and the trans-Pacific dimensions of Hong Kong’s evangelical tradition. This lecture will be of interest to those who want to know why Christians in Vancouver should care about Hong Kong.

We had quite the turnout. Room 100, a standard lecture classroom, packed out. The motley crew appeared to include first-generation Chinese Christian leaders, second-generation pastors, and a diverse crowd of Regent College students. It was – for all intents and purposes – fun!

Regent College did make a recording, and the Cantonese-speaking Omni News also covered the event for that day. We will put a link to the recording here when it is available.

I want to thank everyone who came out on what could have been their lunch hour. Specific thanks go to Regent Bookstore’s Bill Reimer and Regent College VP Patti Towler and Dean Jeff Greenman, as well as Trish Pattenden for organizing and advertising, and Rick Smith and Joe Lee for helping with audiovisual equipment. My hope is that this talk was informative for all who attended and will be useful going forward for Regent College in engaging Asian Canadian and trans-Pacific communities in their endeavour to put an ecumenical flavour of evangelical graduate education to work on the Pacific Rim.

UPDATE: This lecture received full reporting from Ian Young at the South China Morning Post. I’m grateful to Ian for attending and for reporting so generously.

Syndicate: The Umbrella Movement and Theology

I’m happy to announce that I’ve become a section editor for Syndicate: A New Forum for Theology. Syndicate is a new publication with both online and print fora for new titles and issues in contemporary theology. I’m responsible for topics relating to what theologian John Milbank has called ‘theology and social theory,’ which as a geographer I include to encompass geographies of religion, secularization, and social theory.

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My first foray into this editorial role has been to collate a forum on Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement and Theology. Modelled after the forum on Ferguson and Theology, this conversation brings together three theologians to talk about the theological significance of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests that erupted into international attention on September 28, 2014 and that are expecting to be cleared on December 11. Because a fourth contributor was unable to submit his essay, I contributed the final piece in this forum.

The four essays are:

Here’s a bit from the blurb that I wrote to introduce the forum:

While all this has been novel for Anglo-American audiences, the protests have been long in coming for those who have watched and participated in shaping the ground in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover. If theology has percolated to the surface of the Umbrella Movement, one can be sure that theologians have also been watching and participating. The Umbrella Movement may be far from over. But if its themes of democracy, church-state relations, and grounded theologies have been simmering under the surface for quite some time, it is still worth asking some theologians how the movement’s theological significance might be articulated.

With a liberation theologian (Kung), a feminist theologian (Wu), a New Testament scholar (Tsang), and a social scientist interloper (yours truly), we’ve only scratched the surface of what theologies need further exploration in Hong Kong, but we hope that we have raised enough issues for good conversation for some time to come.

WHAT TO LOOK FORWARD TO: Some of the forthcoming titles that I’ll be working on include Gil Anidjar’s Blood, Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, and John Milbank’s Beyond Secular Order. I’ll also be contributing to a forum on geographer David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. Stay tuned.

Ethika Politika: Hong Kong Catholicism interviews with Artur Rosman

It has occurred to me after I posted on the Missio entry that I have not yet put on this blog my work on the Catholic moral theology venue, Ethika Politika, courtesy of Artur Rosman. I’ve spoken to evangelicals, but I should say that I spend an equal amount of time with Catholics. Rosman interviewed me for a three-part series on the role of Catholicism in the Hong Kong protests. It seems to have also gotten the attention of UCA News, which bills itself as ‘Asia’s most trusted independent Catholic news source.’

The first post is titled ‘Hong Kong’s Moment of Zen‘ and deals with the protesters’ aims and whether religion has been deployed in protest. The ‘Zen,’ of course, refers to Joseph Cardinal Zen, the outspoken retired Bishop of Hong Kong who was with the student protesters from the beginning of their strike. As you will see in this first post, I tried to give a complicated view of the Umbrella Movement:

It depends on what you mean by the “protesters.” There are several different groups involved in this occupation, such as student groups like Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students and democracy groups from across the political spectrum like the more moderate Occupy Central for Love and Peace and the more radical Civic Passion, as well as individual citizens who aren’t associated with a group. There are also pan-democratic legislators who have joined in the protests. No one claims to be the single leader of this movement, and anyone who does is readily rebuffed.

The second post deals with the ‘Catholic Umbrella in Hong Kong‘ and examines how the Catholic Church has carefully engaged with the protests through the mode of ‘passive compliance‘:

My reading of passive compliance is that it’s taken straight out of the playbook of Zen’s predecessor, John Baptist Cardinal Wu. When Wu became bishop in the 1970s, the diocese was allied with the colonial British government in the provision of schools, hospitals, and charities. However, as the 1997 handover drew near, Wu penned a pastoral letter in 1989 called “March Into the Bright Decade.” The central contention of the letter was that even though the 1997 handover would divide Catholics ideologically between supporters of and protesters against the Chinese regime, the Church should focus on parish formation, developing grounded Catholic communities that could resist division. Passive compliance is taken straight out of Wu’s playbook because it’s the practice of balancing out the ideological divisions within the Church vis-à-vis the state regime.

The third post examines the ‘Theopolitical Chess Game in Hong Kong and China‘ and advances political scientist Beatrice Leung’s framework of Sino-Vatican relations as a geopoltical concern:

Here we see the heart of what passive compliance is about. Cardinal Zen developed ‘passive compliance’ ostensibly because he did not want to officially endorse or oppose the Hong Kong Government’s Election Committee. But what precluded active compliance was that fact that the Hong Kong Government, despite being in a ‘one country, two systems’ framework, was effectively under Chinese sovereignty, a state that persecuted unregistered religious minorities like the Falun Gong and the underground Catholic Church.

I’m thankful to Artur Rosman for these excellent interview questions, through which I got a sense of the kinds of questions a Catholic public would have for this, especially Catholics who think about political theology. I’m also very grateful to the Catholics with whom I got to engage through my field work in 2012, including Joseph Cardinal Zen. As with my engagements with academia proper, the public news, and evangelicals, Catholics are an audience with whom I have enjoyed engaging in conversation (see here and here). I’m glad that I’ve been on the record on this issue – indeed, ABC News and Ethics Report has also picked up on this conversation – and I’m thankful that this public discourse around Catholicism and Hong Kong is shaping publications that I hope to submit soon. In short, I’m thankful to be engaged with this audience, and I hope that this too is a conversation that is only beginning.

Missio: Can American Christians Support Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement?

Photo: Antonio J. Alonso

This morning, a post that I wrote for Missio, the online publication of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture, went live. It’s titled ‘Can American Christians Support Hong’s Umbrella Movement‘?

Here’s a sample:

It’s a delicate task to write about how American Christians, especially evangelicals, can care about Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. “I shan’t get into details,” the embattled Chief Executive C.Y. Leung told a local journalist, “but this is not entirely a domestic movement.”

Leung’s sentiments echoed the insinuations being passed through the Chinese press. The details, as it was said, were that foreign (read: American) forces had allegedly funded pro-democracy groups like Occupy Central with Love and Peace, Scholarism, and Apple Daily. As the story goes, the Umbrella Movement would end just like the Maidan and Color Revolutions: the supposedly American-funded leaders would lose control of the movement, and the ensuing chaos would destroy it from within.

This is an incredibly popular narrative: when the South China Morning Post interviewed Beijing tourists visiting Hong Kong, they replied confidently that they “of course” did not support the movement: “We know that it’s because university students are stirred up by the American government to take such actions,” they said. One might think that they were channeling Ivan Illich’s 1968 excoriation of America-China relations: “In Asia, the U.S. is threatened by an established power -China. The U.S. opposes China with three weapons: the tiny Asian elites who could not have it any better than in an alliance with the United States; a huge war machine to stop the Chinese from “taking over” as it is usually put in this country, and; forcible re-education of the so-called “Pacified” peoples. All three of these efforts seem to be failing.” Who counts as an “American Christian” is quite loose: if you are “American” and “Christian,” the allegation is that you just might be an interventionist, especially if you don’t actually physically live in America right now. Don’t try to follow up with me to say that you’re actually part of the British Commonwealth; let’s admit that the American empire is really quite the leviathan.

The problem, though, is that this America-in-Hong-Kong narrative’s details don’t add up. Sure, calls for democracy sound awfully American, but the society for which the protesters call looks nothing like America. The students are calling for civil nomination – the election of candidates chosen by the people themselves – which doesn’t really resemble the primary process in the United States, not to mention that the American president is actually indirectly elected by an electoral college.

Read the rest on the Washington Institute’s blog.

As with much of the Washington Institute’s audience, the readership are mostly Anglo-American evangelicals who have a global sensibility. It’s really a pleasure to address this audience as part of my attempt to reach multiple publics with my academic work, including the academy proper, the public media in both Anglo-American-Australian contexts and in Hong KongCatholics, and evangelicals. I’d also be happy to explore other publics as well.

Many thanks to Laura Fabrycky for making this post happen, and to my colleague Sam Tsang for making the connection. I’m as excited about speaking to this evangelical public as I am about my academic and Catholic audiences, and my hope is that this is the beginning of many conversations to come.

UW Graduate Christian Fellowship: Two Hong Kong Umbrellas: Christian ecumenisms and democracy in Hong Kong

I spoke tonight at the Graduate Christian Fellowship at the University of Washington. My talk was titled ‘Two Hong Kong Umbrellas: Christian ecumenisms and democracy in Hong Kong.

Speaking at this event felt like a moment of completeness for me. Previously, I had spoken in a Catholic setting at the UW Catholic Newman Center and at a secular academic talk for the Jackson School at the UW. For the Catholic talk, I focused on the Catholic elements of the Hong Kong protests, and for the secular talk, I focused on the geopolitical imaginaries from Tiananmen that produced the sorts of grounded theologies we see emerging in the Umbrella Movement. Here at this talk hosted by InterVarsity, I zeroed in especially on the Protestants who were forming new ecumenisms, both with the state and among the grassroots people.

The talk was very well-received. While the Catholics asked about Catholics and the Jackson School audience focused their questions on China, this InterVarsity public asked much more about how the Umbrella Movement could be used to think about church-state relations in America. The discussion was very rich and included references to immigration politics, war and anti-war activisms, indigenous politics (with a shout-out to Suey Park and Killjoy Prophets), and African American and Asian American racial politics, including at Ferguson. One even asked about the connections between Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Umbrella Movement – there are many parallels to be explored there! I also got to tell the story about how UW’s Comparative Religion Unit was founded by a lawsuit.

I came away from this talk very encouraged about how my thinking on the Umbrella Movement is being received among various theological publics. I’m coming to appreciate how each of these publics contributes to our kaleidoscope of theologies here at the UW. Thanks, Geoffrey and Ashley Van Dragt, for your hospitality (as always!), and thanks to the attendees of the Graduate Christian Fellowship for making this such a welcoming space for fruitful thinking on how the Umbrella Movement matters to more than Hong Kong.

ABC Religion and Ethics Report: The role of religion in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

I was recently on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s (ABC) Religion and Ethics Report with Andrew West talking about ‘the role of religion in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution.’ The other guest on the show, Professor David Palmer, is a sociologist of Chinese popular religions who chairs the University of Hong Kong’s sociology department. They told me that they found me because of my interview with Jennifer Ngo on the South China Morning Post on religion in the Hong Kong protests.

Andrew West asked some very good questions during this show. He began with my comments on Religion Ethnicity Wired and on Ethika Politika (parts 1, 2, and 3), on the Catholic Church in Hong Kong. We then moved into a clarification of how Protestant denominations and ecumenical alliances have been at work on the ground, and we had an extended discussion on the controversial role played by Hong Kong’s Anglican primate, the Most Rev. Paul Kwong, in opposing the demonstrations. Finally, West asked about the connection between the protests and religious freedom in China, to which both Palmer and I emphasized that the Umbrella Movement has little to do with ‘religious freedom’ per se, but that does not mean that people like Joseph Cardinal Zen might not have it in the back of their minds.

I’m very thankful to Andrew West and Scott Spark for an excellent interview and for this chance to meet David Palmer on air. I’m also thankful to Jennifer Ngo for creating this opportunity to speak more about the Hong Kong protests. I’ve actually regularly podcasted ABC Religion and Ethics Report during my commutes, and I was thrilled to be on this show that provides such consistently good religion reporting.