SCMP: ‘God’s servant’: Beijing-friendly and born again, former HK official Stephen Lam wants to woo Christians in Canada

I am thrilled that journalist extraordinaire Ian Young has put up a story about the upcoming visit to Vancouver of Hong Kong’s former Chief Secretary, Stephen Lam Sui-lung, on his blog, The Hongcouver on the South China Morning Post. I was interviewed for this piece. I also discovered that – independent of my leads (which means that Ian has to be credited for doing his homework!) – my colleague Dr Sam Tsang (Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary and Ambrose University) also gave his two cents.

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Here’s what’s happening. Later this month in June 2016, Lam will be visiting three Chinese evangelical churches as part of a ‘cross-Canada evangelistic tour’ where he will be speaking on the theme, ‘From Public Servant to God’s Servant.’ The event is being hosted by the Chinese Christian Mission (CCM) Canada, a parachurch organization that tries to bridge the gap between ‘the church and the world.’ This upcoming set of talks has been generating some commotion among Christians about whether Chinese Protestant churches in Vancouver are, in Hong Kong terms, ‘pro-establishment’ (supportive of the Hong Kong government and its ties to Beijing) or ‘pro-democracy’ (critical of the Hong Kong government and its ties to Beijing for not allowing Hong Kong residents full political agency in, say, ‘genuine universal suffrage’ or even ‘Hong Kong autonomy,’ depending on how radically democratic one is). It is uncontroversial to say that Lam himself is ‘pro-establishment’: as the former second-in-command in Hong Kong’s government establishment, he was active in attempts to push forward a democratic reform bill that would lead to a Hong Kong that would have a democratic façade but be ultimately controlled by Beijing. As Young rightly notes, this reform package split the pan-democratic parties in Legislative Council in 2010 and ultimately generated the frustration that led to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the 79-day street occupation where Hong Kong residents demanded ‘genuine universal suffrage’ (instead of democratic reforms that were all for show with no real substance).

Here were my comments to Young on Lam’s upcoming visit:

Lam’s visit is being debated in Chinese-speaking Christian circles in Vancouver, according to Dr Justin Tse, who teaches religious studies at the University of Washington in Seattle and human geography at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He said the tour and the reaction to it were emblematic of the way “democracy and establishment forces in Hong Kong [are] vying for the attention of the diaspora” in Canada. Churches, he said “served as political hubs” of the Hong Kong diaspora in Canada, even as they claimed apolitical status.

“It’s a contest over whether these churches should be having a pro-Beijing politician speak for an evangelistic event, a mass rally intended to convert people to Christianity,” he said. The debate was being played out in private Chinese-language social media, drawing hundreds of comments.

One Facebook posting highlighted by Tse called for “joint action” against the tour. “If any of you or your righteous relatives would like to welcome in Vancouver Stephen Lam Sui-lung, the servile former official who tries to wipe the slate clean with theology, please send me your personal messages,” said the poster.

“There’s no denying that for Chinese people living in Vancouver, there is a sense that the Church has a moral voice. Even if you are not Christian, for instance, you might want to send your kids to Sunday school so that they can learn to be good and moral people,” said Tse. “There’s a sense [even among non-Christians] to think of the church as a moral centre of the Chinese community, and we have the former chief secretary come over to speak and spout a particular version of Hong Kong ideology.”

Tse said that Lam’s previous efforts in such venues had amounted to a “Christianised account of his time in office”. “Chinese churches in Vancouver have this thing where famous people – politicians, movie stars, singers whatever – are used to attract people. Stephen Lam’s celebrity comes from his time in political office. That’s the draw.”

He said the CCM was not overtly political, and Chinese evangelical churches traditionally prided themselves on being able to separate “the private face of the church from public political life”. “It’s being billed as an apolitical event, but what we have seen of the content [of Lam’s previous evangelical speeches] they are fairly ideological” he said, and likening such events to claiming a “biblical mandate”.

“Democracy people or autonomy people are lamenting this event – not just that Stephen Lam is being given this platform, but from their understanding that the church as an apolitical institution… is very easily manoeuvred into political positions without knowing it.”

In this way, I hope that I have successfully and clearly made several important points that Young’s audience can easily understand. For many historical and ideological reasons, Chinese evangelical churches in Vancouver have billed themselves as apolitical since the 1970s – they take particular pride in being able to distinguish their private religious community from their involvement in secular, non-Christian politics. That Lam is a politician means nothing except that he is an individual who will be speaking on putatively apolitical things, like why his audience needs to convert to (evangelical Protestant) Christianity. However, as pro-democracy Christians in Hong Kong have been pointing out, this apolitical bent is a politics in and of itself. What sometimes happens is that people and institutions that are good at circulating ideologies will couch their messages in apolitical tones and be able to convince people in apolitical churches that what they are saying is simply the way things are in reality. As Young’s reporting shows several paragraphs above my comments, this is what Lam has been doing since his resignation from political office in 2012: in 2014, he spoke about the ‘resurrection’ of the hotly contested political reform package in 2010 as an example of how God was with him in his political maneuvering. The God-talk feels apolitical; the content, for those who know the context, has a bit more of a bite.

This is by no means something that is unique to Hong Kong-Vancouver Chinese Christianity. The relationships between churches and transnational political geographies constitute a particularly interesting part of our news cycle currently. One useful comparison, for example, could be the way that the ‘Russian World’ ideology from Putin’s government circulates through the Moscow Patriarchate in the Orthodox world and is combatted by, say, Ukrainians who have churches of their own; interestingly, this ideology may well be affecting the last-minute preparations and scrambling for the Orthodox to get their Holy and Great Council together next week. Another interesting case to come through Vancouver’s news cycle is of a Filipino man who fled an authoritarian church in the Philippines but is currently being targeted by that institution through its international membership. All of this seems to be about the political attempts of national church structures attempting to ideologically influence their transnational diaspora churches, which is not a straightforward process because this often results in ideological contestation in the diaspora religious communities – and increasingly so because of social media. I find all of this very geographically interesting, which is why I said what I said to Young.

I am thankful to Young for being interested in this story. It is also good and interesting to have my comments alongside my friend Sam Tsang. I hope that SCMP/Hongcouver readers will find this piece interesting because Chinese evangelical churches are part and parcel of the landscape of Vancouver’s civil society.

Guest lecturing in Steven Hu’s UCSB class

I had the privilege of guest-teaching in my friend and colleague Steven Hu‘s class on ‘Global Christianity and the Public Sphere’ at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Skype is such a powerful tool, and I’m glad that we can learn from each other across universities through this medium. It’s also always fantastic to be able to interact in such direct ways with the goings-on of UCSB’s brilliant religious studies department, the academic home of many crypto-geographers of religion (including Ann Taves, who gave the Geography of Religions and Belief Systems Annual Lecture at the national geography conference in 2013).

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I learned a lot from Steve’s students, mostly from seeing in what they were and were not interested. Steve assigned my article on the Hong Kong democracy movement and wanted me to talk about geographies of ‘grounded theologies‘ and Hong Kong. We decided to do this in more of an interview style, with Steve asking me questions about what geography is, what Hong Kong is, and what the Umbrella Movement is. I did my standard run-down of the political system in Hong Kong, its legacy of colonization, and how to make an ideological map – all of my favourite things! We also got to talk about the different ways that Catholics and Protestants label themselves vis-à-vis the term ‘Christian,’ which is one of Steve’s favourite things, and I got to tell the class about how the colloquial Cantonese term ‘talking Jesus’ is not about evangelism – it’s about a long-winded person going on and on about meaningless things (not unlike certain points of some of my meandering answers to Steve’s questions). We also talked about some of the unexpected Byzantine practices in the Umbrella Movement because finding ways to always include the Orthodox in geographies dominated by Western Christianity is how I roll.

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Oh yes, that Syndicate forum.

 

At the end of the interview-lecture, I got to ask my own questions, and I’m so grateful to Steve for providing this time because that’s where I learned the most, as that’s when we got to talk about the students’ favourite things. I asked them whether they were personally interested in Hong Kong, and that’s where things got interesting. They told me that they were interested in comparing protest movements and that the most interesting bits of the interview-lecture were the parts about how these protest movements, far from being solely focused on the secular and the material, were laced with religion. They especially connected when I held up my copy of Nathan Schneider’s Thank You, Anarchy and said that one of Schneider’s central arguments is that Occupy Wall Street generated new theologies. They also liked it when – as Steve talked about connections with the Polish Solidarity Movement – I held up my Black Madonna of Częstochowa prayer card (which they seemed to know a lot about – good job, Steve!!). And yet, I also got to respond to another student’s questions about the church’s collaboration and confrontation with the government through the lens of capital – sometimes (I said) capital will determine whether the church will kiss the state’s ass (#sorrynotsorry); after all, as I’m coming to argue, capital has amazing power to do theology – it may even be a god (or, as one of the greatest theologians of our generation, Ms Lauryn Hill, says, ‘it’s funny how money change a situation‘). That seemed to connect well with the students as well, although I could sense that there was some nervousness about the political implications of church-state-civil society separation and collaboration in protest movements. Lastly, I got to learn way more about Steve’s own research on New Calvinist urban ideologies in Shanghai, which I think for the class was a great ‘fishbowl’ moment (Steve and I being the two fish) where scholarly collegiality was put on display.

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Q. Wait, what does this have to do with Hong Kong? A. EVERYTHING.

All this is to say – thank you, Steve, for a great Skype class session. Your class has given me some things to think about, and reflecting on it will be great for keeping my scholarly focus as I keep moving forward. When you read this, please thank them for me, and by all means forward this post to them as a token of my gratitude.

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Photo taken by Steve! Thanks for having me!

Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2015: Newport Beach, CA

I was happy to be able to attend the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in Newport Beach, CA from October 23-25, 2015. Aside from the session at which I presented, there was so much fine work on religion in China and the Chinese diaspora because of Fenggang Yang’s presidential influence over this year’s SSSR, including a special presidential session on the Umbrella Movement where two of the three leaders of Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), Drs Benny Tai (University of Hong Kong) and Chan Kin-man (Chinese University of Hong Kong), attended.

The session at which I presented was organized by my postdoctoral supervisor James K. Wellman, Jr., and focused on Megachurch Fantasies, with a special emphasis on affect theory and evangelical studies. Our co-panelists were all from the University of Washington: Jessica Johnson and Elizabeth Chapin. My paper, entitled ‘Global Cities of God: the ideological fantasies of Chinese American megachurches,’ had the following abstract:

In the 1990s and 2000s, Chinese American evangelicals started a series of congregations that aspired to megachurch stature in California’s Silicon Valley. While only one of them has over 2000 congregants (River of Life Christian Center in Santa Clara, CA), this paper examines what Slavoj Žižek calls the ideological “fantasies” – the imagined objects of desire – that underwrite their implementation of church growth theory. Employing a qualitative methodology comprising 47 key informant interviews with Chinese Christian leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area, I argue that these Chinese American churches seek to establish themselves as sites of influence in the global political economy, precisely the same ideology that drives the neoliberal restructuring of global cities in the Asia-Pacific. This paper advances the affective study of congregations by merging the global cities literature with the social science of religion.

My reflection after this session was that, unbeknownst to us at the same institution, each of us had a different take on affect and emotion. To be quite honest, Jessica Johnson’s work on the pornographic affect in Mark Driscoll’s understanding of Christian teaching and his governance of Mars Hill Church probably followed the line of thought on affect more closely as the field intends, pace Deleuze and Guattari as well as Sara Ahmed. My orientation tracks much closer with Slavoj Žižek, whose psychoanalytic tendencies the Deleuze/Guattari crowd would likely find distasteful.

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Tim Buechsel, myself, and Benny Tai

But the most insightful parts of the conference came through interactions with the Chinese scholars as well as with Tai and Chan (OCLP). These engagements also helped me as I prepared to speak that very weekend at San Diego’s Ethnos Community Church on ‘Global Jesus’ in the Umbrella Movement (the ‘Greater China’ moniker can be read almost as a Barthian move, in which ‘Global Jesus’ subverts the ideology of ‘Greater China’ as an integrated economic regional zone), which I took to mean an exposition of the fields of Global Christianity and World Christianity as they applied to the Hong Kong democracy movement – an intellectual opportunity that I had not yet pursued until this point. I am thankful to Tim and Isabel Buechsel, as well as Reyn and Joy Nishii, for their very kind hospitality as I stayed with them, and to congregants at Ethnos for their very warm welcome to me and the traditions of critical theory and ecumenical theology – different from their evangelical practice in many senses, yet genuinely complementary in surprising ways – that I brought with me. Careful listeners to the podcast will note some factual errors in my extemporaneous delivery (at one point I call the third member of OCLP, the Rev. Chu Yiuming, a ‘professor’ by mistake); my hope is that especially those in Hong Kong will both forgive me for these inaccuracies and see my engagement with the democracy movement as a small contribution to a genuinely democratic society, as they are an example of what Pope Francis means to ‘care for our common home.’

Review of Religion in Chinese Society 2(2): ‘Under the Umbrella: Grounded Christian Theologies and Democratic Working Alliances in Hong Kong’

In 2015, the Review of Religion in Chinese Society published a peer-reviewed paper that I wrote trying to unpack the Umbrella Movement’s cultural geographical background. In this paper, I especially advance the approach of the new cultural geography in understanding the many layers of history behind democratic movements in Hong Kong and their engagement with Christian theological sources. Here’s the abstract in both English and Chinese:

Taking the geographies of the 2014 Umbrella Movement as the point of departure, this paper provides a geographical reading of democratic landscapes in Hong Kong. Using a new cultural geography approach, this study unpacks the grounded theologies that undergird the participation of Christians in democratic movements in Hong Kong. The central argument is that two Christian grounded theologies in Hong Kong – collaborative and critical – have been generated by how Christians acting within two different working alliances have positioned themselves vis-à-vis the Hong Kong government. Drawing from both ethnographic and public archival research, I trace the origins of a democratic working alliance to the 1978 Golden Jubilee Incident, after which a democratic consensus was developed in Hong Kong. Following this thread through the 1997 handover, I demonstrate that this consensus bifurcated among Christians who disagreed theologically as to whether collaborating or critiquing the government was the ideal way to implement democratic reform. This paper contributes to the study of religion in Chinese societies by providing a geographical approach that can be used for comparative work in the social scientific study of religion and democracy.

本文是以二零一四雨傘運動的地理為起點, 用地理學的角度去看香港的民主景觀。此硏究乃以一個新文化地理途徑去分析多種的接地神學如何從下鞏固了香港的基督徒參與民主運動。其論點中心是兩個不同的香港基督教多種的接地神學 —— 合作性及評論性 —— 已經從基督徒如何在兩個不同的合作聯盟之內把自己與香港政府的關係定位而產生。由於一九七八年金禧事件之後香港發展了民主共識,本人便從人種學及公共檔案硏究去追溯金禧事件為民主合作聯盟之起源。隨著這線索一直至一九九七回歸,本人演示了此共識使在神學上意見分歧的基督徒分义成兩派,一派認為與政府合作乃執行民主改革的理想途徑,另一派則認為評論政府才是執行民主改革的理想途徑。本文提供了用地理途徑去作宗教和民主的社會科學硏究比較,因此對華人社會的宗教硏究頗有助益。

I’m deeply thankful to the editor, Fenggang Yang (Purdue), for graciously accepting this manuscript and seeing to its speedy publication. I hope this paper is useful for understanding democracy movements in Hong Kong,their many complex histories, and their relation to theory in social science.

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.