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.

American Academy of Religion 2015 | Atlanta, GA

I was very happy to be given the opportunity to present two papers at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) from November 21-24, 2015. I also serve as a steering committee member for the Asian North American Religions, Culture, and Society group, so it is always good to see friends there as well. We were particularly proud to host a panel session on the new edited volume Asian American Christian Ethics, which my partner-in-crime in Asian American religious ethics Grace Kao (Claremont) had a hand in co-edited (along with ethicist Ilsup Ahn).

I’m also a steering committee member for the newly formed Chinese Christianities Seminar, and my peers – through no coercion of mine and with my abstained vote – generously allowed me to present some work on Chinese Anglicanism in Vancouver in the new session. Moderated by Jonathan Tan (Case Western Reserve University), my colleagues in the session included Christopher Sneller (King’s College London), Stephanie M. Wong (Georgetown), Mu-tien Chiou (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), and Di Kang. My paper, entitled ‘A Tale of Three Bishops: Chineseness and the Global City in Vancouver’s Anglican Realignment‘ has the following abstract:

This paper theorizes the ‘Chineseness’ of Anglicans in Vancouver engaging with the global Anglican realignment as ideological, especially through their competing visions of Vancouver as a global city, an urban economic center of political and cultural influence. Focusing on the split between Vancouver’s local bishop Michael Ingham and two Cantonese-speaking realignment bishops in Vancouver (Silas Ng and Stephen Leung), my central argument is that Anglicans on all sides of the realignment deployed their self-defined ideological constructs of Chineseness in a contest over how to theologize Vancouver as a global city. The three Vancouver episcopal visions under debate concerned whether Vancouver should be conceptualized as a site for interreligious pluralism, spiritual purification, or civil multicultural discourse. Based on key informant interviews in Vancouver, San Francisco, and Hong Kong, this contention advances the study of Chinese Christianity by suggesting that the cross-regional engagements of Chinese Christians may in fact motivated by civic concerns to globalize their own cities.

We were guided as a seminar by the very able Alexander Chow (Edinburgh), who is establishing himself as quite the authority on Chinese Christianities worldwide. I’m very thankful for his collegial support and am always pleased to hear his feedback on my work. I’m also very thankful to have met Ting Guo, a postdoctoral fellow at Purdue, at this seminar.

In addition, I was part of a quad session entitled ‘Enter the State: Revisiting the Making of Post-1965 Asian American Religion,’ with co-presenters Ren Ito (Emmanuel College, Toronto), Melissa Borja (CUNY Staten Island), Paul Chang (UC Riverside), and Philip Deslippe (UCSB); our respondent was Carolyn Chen (UC Berkeley), and the session was moderated by Isaac Weiner (Ohio State). My paper, entitled ‘Restructuring the Church: Cantonese Protestant organizations and economistic states,’ had the following abstract:

This paper examines the transformation of Chinese American evangelical congregations and faith-based organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area into corporate business models in the 1990s and 2000s. Based on ethnographic interviews with 47 key informants, the central argument is that these business models facilitated Chinese evangelical transactions with both the American and Chinese governments in the hope of shaping public policy on both sides of the Pacific. While these dreams of public engagement date back to the 1970s and 1980s, this paper also shows that the 1989 Tiananmen Beijing Spring’s aftermath intensified these efforts, leading to the restructuring of several key churches and parachurch organizations. These efforts demonstrate that fantasies of state ideologies as well as encounters with governments revamped the landscape of Chinese churches in the Bay Area, advancing the view that states are central to the formation of Asian American religious communities.

I am very excited about the comments that I received on thsi paper, especially the push from Carolyn Chen to think harder about the church in relation to neoliberal states.

I enjoyed my time in Atlanta. This was an AAR where I had some real intellectual engagements and came away feeling like a stronger scholar. I am thankful for those with whom I had conversations and am excited for next year’s iteration of this conference to see them again.

South China Morning Post: School Transgender Policy Row

I have received quite a warm welcome back to Vancouver for my doctoral graduation today. Ian Young has done a masterful job of quoting me in today’s edition of the South China Morning Post.

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The article is about how Chinese Christians — in particular, Cantonese-speaking evangelicals — in Vancouver are contesting the Vancouver School Board’s proposed policy for transgender faculty, students, and staff. There is both a main article and a side column based mostly on a reading of chapter 5 of my dissertation.

The controversy centers on those who have opposed the policy because they feel that their ‘parental rights’ to educate their children primarily in the private sphere have been violated. As I explained to Young:

This is not really a debate about homophobia. It’s a debate about parental rights … and this has been the long-standing theme in these debates in Vancouver…Chinese Christians have this vision for a rational orderly society. A particular reading of the Bible may inform this, a particular reading of the Chinese classics may inform this. But at the heart of it, it’s about a rational orderly society, where parents are the primary educators for their children. What they are seeing instead with this kind of stuff [the board’s proposals] is that this is irrational and disorderly. That’s why there is such a strong pushback.

In addition, I emphasized that these political activities ‘were not a “church effort” but involved churchgoers in a secular way, “through Chinese Christian e-mail chains, informal conversation and assorted Chinese Christian media”.’

I am very thankful to Ian Young for our collegial relationship. He first contacted me last year about an article on youth transitioning to adulthood between Hong Kong and Vancouver, a topic that Jo Waters and I had written on in Global Networks. I found Young’s questions very perceptive and incisive, always pushing me to draw out my points, to illustrate with examples, and to pose counter-illustrations. I suppose I should expect no less from the former International Editor of the SCMP, but I must say that it is always a pleasure to work with someone at the height of his craft.

I also appreciate how Young engages multiple sources in his account in order to draw out the multi-sided complexity of this debate. His interview with Cheryl Chang is revelatory both because of how Chang insists on her secularity as a concerned parent activist and because she was the legal advisor for the Anglican Network in Canada, a realignment group that sued the diocese for their property because they insisted that it was they who were holding to historic Anglican orthodoxy on theological doctrine and sexual praxis. He not only quotes me about the non-church-based Chinese Christian networks, but goes right to the source, Truth Monthly, one of the two premier Chinese Christian newspapers in Vancouver (the other is Herald Monthly). He has done his research on Charter Lau, mostly through my dissertation, but instead of just quoting the thesis, he has used it to trace the precedents for this poobah in both Burnaby’s Policy 5.45 controversy in 2011 and the ongoing debate about Bill C-279 to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (my dissertation fieldwork took place during the C-389 controversy).
[UPDATE: May 23, 2014: These items have been corrected in the online edition.]

As this information develops, however, I do want to make two very minor clarifications to the record, none of which affect Young’s larger point. The ‘CSCF’ that Young mentions is the ‘Christian Social Concern Fellowship,’ not the ‘Christian Social Conservative Fellowship.’ While many of its members are politically conservative and some are card-carrying members of the federal Conservative Party of Canada, ‘social concern’ is a term derived from mainline Protestantism in Hong Kong to talk about the church getting involved in social action. The second is that the Truth Monthly post date is from the January 2014 issue. That this post predates the debate by four months instead of several weeks in fact strengthens Young’s point about this transgender issue being widely discussed in Chinese Christian media.

Again, many thanks to Ian Young for a very thorough article and sidebar for SCMP. I look forward to further collaboration in the future.

Sing Tao Daily (3 Feb 2011)

At the Metropolis BC conference, I was interviewed by a journalist for Vancouver’s Sing Tao Daily (星島日報).  He asked for supplemental information to our talk on No. 5 Road and wanted to discuss especially the Chinese Christian organizations in the talk.  He asked specifically about new migrants from the People’s Republic of China.

Most of what I said was fairly represented in the following article.  The Chinese version is here.  I have translated most of it (with assistance from family and girlfriend) into English here:

New immigrants are changing the culture of religious communities
Chu Lam (Sing Tao Daily, Vancouver)

An immigration research organization has pointed out that as NGOs and religious communities become increasingly concerned about multiculturalism, multiple levels of officials need more attention and understanding as they make new policies toward minorities’ religions and cultures.

Metro Vancouver’s immigration research organization invited Canadian academics, the government, NGOs, and religious communities for a dialogue on Wednesday.  They spoke from the perspective of all three levels of government on what they should pay attention to in policymaking.

The provincial economic and capacity development organization [Embrace BC] and immigration research Metropolis BC on Wednesday was entitled: Religion and society: a policy research symposium on immigration, multiculturalism, and social change in Canada.  This academic symposium invited the academics, government officials, and NGO leaders from all over the nation to participate in researching minorities and immigrant religious cultures and their impact on the changing Canadian social landscape.

UBC Human Geography’s doctoral candidate Justin Tse used ‘tsunami’ to represent the increasing numbers of PRC migrants to Canada.  He pointed out that Canadian Chinese religious organizations are mostly Cantonese-speaking and are mostly from Hong Kong, and that new migrants from the PRC find a gap in language and political values.  Although there are barriers, Chinese religious organizations are step-by-step incorporating new migrants, and the new migrants are participating willingly and happily because of their curiosity and need for religion, so the religious culture is changing from the inside, and it changes people’s view of politics and culture, causing the policymakers to pay attention.

Ryerson University’s urban planning professor Sandeep Agrawal expressed that up till now, the government has planned insufficiently for religion.  For example, in the Greater Toronto Area, there are 147 religious organizations, but there are only 123 religious places of worship, so on average one of these organizations must serve 10,000 people.  Many religious organizations can only hold their events in residential areas.

Agrawal said that when the government plans the city, they need to have the right amount of religious sites planned, so that they can ensure that multicultural and different religions are incorporated into the city development plans.

——

A FEW CLARIFICATIONS:

Sadly, and perhaps fortunately, I was not the one who coined the term “tsunami.”  I got it from another article written on 5 February 2010 in a Christian newsletter on Canadianchristianity.com on Chinese churches by Meg Johnstone entitled “Chinese churches thrive.”  In my own interviews for my master’s project on a transnational Hongkonger church, there were also people who expressed the phenomenon as new migrants “flooding into” the church “all of a sudden.”  We found similar sentiments expressed by some of the Cantonese-speaking churches on No. 5 Road.  A similar phenomenon was also noted by a fourth-year undergraduate geography student I helped who studied a prominent Cantonese-speaking church in Vancouver for his Research Methods: Migration course in Geography.  So no, “tsunami” is not from me; it is common parlance from the ground.

My comments on language also need to be taken in the context of Chinese Christianity in Metro Vancouver, not religion as a whole.  Most of the Buddhist places I’ve been studying on No. 5 Road are actually Mandarin-speaking: the Lingyen Mountain Temple is mostly from Taiwan (although there is a Cantonese tour guide, as well as a prominent figure who is non-Chinese), as is the Dharma Drum Buddhist Meditation Centre; some of the monks at Thrangu Monastery are proficient in Mandarin in addition to Tibetan.  But 74% of the Chinese Christian churches in the 2007 Vancouver Chinese Evangelical Ministerial Fellowship’s directory are Cantonese-speaking; the major Chinese Christian events also seem to be in Cantonese.  This situation is quickly changing as we speak, though, as many churches have started Mandarin ministries.  Moreover, far from all Mandarin ministry being new, there are also very well-established Mandarin-speaking churches in Metro Vancouver, such as Evangelical Chinese Bible Church (ECBC); I also have some very good Taiwanese Christian friends in the area as well; and Stream of Praise (讚美之泉), a very popular Taiwanese Christian music group based near Irvine in Orange County, CA, comes here to tour quite a bit too (and their Mandarin songs are sung in many Cantonese churches too!).

Christianity is important within the Chinese population because according to the 2001 census, there were more Christians (24%) than Buddhists (15%) within the Chinese population in Metro Vancouver.  For further reading, see Yu Li’s chapter on “Christianity as Chinese religion” in the edited 2010 volume on Asian Religions in British Columbia as well as my 2010 article in Population, Space, and Place on “Making a Cantonese-Christian family.” David Ley also has a section in his new book Millionaire Migrants: Trans-Pacific Life Lines (2010: pp. 213-217) on Chinese Christian churches as new civic spaces as well as a 2008 article in Urban Studies on the immigrant church as an urban service hub that focuses on German, Korean, and Chinese churches in Metro Vancouver.

On the difference of “political values,” I was referring to what my respondents had noted as a difference of political sensibilities between Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China.  Of course, the PRC is a big place, and Hong Kong is also very diverse, but this was also a common sentiment on the ground.  As I told the reporter, I think the jury is still out on whether PRC migrants are more politically conservative, liberal, apathetic, etc. than their Hongkonger counterparts in Vancouver.  That may partly comprise some of my doctoral research.  Stay tuned.

The paragraph also seems to suggest that I think that Chinese religious organizations in Vancouver will completely change from Hongkonger to PRC.  I think it’s messier than that, although with new migrants coming into the church, some things will inevitably change.  I am starting to see that already.  But will it completely change?  That also remains to be seen.

Lastly, on the policymakers paying attention, yes, I think this was a hopeful sentiment.  I spoke with a policymaker today, however, who couldn’t care less.  But I think this is perhaps the main thrust of my upcoming doctoral project: what are the civic imaginations and practices of Hongkonger Christians in the Pacific region?  If there is change from new, non-Cantonese migration, then perhaps some things may change politically in perhaps swinging religious votes or perhaps affecting land use or perhaps engagement in new forms of civil participation.  Perhaps.  I still have to do the research there.  But yes, like the article, I hope that policymakers do pay attention to Chinese Christians.

All this said, I think this article is overall a fair representation of the interview I gave and the symposium as a whole (at least the morning portions).  My hope is that the comments quoted especially by Sandeep and myself will not be taken as written in stone by the experts but will prompt further research by academics and policymakers as well as deeper reflection on religion and society by the people reading this in their daily newspaper.