Justin Tse is an SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington. He received his PhD in Geography at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver. He drinks at least four cups of coffee a day and writes about theology and geography at Religion. Ethnicity. Wired. This is the first installment of my interview with him. In our conversation we explore the surprising role of religion in the Hong Kong protests.

You can view parts two and three of this interview here and here, respectively.

Ethika Politika: What are the protesters' aims?

Tse: 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.

That said, there is consensus that these protests are about a Hong Kong version of democracy. The major issue is genuine universal suffrage for the election of the Chief Executive. Since the 1997 handover, Beijing has promised to implement universal suffrage in a “gradual and orderly manner,” but has constantly pushed back the date for implementation. Universal suffrage is important because the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region exists in a “one country, two systems” constitutional framework in relation to the People’s Republic of China. Each Hong Kong citizen having one vote would go a long way toward ensuring Hong Kong’s autonomy. As recent studies have shown (such as Gordon Matthews, Eric Ma, and Tai-lok Lui’s co-authored volume and Law Wing Sang’s Collaborative Colonial Power), the identity “Hongkonger” has remained salient even after the handover. In fact, my colleague Lachlan Barber wrote a dissertation on the heritage politics of the post-1980s generation that is seeking to preserve Hong Kong’s distinctive cultural geography. Universal suffrage is not an abstract ideological goal; it is being touted as a way to give Hong Kong people political agency in the face of migrant rights abuses, expensive housing, and government collusion with both wealthy business corporations and the criminal underworld.

Beijing’s statements in June and August clarifying “one country, two systems” have officially undermined this administrative independence. Lawyers, activists, and democratic legislators in Hong Kong have denounced these statements for undermine genuine universal suffrage, because they said that Beijing gets to ensure that all of Hong Kong’s candidates would be loyal to the Chinese Communist Party. Fed up with the slowness of the rest of civil society to act, student groups called for a boycott of classes starting on September 22, which led to teach-ins on democracy, demonstrations on school campuses, and an attempt on September 28 to take back Civic Square for the people. That last action led to the police using pepper spray and tear gas protesters, generating a mass movement to protect the students as they proceeded to occupy sites like Admiralty, Causeway Bay, and Mong Kok. Because the protesters expected some degree of police violence, they had brought umbrellas to ward off tear gas; they did not expect, however, that 87 volleys of tear gas would be fired. This nonviolent resistance to such police brutality is why these democratic protests are being called “the Umbrella Movement.”

Have the protesters used religion to achieve their aims?

Yes, but it’s important to clarify that this does not mean that the protesters are being supported by any religious organization. There have been journalistic accounts of how many of the major leaders of the protests are Christian. There have also been Catholic and ecumenical Protestant Eucharist services among the protesters, makeshift shrines to Chinese popular hero-deity Guan Yu, and a politically charged Taoist rite alleging government illegitimacy celebrated during the Chung Yeung Festival on October 2. For the Roman Catholic Church, retired bishop Joseph Cardinal Zen taught during the democracy teach-ins and personally accompanied the students to Civic Square on September 28. He has also issued multiple calls for the students to retreat and regroup, which have seldom been heeded. This sort of cautious support highlights that it’s important to distinguish between protesters who have both implicitly and explicitly deployed theology for their aims and the official religious bodies which have stayed on the sidelines.