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 second installment of my interview with Tse. It concentrates upon the Catholic Church's complicated role in Hong Kong's politics. The first and third installments of this interview can be found here and here, respectively.

Ethika Politika: You recently gave a talk on the Hong Kong Catholic Church engaging in something called “passive compliance.” Can you explain this strategy? Is it new?

Tse: “Passive compliance” was the brainchild of Joseph Cardinal Zen when he was first appointed coadjutor bishop of Hong Kong in 1996. It revolved around whether the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong could participate in the non-democratic elections for the Chief Executive that have taken place since the 1997 handover until now. In lieu of universal suffrage, Hong Kong has an Election Committee that is composed of different sectors of civil society that each get to choose their own delegates by methods they choose for themselves. In this group are 6 religious organizations, and Catholics are one of them (the others are the Protestants, the Buddhists, the Confucians, the Taoists, and the Muslims). From the get-go, this Election Committee has been condemned as a "small circles election," that is, fraudulent elections that do not reflect the mandate of the people because only elites get to vote—and they often do so for pro-Beijing candidates because they believe it will bring economic stability for the elites.

The debate over how Catholics should participate in the Election Committee caused a split in the Hong Kong curia. The Justice and Peace Commission argued that because the elections were unjust, they should be boycotted. The rest of the curia contended that they should take this opportunity to participate. Cardinal Zen stepped in—at the time, Bishop Zen (he was elevated to the cardinalate in 2006)—and proposed a strategy of passive compliance. This meant that the diocese would not actively solicit candidates for the Election Committee. However, if individual lay Catholics wanted to participate, they could register directly with the Election Committee, and the Committee would check with the diocese to see if they were indeed registered baptized Catholics. In this way, the diocese did not outright reject the elections as unjust, but did not endorse them either.

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.

How much influence does the Catholic Church (as an institution, but also individual believers) have on what goes on in Hong Kong politics? It would seem to be a marginal player when only 5 percent of the population is Catholic.

This is a great social scientific question. Recent numbers indicate that there are about 374,000 Catholics among Hong Kong’s population of 7 million. Insignificant as that looks, the Catholic Church has historically had quite a bit of political power in Hong Kong and continues to have that power now.

To get at this question, we have to understand that the Catholic Church, along with many other Protestant denominations, had quite a bit of influence in colonial Hong Kong before 1997. Along with other religious bodies, the Catholic Church ran some of the best schools, hospitals, and charities. In 1977-8, it was a student protest against a Catholic school, the Precious Blood Golden Jubilee Girls’ Secondary School, that kicked off the major strand of the democratic tradition we are currently seeing at work. The story there is that student gatherings had been banned by a disciplinarian headmistress appointed by the new bishop, John Wu, for fear that assembled students would be leftist revolutionaries. When she suspended some students she suspected of gathering together, emerging democracy activist Szeto Wah led students and teachers to occupy the area in front of Wu’s residence for over a month. During this time, the British colonial government “sealed” the school, in effect firing the teachers and expelling the students. This revealed that the Catholic Church and the British colonial government were in cahoots. What this means is that it’s not just the population size of Catholics that has mattered most in Hong Kong, but where the Catholic Church is located on the hierarchy of elites.

Because of the new regime, there are Catholics who both work at all levels of the government, and there are Catholics who are deeply involved in the democratic protests. For example, the former Chief Executive from 2005-2012, Donald Tsang, was a devoted Catholic who went to daily Mass. The current Chief Secretary, Carrie Lam, is Catholic; she was the one who was supposed to hold talks with the student protesters but cancelled at the last minute. In some ways, you could say that the Catholic Church still reinforces the power of the government. When Donald Tsang was revealed to be sitting in a Macau casino with tycoons and Triad leaders in 2012, the current bishop of Hong Kong, John Hon Cardinal Tong, (in)famously said to the press, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." In other words, he was positioning Tsang as a victim of the public mob, not as a corrupt government official who needed to be disciplined.

However, to say that the Church sides with the current regime would be incorrect. Tong’s predecessor, Joseph Cardinal Zen, remains an outspoken critic of the government. In 2002, Zen lobbied for the religious freedom of the Falun Gong, a persecuted Buddhist sect in China: "If they can do that to the Falun Gong," he told me, "they can do it to the Catholics." In 2003, Zen started the tradition of having an ecumenical prayer meeting before the July 1 Demonstration, a protest that brought over 500,000 Hongkongers onto the street to contest the government’s proposed abrogation of freedom of speech by attempting to pass an anti-sedition law based on Basic Law’s Article 23. The curia’s Justice and Peace Commission has also led protests for universal suffrage, migrant rights, the human rights of sex workers, and human rights abuses in China. This is balanced out with more conservative elements of the curia; for example, the marriage office has criticized moves made to legalize same-sex marriage, while the Justice and Peace Commission has lobbied for the rights of sexual minorities.

But most importantly, because the Church has been involved in running schools, hospitals, and charities, it’s looked upon as a moral authority. This was why when Cardinal Zen stepped down in 2009, he held a hunger strike against an attempt to wrest control of Catholic schools from the diocese and put power in the hands of parents and local school officials. For Zen, this was a subtle way for the Hong Kong government to take away the Church’s political power. As a critic also of the People’s Republic of China’s attempt to consecrate bishops without apostolic succession, Zen saw the school issue as contesting the political sovereignty of the Church. Couched in those geopolitical terms, you could say that even though the Church is a religious minority in terms of population size, it remains a political force that neither actively complies nor actively resists the post-1997 regime.

Is it possible to pin down the position the Catholic Church takes toward the Umbrella Movement? Or, is it a hopelessly complicated stance given the Church’s passively compliant strategy and the fact that it has adherents in prominent positions on both sides?

To answer this question, it’s important to pay attention to what the Catholic Church has actually said. On September 29, Cardinal Tong issued an urgent pastoral letter condemning the use of government violence against the protesters. However, it’s also a known fact that since last year, Tong has opposed the use of occupations as a form of political protest. At the same time, Cardinal Zen actually accompanied the protesters to Civic Square on the night of September 28 when tear gas and pepper spray were used. However, since that night, Zen has called on the protesters to retreat and regroup. His stated reason for this is because it’s become apparent that the government is not interested in dialogue about genuine universal suffrage, if they’re only going to use force against peaceful student protesters and that the only way forward is if the current Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, resigns. Because many of the protesters have dug in instead of retreating, Zen has been fulminating to the media that the protesters are about as naïve as Napoleon trying to invade Russia without considering that they might freeze to death. Those latter comments have not been received well by the protesters.

From these comments, it’s possible to piece together what a “passive compliance” approach to the Umbrella Movement looks like. At an official level, the Church neither endorses nor condemns the protests. At the same time, the Church neither officially endorses nor condemns the government. However, Tong’s pastoral letter clarifies Zen’s call for retreat. At the end of the day, the Church is taking a position on the sanctity of human life and the rights of citizens to express their political agency. Despite the ideological diversity within the Church, every Catholic can get behind the notion that government violence toward citizens is immoral. Therefore, when Zen accompanies the protesters and calls for C.Y. Leung’s resignation, he is speaking for one faction of the Church, and when Tong opposes occupations as a tactic but has remained relatively silent on the current Umbrella Movement, he is speaking for another faction of the Church. However, referencing the parish formation tactics in “March into the Bright Decade,” the Church is actually speaking with one voice against state-sponsored violence.

In other words, the actual practice of “passive compliance” doesn’t lead the Church into a sort of moral hazy zone. Quite the opposite: It clarifies what’s actually at stake in Catholic moral theology in relation to state sovereignty.