This is the third installment of my interview on the topic of Hong Kong with Dr. Justin Tse of the University of Washington. It concentrates upon church-state relations in Hong Kong and China, particularly the lack of any wall of separation.

The two previous parts of our interview can be found here and here. Hong Kong protesters have read and retweeted them. They were also featured by UCA News, which bills itself as "Asia's most trusted independent Catholic news source."

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.

Ethika Politika: How much of a role does religion play in all these actions on the ground? Am I projecting my own prejudices into this interview? Does that question even make sense? Could it be that there is something wrong with assuming that church/religion and state ought to be automatically separated and then artificially reassembled?

Justin Tse: I can always respect a question from an American who is self-aware. Given the recent literature on American church-state relations—especially William Cavanaugh’s ground-breaking work on theopolitical imaginations and the myth of religious violence—I can sympathize with the perception that what’s going on in Hong Kong might be read by some American readers as the re-discovery of church-state relations.

Here, the work of Beatrice Leung and Shun-hing Chan is indispensable. Beatrice Leung is a political scientist whose work on Sino-Vatican relations has helped us understand that Catholicism is a geopolitical entity with interests in sovereignty that contest the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist regime. Her book with Shun-hing Chan compares Protestant and Catholic approaches to the question of church-state relations, especially in light of the 1997 handover.

What we learn fairly quickly is that the notion that the church can be separated from the state is fairly artificial. During the colonial British regime, both Catholic and Protestant churches practiced active collaboration with the government, as the colonial state funded schools, hospitals, and charities. It was not until the 1980s that a “prophetic” Protestant tradition emerged to contest church-government collusion, and as I argue, the Golden Jubilee Incident of 1977-8 was the starting point for this new practice. In this sense, you could say that if church and state were to be separated, it was to develop a local Hong Kong liberation theology, one that contested the collusion of the government with the church to enact social injustice. Instead of remaining silent on issues like bus fare hikes, expensive public utility bills, and the government’s failure to build a hospital for factory workers on the eastern side of Hong Kong Island, ecumenical Protestant clergy touting the separation of church and state led the charge to pressure the colonial government to serve the people through material services.

As the 1997 handover drew near, the new Hong Kong government invited Catholic and Protestant clergy to participate in the drafting of the Basic Law constitutional framework and in the Election Committee. This participation caused quite a bit of controversy, but it also raised the question of how much the church should collaborate with the state versus how much the church should stay outside the state in order to maintain a critical position toward the regime. Observe what’s really going on in this debate, then: In Hong Kong theological discourse, the separation of church and state does not privatize the church. It liberates the church to critique the government. The irony runs also on the flip side: it’s the more private evangelical megachurches and Catholic institutions that seek to participate more in the government because they see political participation as a way of maintaining elite power. Official religious bodies, such as the Catholic Diocese and the Hong Kong Christian Council (the local branch of the ecumenical World Council of Churches), usually have members on both sides and have to play the middle ground, often because of the ideological diversity of their own leadership.

It’s here that we can finally interpret the theological practice of folks on the ground. In Mong Kok, the occupiers have set up makeshift Guan Gong shrines and Christian churches. Guan Gong is a Chinese hero-deity who is venerated by both the police and the triads, but the protesters have set up shrines precisely to hex the police and the triads for brutality against the protesters. The official Christian groups take a hazy stance toward the government, but the protesters have been articulating a prophetic liberation tradition from the ground up, drawing individual clergy such as Fr. Franco Mella (an Italian Catholic priest who speaks Cantonese and practices liberation theology), the Rev. Chu Yiuming (a retired Baptist pastor who is one of the three founders of Occupy Central with Love and Peace), and the Rev. Timothy Lam Kwok Cheung (an ecumenical Protestant pastor who works with the street homeless) to support them. The students themselves wear school uniforms that give away the fact that they attend Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, and other denominational schools. Scholarism’s Joshua Wong has told the press that his faith in God and his theology of the imago dei drives his democracy activism. In other words, the protesters are re-grounding theologies to drive their activism.

Are the dynamics on the mainland similar to those in Hong Kong? What is the Catholic strategy there, if any?

This is a brilliant question because it gets right to the heart of Cardinal Zen’s real agenda: Sino-Vatican relations. In 2011, Cardinal Zen said in a press conference that without the permission of the Vatican, he had accepted a 20 million HKD gift from media tycoon Jimmy Lai. He said that he gave a big chunk of that money to the underground church in China.

I tell that story to show that the Church in Hong Kong is intimately connected with the Church in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As Beatrice Leung puts it, the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Beijing Spring saw the Church in Hong Kong become a “bridge church” between the Vatican and the PRC. The question is, a bridge to which church?

As Beatrice Leung shows, Sino-Vatican relations has been contentious for about 500 years. During the history of imperial China, emperors tended to favor rites that mixed Chinese practices with Catholic rites; when these Chinese rites were contested by some hardline missionaries, Catholicism would get outlawed. However, geopolitical relations between the Vatican and the People’s Republic of China have been tense since the 1950s because Mao refused to see the papal nuncio. The regime also imprisoned bishops like Ignatius Cardinal Kung in Shanghai and Archbishop Dominic Deng in Guangzhou, while promoting its own state-run Catholic Church, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA). While tensions began to cool because of visits from Philippine Cardinal Jaime Sin to the high-ranking Chinese politician Zhao Ziyang in 1976, the crackdown that ended the Tiananmen Beijing Spring in 1989 effectively saw the Catholic Church retreat to its base in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, Cardinal Wu’s pastoral letter March Into the Bright Decade also took into account why the Catholic Church in Hong Kong needed to be shrewd and focus on parish formation: it was so that Hong Kong could serve as a ‘bridge church’ between Catholics throughout the world and on the mainland.

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. In one sensational case, a bishop agreed upon by both the Vatican and the PRC, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, suddenly resigned from the CPCA upon being made bishop, effectively declaring himself unequivocally for Rome. He was put under house arrest, which led to serious concerns in Hong Kong about his condition and the rights of Catholics on the mainland. This clearly shows that the relationship between Catholics and China is a geopolitical relationship, a chess game between two states.