The Collapse of Religious Freedom in Hong Kong

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

A recent report, “Hostile Takeover: The CCP and Hong Kong’s Religious Communities,” issued a stark warning for the future of religious freedom in Hong Kong. 

Published by the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong, and authored by Frances Hui, the first Hong Kong activist to receive asylum in the United States, the report concluded, “Religious freedom in Hong Kong is deteriorating.”

Unlike mainland communist China – which has an abhorrent record of religious persecution including harvesting the organs of prisoners of conscience and committing genocide –civil liberties and religious freedom once flourished under the “One Country, Two Systems” model in Hong Kong following the British handover in 1997.

Prior to the handover, the governments of the United Kingdom and China signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, specifying the terms for Hong Kong’s return to China. The Declaration outlines the “high degree of autonomy” to be maintained in Hong Kong, and protects the rights and freedoms of Hong Kongers, “including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research, and of religious belief.” 

Additionally, the Hong Kong Basic Law (the city’s constitution that was enacted in accordance with the declaration) clearly states, “Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of conscience,” and “shall have freedom of religious belief and freedom to preach and to conduct and participate in religious activities in public.” 

In 2014, nearly two decades after the handover, a Pew Research study found that Hong Kong was the 10th most religiously diverse state in the world, with nearly half of the population having some sort of faith.

Sadly, religious liberty is now beginning to unravel in Hong Kong due to the imposition of the Chinese Communist Party’s National Security Law on Hong Kong in 2020. This broad and vague law criminalizes “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorism,” and “collusion” with foreign forces – allegedly in the name of maintaining national security – and has, in reality, been used to stifle dissent and opposition to the Chinese Communist Party. 

In the process, the freedoms guaranteed to the people of Hong Kong under the Basic Law and Sino-British Joint Declaration have been eradicated. 

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2023 Hong Kong Policy Act Report, “Hong Kong authorities, under the supervision of the PRC central government, continued to use the National Security Law (NSL) that the central government imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020 to further erode the rule of law in Hong Kong and the human rights and fundamental freedoms of people in Hong Kong.”

Further, a report by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China revealed “evidence that the government of the People’s Republic of China has dismantled Hong Kong’s civil society in order to crush the social basis of resistance.”

Though the impact of the National Security Law on religious freedom in Hong Kong has been limited, and religious persecution is not as severe as on the mainland, Hui’s recent report cautioned that “Numerous recent CCP initiatives point to the party’s determination to take control of Hong Kong’s religions.”

Citing firsthand interviews with clergy, scholars, experts, educators, and laypersons, Hui wrote, “Eyewitnesses contributing to this report detail the ways in which the Chinese Communist Party is pressuring — if not persecuting —religious people and institutions in Hong Kong. Warning signs of what’s to come include Beijing’s Sinicization of religion, the use of religious education for indoctrination, the intimidation of clergy, self-censorship, and direct attacks on religion and the faithful.”

For example, since 2021, at least three seminars about the “Sinicization of Religion” – Xi Jinping’s initiative to align religion with Chinese Communist Party ideology – have been held by the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong and the state-controlled church. (The “underground” church on the mainland was notably missing from the discussions.)

Additionally, nearly 60 percent of the schools in Hong Kong are faith-based. The report said schools must raise and display the People’s Republic of China national flag (symbolic of the country’s atheism) “beside sacred symbols.” 

Moreover, the report affirmed that “religious leaders are being pressured to promote Chinese Communist Party priorities. Sermons are expected to demand of churchgoers that they adhere to socialist values and accept national security enforcement.”

The people of Hong Kong have a right to worship freely. The Chinese Communist Party must uphold its agreement to protect their religious freedom.