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Which way will church-state relations turn in Hong Kong?

La Croix International - John Mok Chit-wai, Hong Kong - Mon, Aug 7th 2017
There is already evidence of growing intimacy between Carrie Lam and local Catholic Church hierarchy.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam met Cardinal John Tong of Hong Kong (second right), Coadjutor Bishop Michael Yeung (left) and Vicar General of the Diocese Father Dominic Chan (right) on April 7. (Photo from the Information Service Department of Hong Kong)

Carrie Lam, a practicing Catholic, was sworn in as the Chief Executive of Hong Kong on July 1. In early August, Coadjutor Bishop Michael Yeung, former chief executive of Caritas Hong Kong, will be installed to succeed Cardinal John Tong as Bishop of Hong Kong. The relations between the church and the government will likely grow closer.

Since the colonial period, the development of church-state relations in Hong Kong has been close. Having served in the government for 36 years, Lam represented the colonial, laissez-faire mindset.

The former chief executive, CY Leung, an alleged Communist Party member, was a political bruiser. The church was, therefore, more willing to side with Lam, then chief secretary. This was especially true for the "Caritas clique", as demonstrated during the opening ceremony of the Caritas Bazaar two years ago when Cardinal Tong lauded Lam.

After 1997, the government deliberately changed its collaborating partners, favoring pro-communist groups and their satellites, while sidelining Christian charities. In order to re-establish its social position, Caritas was eager to improve its relations with the government. 

Though individual church members frequently criticized the government out of the quest for justice and protection of human dignity, members of the "Caritas clique" tended to remain silent. Bishop Yeung symbolized such a stance. This is still very true today.

Things changed a bit during the "small-circle" chief executive election held in March. During the electoral period, Lam was more aggressive than ever. She picked political fights with the pan-democrats, which earned her the nickname "CY 2.0", that is, a duplet of CY Leung. Her advocacy of a more intervening government, though only a verbal one, alienated the business sector. 

Her chief rival, John Tsang, the former financial secretary, took her place as the representative of the traditional colonial governing "philosophy".

Under the direct intervention of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), local "underground" communists joined hands uneasily with business tycoons to back Lam, leading to her final victory. After the electoral result was out, Lam immediately toned down her rhetoric, pledged to mend social rifts, and extended an olive branch to all sectors. So, in comparison with Leung, Lam would still be a far better partner to cooperate with in the eyes of the diocesan curia.

Ever since the electoral period began, Lam has spared no effort in parading her identities as a Catholic, and as a graduate of a Catholic high school.

For example, she visited her alma mater, St. Francis' Canossian College, exchanging hugs and greetings with the sisters there. During a rally, she stressed that as a "Franciscan", she learned the value of charity from the school. 

Just days after her "election", she went to visit Cardinal Tong, Bishop Yeung and Father Dominic Chan, vicar general of the diocese. In a press release for that April 7 meeting, she claimed that she had "all along abided by the Catholic Church's teachings and guidance".

On the first Sunday after taking office, she uploaded an audio recording onto her Facebook page, saying that she was happy to hear that parishioners of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church prayed for her and the new government during prayers of the faithful. She was therefore "very thankful of the Catholic diocese".

A week later, she attended an Anglican church event joined by the leaders of the six major religious groups. She wrote on her page that she attended Sunday Mass as usual and in the afternoon, went for "a special service at St. John's Cathedral to celebrate Hong Kong's achievements". She exclaimed: "Let's all embrace faith, hope, and love as we take Hong Kong to newer heights."

The only conflict between Lam and the church recently originated from her electoral manifesto, in which Lam proposed a possibility of setting up a "Religious Affairs Unit". The diocese issued a statement, confirming that Cardinal Tong was in "resolute opposition" to such an idea. In response, Lam promised not to follow up the proposal.

This little episode did no harm to the relations between Lam's government and the Catholic Church at all. The friendly meeting on April 7 between Lam and the bishops was a proof of the growing intimacy between the two parties. It is also widely known that Bishop Yeung and Lam personally know each other and are on friendly terms.

The admission of Dr. Lam Ching-choi, the chief executive officer of Haven of Hope Christian Service, into the Executive Council (somewhat equivalent to the cabinet) further shows that Lam is eager to draw together politically conservative Christian forces.

On Aug. 5, the diocese will celebrate the installation of Bishop Yeung, and Lam is expected to attend the event. Her presence should not be seen as a surprise, for it is the norm of the diocese to invite the head of government and consuls-general to attend such ceremonies.

However, it would be sensible to see if Lam will be invited to read the sacred scriptures or say the prayers of the faithful. If this is so, such a demonstration of closeness will mean that the church has no more reservation in keeping a cautious distance from the state.

There is another significant point to watch. Bishop Yeung is approaching 72, and his health is far from good. Even if the pope allows his term to be extended after he reaches the retirement age of 75, it will not be long. So, it is quite reasonable to see his term as transitory.

The question is: who will succeed Bishop Yeung as the next coadjutor bishop? The current Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha, who oversees the Justice and Peace Commission, is positioned on the politically progressive wing of the church. Local observers widely believed that he is not the "one". 

Whoever takes up the post will be essential in shaping church-state relations in the coming decade. Let's wait and see.

John Mok Chit-wai is a teaching assistant at the Government and Public Administration Department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is also a commentator on Hong Kong's public affairs.

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