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Beijing: The new king of an old crown colony

International | One year later, some effects of communist rule are obvious; but for the church, the changes are more subtle

Issue: "DeLay: Cracking the whip," July 18, 1998

Gone are the British crown and the word royal from establishments like the Royal Hong Kong Observatory. So, too, the image of Queen Elizabeth from postage stamps. The hybrid bauhinia, a flower, is the symbol of a new Hong Kong under Chinese rule, adorning everything from public places to police insignia. Holidays like the British monarch's birthday have been replaced by China's National Day on Oct. 1 and Hong Kong's own handover day, July 1.

The vestiges of British control over the once-colonial territory have faded faster than lotus petals since the historic handover one year ago of Hong Kong to the Chinese government. Residents of Hong Kong, once accustomed to the command the English language gave them in the world economy, now receive utility bills in Chinese. Chinese lettering has replaced most English signage. And, in one of the new government's more controversial moves, beginning in September, most schools will be required to use the local Cantonese dialect for instruction. Mandarin, too, will be introduced in primary school, further sidelining English. Schools now use English or a mix of Cantonese and English for instruction. With a twist to the proverbial axiom, Hong Kongers are discovering that the more things change, the more things change.

If public transformation is plainly apparent, the changes to church life are not so obvious. Ministry leaders say they have encountered no interference from authorities on matters of worship and ministry. No churches have been closed. No missionary has been refused a visa to work in Hong Kong. Foreign Christian workers-even those whose field is mainland China-have had no problems maintaining residency. Most will admit, however, that their approach to ministry has changed, and they have taken not-so-subtle steps to avoid confrontations with a government now controlled by Beijing's communist leaders.

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Jonathan Chao, head of China Ministries International, was one potential troublemaker. He transferred his base of operations out of Hong Kong well before it became a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China. He left in November 1996 to protect the organization's freedom to report on persecution of Christians in mainland China. Now he is based in Taiwan, but his work still takes him in and out of Hong Kong about eight times a year, and CMI's board of directors continues to hold meetings there. The organization publishes in Hong Kong one of its periodicals, an English-language bimonthly called China and the Gospel, with no harassment from the Beijing-backed bureaucracy. Mr. Chao told WORLD he has faced no obstacles to his now-limited work in Hong Kong, or to traveling freely there. Yet, like other church leaders, he has acquired a defensive posture.

"It's a psychological thing. If I were in Hong Kong, it would be somewhat difficult to get researchers who might be willing to work with the possibility of interference and continue to write critically. We report persecution from China. We feel we might have risked receiving a 'friendly warning' from the government," he said.

Mr. Chao moved also in order to protect a valuable library of 10,000 books chronicling church life and persecution in mainland China: "We did not want to find ourselves in a situation where we could not move."

Mission organizations with similar concerns took similar steps, sometimes years before the anticipated handover. The Far East Broadcasting Company, for instance, maintains equipment and some personnel in Hong Kong, but its base of operations is now in Taiwan. Those who have stayed, according to Mr. Chao, are reluctant nowadays to recruit outsiders, particularly American missionaries, to assist them.

Mr. Chao said human flight from Hong Kong includes many pastors as well. "The average age of senior pastors in Hong Kong is 28," he said. Older pastors, according to Mr. Chao, have moved to Vancouver or areas of the United States with large Hong Kong communities, and "the churches of Hong Kong are deprived of their senior wisdom."

The formal presence of the church is also diminished. Church ceremonies that used to accompany civic occasions, such as the beginning of the judicial year, have been eliminated. On matters of protocol, the Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops have been demoted. Under British rule, they were seated just after the governor and four cabinet ministers. Now Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, is a follower of Buddha and Confucius, and the clergymen find themselves ranked 11th in a cluster of Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, and Confucian representatives.

Some pastors believe the loss of institutional privilege may be a good thing, forcing mainline churches to separate themselves from government policy. Others speak of the downside: "Certainly the wider community in Hong Kong will increasingly be less exposed to the Christian faith and the Christian church," said pastor Kwok Nai-wang, director of the Hong Kong Christian Institute.

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