I began writing this piece before the death of Jesuit Father James Hurley (余理謙神父) in Dublin on April 13. I did not have the pleasure of knowing him. But in 2020, I was fortunate to come upon Option for the Deprived (Centre for Catholic Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 2008). Reading his speeches and writings collected from 1968 onwards is like hearing the voice of one crying in the wilderness.
Had the prophetic insights—honed by decades of ministry at the grassroots level—been carried out in the fields of education, political economy and human rights, we might have been spared some of the deep social frustrations, gross economic injustice and the high price paid by many—especially the young—in our society in recent years.
Over 7,600 have been arrested in about 1,400 anti-government protests since June 2019. More than 4,600 (60 per cent) are aged between 19- and 30-years-old; another 17.5 per cent are under 18-years-old. Those convicted of “rioting” under the colonial-era Public Order Ordinance can face up to 10 years in jail.
Father Hurley asked: “Is it any wonder then that these young people should stand on the thresholds of life feeling sad, dejected and empty? …If anyone is to shoulder the blame surely it is their elders, their guides and counsellors, their parents and guardians… it is not that youth has failed us, it is rather that we have failed youth.” (p.10)
We are not engaged in an exercise of finger-pointing. But as members of the Catholic Church, we share in the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of our times. We have a role in shaping our society and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with our neighbour.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Father Hurley was chaplain to the Hong Kong Federation of Catholic Students from 1965 to 1972. Those were the heady days of worldwide youth protests, the 1967 riot (fomented by ultra-leftists eager to import the Cultural Revolution) and various patriotic movements, for example the Chinese language movement (hitherto English was the only official language) and the Defend the Diaoyu Islands movement that asserted Chinese sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.
Later revelations, for example in Szeto Wah’s memoir, The Endless River Eastward Flows, showed how schools and student societies were often the site of Communist and Nationalist infiltration.
Father Hurley shepherded the students by a different path, listening to, challenging and being challenged by them.
Noting “an explosive and almost pre-revolutionary situation” (p.52) in Asia in the 1960s and 70s (think of the Philippines, Korea …), Father Hurley warned that unless radical changes were to take place, resulting in social transformation, violent revolution would become inevitable.
He liked to quote from the 1968 Episcopal Council of Latin America (CELAM) meeting in Medellin, a moment of conversion for many Catholic bishops. They diagnosed the illness that plagued their continent as “institutionalised violence.” “Such systems kill the young before they can live and the old before they can die.” The bishops asked: “Is there life before death?” (p.83)
Institutional violence—marked by economic deprivation; power in the hands of a few, often “arbitrary exercised” and erosion of basic rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly, fair labour and housing—now threatens our society. Hong Kong is on the brink.
Father Hurley cared deeply about human rights. He hailed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a singular achievement of which Article #21 stands out: The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of the government. This is the crux of Hong Kong’s problems.
Judging by votes cast, though rarely by election results, the majority of Hong Kong citizens favour “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” On the other hand the People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China is ruled by the Party (core).
On 4 April 1990, Yang Shangkun, president of the People’s Republic of China, promulgated the Basic Law, backed by Article 31 of China’s Constitution. The preamble states:
The basic policies of the People’s Republic of China regarding Hong Kong have been elaborated by the Chinese Government in the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
The Basic Law spells out democratic rights and processes, such as:
Article 39: The provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and international labour conventions as applied to Hong Kong shall remain in force and shall be implemented through the laws of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
Articles 45: The Chief Executive shall be selected “by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures,” and
Article 68: “The ultimate aim is the election of all the members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage.”
Since 1997, the chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) has been elected by a small nominating committee of mostly pro-establishment members. As such, the government is neither representative of, nor accountable to the people. More and more, the HKSAR’s policies and development model are viewed as tilted toward business, in particular, “red capital.”
According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, “The Hong Kong Stock Exchange (SEHK) is now home to 250 H-share Chinese companies and another 171 red chip firms that are controlled by the Chinese state. The combined 421 China-related companies have a total market capitalisation of nearly HK$12 trillion (US$1.54 trillion), more than one-third of SEHK’s total market capitalisation of HK$32.73 trillion (US$4.2 trillion) at the end of June 2019, compared with only 16 per cent at the time of the 1997 handover.”
“On Argentina, ‘Football Yes. Torture No’”
Father Hurley was one of the founding members of Amnesty International in Hong Kong. In this 1978 article, he described Argentina’s quick slide into state-sanctioned violence.
The Security Act was passed in September 1974. In November the government declared a State of Siege and suspended constitutional protection.
In March 1976 new laws authorised jail terms of up to 10 years for offending the “dignity and decorum” of security officers and police. The age of criminal responsibility was lowered to 16 years of age.
In April, the government forbade “the publication of all news items countering terrorist activities, subversion, abductions or the discovery of bodies, unless officially announced.”
In 1976 a procedure known as “summary pre-trial” authorised the arrest of anyone on suspicion alone.
Torture became an institution in Argentina. Between 1976 and 1983, more than 30,000 dissidents were disappeared.
Whose playbook are we following?
The HKSAR government has invoked ordinances, outdated and novel, to quell rallies. A rising drumbeat now calls for implementing anti-terrorism laws and the national security law.
Local and international observers have noted the disproportionate use of force (15,970 rounds of tear gas, 10,010 rounds of rubber bullets, beating of people already under restraint, live bullets…) against largely peaceful citizens, including journalists and aid workers. Without an Independent Commission of Inquiry, few officers have been called to account.
On April 18, the sweeping arrest of 15 pan-democrat leaders, including veteran lawmakers, barristers, labour unionists and a media tycoon for taking part in “unlawful assemblies” sent shock waves everywhere.
Even before that, the muzzling of private-sector employees as well as civil servants, teachers, and hospital staff, as well as severe pressure put on RTHK, the editorially independent public service broadcaster, undermined freedom of expression, a cherished hallmark of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong fell in rank from 18 (2002) to 80 in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, below Timor-Leste, Toga, Mongolia and Kosovo.
History shows that when autocrats move quickly to crush political enemies, civil institutions and dissent, they often have a key accomplice: the lies people prefer to tell themselves, pretending that everything is normal.
Catholic education and Liberation Spirituality
For over half a century, Catholic education has provided the children of many Hong Kong families a key to upward mobility. Is the task of Catholic education to preserve the status quo? Should Catholic schools be content with raising good bureaucrats and technocrats?
Father Hurley advocated education for justice in a broad sense (p.91). Students should be ready, not merely to study and investigate, but also to bargain and negotiate (p.14). This presupposes that students are stakeholders in society and in the education system. They are not dough to be shaped, or replaceable cogs that fit into the machine.
Catholic educators, chaplains, and pastors have a unique formative role: to empower young people and train a vital lay leadership, to deepen their quality of analysis, engage them in frank dialogue and model prayerful discernment (p.90). Liberation theology needs to enflesh, to become Liberation Spirituality.
It means learning “how to use rather than misuse anger.” It means more emphasis on inner liberation, “not merely from oppressive social structures, but also from lust, greed, selfishness…” (p.95).
Here is the challenge: “Reconciliation with the oppressor, and his/her liberation from the servitude which imprisons and blinds him/her. Without such an aim I find it hard how we can call ourselves genuine Christians” (p.96).
The Good News becomes flesh
Terrible as the Covid-19 pandemic is, it exposes humanity’s underbelly, the arrogance of government monopoly of information and under-preparedness. In Wuhan where the outbreak began, does it also usher in an awakening—the whistleblowing, diaries, citizen journalists—the courage to pursue truth?
Are we witnessing the birth pangs of new social relations? Human beings do not live by bread alone, but by what defines them as human: dignity of the human person, the freedom to live, reach out, and care for one another.
Is Wuhan, known as the crossroads of nine provinces, where the Good News becomes flesh?
Father Hurley, pray for us, that our young people’s efforts to stretch democracy may empower “the ordinary person to effectively participate in the government of one’s country” (p.68).
May the Church, inspired by the Spirit’s prophetic gift, embrace the young, celebrate together the return to life, and unleash that “almost unlimited potential and idealism for the full and integral development of Hong Kong, China and Asia” (pp.67-8). CP