Hong Kong Atheist Interview
Hello, and welcome to the first interview from the Exmin blog! I would like to take this opportunity to present to you Virginia Yue! Virginia is a Hong Kong resident and a Chinese citizen. She had converted to Evangelical Christianity at the age of 19, but after years of learning, reading and opening her mind, she found that she could no longer reconcile her Christian beliefs with the things she knew about the world. She abandoned Christianity in November of 2007. Since then she has devoted her spare time to reading about topics such as psychology as it is related to faith, the sciences (evolution) and about atheism. She is active in a number of Hong Kong based discussion forums and debates with Fundamentalists and theists. Here is the link to Virginia's blog http://hkatheist.blogspot.com/
I want to thank Virginia for taking the time and sharing with us about a place that many of us have or would like to visit! You can interact with Virginia and ask her questions when you log into comments! Virginia's English skills are very good and as you will discover as you read the interview, she is quite interesting!
Hong Kong was a British colony for about 150 years prior to it being returned to China’s sovereignty in 1997. British culture has had a strong influence in the Chinese community here (over 99%). Christianity had set foot in this small place almost from the very beginning, but due to Chinese suspicion of the West, Christianity so called, was simply the religious activities of the Western settlers in Hong Kong. This legacy could still be seen in the cluster of old church buildings in Hong Kong Island (the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Saint John’s Cathedral, and a old Lutheran church, all testified to this early history)
The colonial rulers gave a lot of favorable treatment to the Protestants – for example land for building churches were given to Protestants and even Catholics at a very low cost (land in Hong Kong is now horrendously expensive, the church properties often sit on very valuable lands). For the Anglican Church in particular (or Episcopal in USA) got a lot of privileges -- because the Monarch of England is the head of the state church of the British Empire.
Interestingly though Christianity has not really gained a real majority in the Chinese community, because the Chinese have connected them to the Imperialism/Colonialism which invaded China, and caused China to endure a lot of humiliation. Under British rule, Chinese would try to maintain their Chinese identity. Today, Christians (Protestants, Catholics and a small number of Eastern Orthodox, plus Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) constituted about 7% of the total population. Since Britain is a Protestant country, Protestant denominations have generally had a good relationship with the colonial rulers. Christians have been active, visible, and viewed favorably by the community in general because they did a lot of charity works, social services, and setting up of schools (to that I will give my gratitude, because women were severely oppressed in China’s old feudalism, the missionaries setup schools for girls was then a very bold thing to do). Every Christmas Eve, even now, the Bishop of the Diocese of Hong Kong (of the Anglican Church) and the Cardinal of the Catholic Church would both present their annual Christmas message, and it is broad casted on TV news.
Even after 1997, because of the idea of “One Country Two Systems”, Hong Kong can maintain all the freedoms that they had enjoyed prior to 1997, and since then Christians have been even more active. They have one web-broadcasting channel, and in the early mornings you can watch Hour of Power (Sunday), Joyce Meyer (weekdays) and a number of locally produced Christian programs on Sunday (all broad casted in odd hours with almost no viewers because those hours’ air time rates are cheap). They were active socially but not like the socially concerned Christians in USA (e.g. Brian McLauren or Jim Wallis), they are like the Christian Right.
What direction is religion headed in China?
The situation is more complex. First China constituted of city population (30% to 40%) and the rest rural. The rural population either continued practicing the Chinese folk practices like worshiping gods of the land, or their ancestors, or Buddha, with a significant number of Christians (being converted by underground Christians who were converted by missionaries operating somewhat shadily). In the city, most people don’t have a religion, though there are Christians who attended the state sanctioned churches (The “Three Self” Church of China OR The Catholic Patriots’ Church) and religions (Taoism, Buddhism and Islam).
The number of Christians in mainland China is anybody’s guess. The government put it at round 10 million, but the underground churches claim they have 30 million or more (but I believed the numbers were greatly inflated to attract overseas donations to help them). The Christians in the Mainland reflect the very visible social situation– the widening gap of rich and poor. I have visited some of the church in very poor villages (where you hope that the roof doesn’t collapse over you) and one very extravagant one in Hangzhou which can hold a 7,000 congregation in a single worship service (it is bigger than the Crystal Cathedral !!!)
As China propelled itself to become modernized, the society is undergoing very drastic changes, I saw many long-held ties, and social bonds are changing and breaking down, people experienced alienation and loneliness, and so they often seek a spiritual source to fulfill their yearnings, so Christianity has been growing. Some seek Falon Gong (a cult that copied some of its teachings from Buddhism, but is outlawed) or other means.
In my opinion, because of long held suspicion towards the West, Christianity is not likely to be a religion of the majority; instead as the government allows more freedom of religion, we should see a religious pluralism here.
Are things different in Hong Kong as opposed to the rest of the country?
Very different! Hong Kong churches and any of the religions here can freely practice their faith, and can liaise and maintain ties with their counterparts in other countries. We enjoy a lot of freedoms similar to the west (freedom of speech, publishing, assembly and demonstration, access to information via the Internet), which really causes a lot of the mainland visitors to raise their eyebrows! For instance, recently a group from the mainland visited Hong Kong and protested at the China Central Government’s Liaison office – the group was surprised (rather pleasantly) that the police helped them instead of arresting them and beating them up, and not even shouting at them. It is safe in Hong Kong to express your views, and I hope it stays that way and even opens up more – but there are alarming signs that some officials in the Government want to appease the Central Government and want to enact laws to “help build a harmonious society”.
How much freedom do churches have?
In the Mainland, cities near the coastal regions generally have more religious freedom, but this can suddenly tighten. In rural areas there are still instances of arrests of Christians and other religious sects. The year 2009 is crucial, for it is the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (Communist Regime) and also the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre (the 4th June Incident) – I believe that next year the restrictions in the Mainland will be increased.
Freedom in Hong Kong is non-distinguishable from USA, and in fact many of the favorable treatments enjoyed by churches here will be considered a breach of the “Separation of Church and State” in USA! For example, the Protestant churches can form educational bodies to set up high schools and even colleges, get subsidies from the Government, AND school prayers, morning worshipping and festival celebrations are allowed and students (no matter if you are a Christian) have to attend.
Even cults like Falon Gong are allowed to practice freely and be active openly (they can rally in the public).
Abortion, do you have protesters?
The Chinese people do not oppose abortion traditionally, though Christians here don’t agree with the practice. Due to their holding a minority status, they don’t express their voices against it. In fact in mainland China, abortion is widely practiced as a means to control population, but the methods they dispense abortion is objectionable – they forced women at their 7th month of pregnancy to abort their child.
What prompted you to begin a website?
I used to write a lot of articles in discussion forums, and contributed to a local Christian paper (very small readership though, published weekly). I thought I would want to have a site that keeps my articles permanently for easy reference and sharing to a wider community. As I became more active in forums, this website becomes the outlet of my viewpoints. I am an iconoclast, that is one that challenges conventional belief and ideas, so I published a lot of rather subversive views in my website even during my Christian years. In the top banner it reads: this website’s contents are suitable to all ages, except if you are Fundamentalist 34 years old or above….
Virginia, I need a rational person like yourself to give us an explanation about Falon Gong and what we should know about it? Can you elaborate?
Falon Gong was a cult started by a self-proclaimed guru called Li Hong Zhi about 10 to 20 years ago in China, and it grew very rapidly. I have not read their publications, but they appeared to adopt some teachings from Buddhism, bits from meditation and Eastern philosophy plus some from Li Hong Zhi to from their own brand of “spirituality”. They openly display their spiritual practices (sitting meditation or posing to mediate), and appear to be peaceful group of people. They generally maintain a very low profile but are highly organized.
The trigger that caused them to be outlawed happened about 10 years ago. High-ranking officials in the Central Government criticized them because they called up 10,000 people and surrounded a Government office in Beijing. This was seen as an open challenge to the authority of the Government and they were outlawed, persecuted severely, and declared an “evil cult”. I read a critic about their beliefs (the critic was a professor philosophy in Hong Kong) – their beliefs are just like all other organized religion, mumbo jumbo and empty assertions about how some rituals can make you happy, peaceful yada yada yada. They teach about “truth, goodness and beauty”, and believe that by practicing Falon Gong, they can attain that kind of spirituality.
What is the biggest issue that atheists/godless people face there?
I think it’s our lack of visibility here. Christians are more visible in the media. Currently atheists/godless activities are limited to pockets of people in the Internet discussion forums. There’s one for ex-Christians (exchristian.hk), but they do not get many visitors. Moreover, Hong Kong is a society driven by its economy, people are more concerned of getting a living, making ends meet and less about issues of life, spirituality and rational thought, therefore atheism/rationalism is seen as some “ivory tower” stuff, not really taken seriously.
Christians on the other hand, because they are more organized, provide a sense of community; therefore they are more visible and viewed more favorably. Another factor is that, the long colonial rule has left behind a legacy of elite schools founded by Christian groups (Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists etc.) that many parents sought after – they enrolled their kids to these schools because these schools’ academic performance, even though many of them do not intend to have their kids converted to Christianity.
In these schools, the kids are subjected to all the Christianity influences – mandatory classes about the Bible, attending morning assembly to listen to Bible reading and prayers, attending worships during key Christian holidays. All these have helped to sustain Christianity here.
Tell us a little about your website?
It is a blog which I update some 3 to 4 times per month (sometimes more often). It contains a collection of my articles critical of the Christianity community here. I wrote a lot of articles criticizing the Christian churches and community here over the last 4 or 5 years, and still write regularly, though less so than before. My topics are mostly my critiques towards the anti-intellectual, bigotry tendencies and hypocrisy of Christian community of Hong Kong. Occasionally I share things about clips I saw on YouTube.
What question would you wish that I would ask you about?
I wish you would ask more about Hong Kong’s Christians’ similarity in their ideology to their counterparts in USA?
The more influential Protestant denominations were founded by missionaries from the USA. Many of their ministers go to USA to study theology. So the ideology, anti-homosexual bigotry, anti-intellectual ideas (e.g. Intelligent Design) of the Christian Right in USA have a lot of influences in Hong Kong Christians, as the ministers brought those idea back from USA. For example their attitudes towards the gay-rights movement are most a direct adoption from those in the USA. Another example is they are becoming more and more conservative, and want to elect “Christians of their value” to our legislature (those that oppose gay-rights and upheld “moral” values). Recently I came across a case where a teacher of science at a high school taught Intelligent Design alongside Darwinian Evolution – I intend to file a complaint against this teacher!
Another question I would like to be asked about is how do the Chinese view spirituality?
Chinese intellectuals are quite advanced in terms of their views of spirituality – they are non-religious and that can be summed up by the statement attributed to Confucius – if you do not know about life, how can you discuss death? However these views are restricted to the elite class of Chinese (up till 20th Century). The general mass (peasants) are not that literate and still practices a lot of ancestral worship or worship of different kinds of deity. Chinese traditionally are tolerant towards all kinds of religion except when they contradict Chinese values. Chinese people generally think that organized religion and spirituality is “good”, and therefore blatant opposition to theism and organized religion is not common here. Most people will leave the religious people alone.
Worley December 30, 2008 Ex-minister.org
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