By Nicola Nightingale
Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This series relates, in alternating parts, the experiences of a British woman in Hong Kong and a French woman in the UK.
Hong Kong appears full of contradictions to the expat eye — and long may they reign. The overriding one, of course, is its “one country, two systems” form of government, which gives the place a large measure of autonomy. It both binds Hong Kong to the motherland’s bosom and allows it to go out to play on its own.
But there are other, smaller inconsistencies. Mainland China, which is increasingly trying to emphasise the “one country” element, now has a leader who could be president for life if he so chooses. Xi Jinping, as head of the government, the Communist party and the army, is more powerful than Mao Zedong and has many plans for his country. One is to ensure the party has greater control over religion in the mainland.
Hong Kong’s basic law gives residents freedom of religious belief and, under Article 149, grants religious institutions, among other non-government organisations, the right to “maintain and develop relations with their counterparts in foreign countries”. Mainland China’s constitution also allows its citizens freedom of religious belief, but there the similarity ends. Xi seems to be intent on making sure it really does end along with any outside influence, particularly from the west.
Under Xi’s rule, new regulations on religious activities have been introduced, including an order that every church must display at its entrance a notice that the building is “prohibited to minors under age 18”. In addition to a curb on religious schooling and celebration, all religious organisations have been ordered to take on “Chinese characteristics”. The pro-government side of the Catholic Church was quick to comply. In June, two powerful mainland Catholic Church associations launched a five-year plan to “Sinicise” its churches. Critics have greeted it with, well, cynicism.
Yet here in Hong Kong — where around 12 per cent of the population is Christian and worships in un-Sinicised churches — we have a leader who is a loud and proud Catholic. Last year Carrie Lam announced she had been called by God to run for the office of chief executive; the less spiritual among us assumed it had more to do with Xi. Still, she is not immune to Xi’s charms, it seems. In March, this devout Catholic told the FT that she finds Xi “more and more charismatic and admirable”.
It seems a cosy but surely rather odd relationship to the outside, possibly jaundiced eye.
Lam is not the only public figure, other than priests, to go public about who they turn to for guidance and succour. In May, Hong Kong’s rail chief Frederick Ma, explained away his high-handed response to reporters’ questions about a derailment on a new express link to the mainland as either the result of the hot weather or because he had missed his morning prayers. Admittedly, the chairman of the MTR Corporation — who is now caught up in a scandal over a metro extension — made his excuses with a chortle, but presumably his faith was not the cause of his merriment since he declared himself a Christian back in 2002.
It is not that government and industry leaders profess religious belief but the unflinching declaration of a direct line to God that stays in the mind. Or perhaps it’s just my British mind. After all we Brits tend to treat any public, possibly emotional, reference to God as if it was a terrible faux pas — witness the rather sour facial expressions of some of the guests during a rather lively sermon at the wedding of the year.
Photographs: Alamy; AFP/Getty Images