Hong Kong Church silent as the people sing



Hong Kong's protests have been marked by the tread of millions of marching feet; they have also given rise to scores of creative outpourings. Government press releases have been mocked by memes and legislative manoeuvrings have been scorned on Lennon Walls. 

Pro-democracy protesters sing a protest anthem during a rally at a shopping mall in Shatin district of Hong Kong on 12 October 2019. (Photo by Billy H. C. Kwok/Getty Images)Expressions of protest have not just taken on visual forms, but have been given airings in the soundscape as well. It might be possible for a government not to televise a revolution, but it is harder still to silence voices raised in mass protest. This summer of discontent has been accompanied by much sound, both of fury and of song. Simply, police proclamations have been drowned out by the voice of people singing.

Apart from those in the front lines who have been trying to dodge batons and tear gas, the act of singing is itself a physical expression of the collective desires of Hong Kongers for greater political freedom, and the lyrics are evidence of the people's determined and stubborn solidarity.

Initially, when the mass demonstrations were predominantly peaceful, it was common to hear both the hymn 'Sing Alleluia to the Lord' and the tune from the musical Les Misérables, 'Do You hear the People Sing?' Each of these makes sense within Hong Kong's recent historical and political context. 

The Christian churches have an important influence in the education and health sectors beyond the simple number of Christian believers, although Christians do comprise more than ten per cent of the population. There are also many places of worship, so the physical presence of the churches is very evident, and there are active youth groups. In the early days of the protest too the Catholic Auxiliary Bishop, Joseph Ha Chi-shing, was a prominent marcher, and the former Archbishop, Cardinal Zen, has long been a well-known critic of China.

While 'Do You hear the People Sing?' has become the protest tune of choice the world-over, it was taken up with gusto in Hong Kong in 2014 during the Umbrella Movement, and since. A third song, 'Bring Back the Glory of Hong Kong', has now emerged. Since its first airing in late August it has been sung at football matches, in malls, at school assemblies and for a time was also being performed in Catholic churches.

Thomas, the anonymous principle composer of the anthem, wanted to write a marching song that could be used to stir the emotions of the protestors, as well as counter the despair felt by other young people about their city's future. According to The Stand News, Thomas said he had drawn inspiration widely from national anthems to Vivaldi's 'Gloria in excelsis Deo'. The work is dense with allusions to Chinese literature, and is a counter-point to China's own anthem, 'March of the Volunteers'. It also contains language reminiscent of the prophetic biblical literature of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos, with strong cries for justice.


"Once the streets hopefully return to normal, the Church's decision to keep their head below the parapet will be seen to be not so much a prophetic act as a cowardly washing of hands."


By 16 September, however, the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese Bishop's Office published a statement that banned outright the use of this song at Mass: 'Although the diocese is sure that the priests and the members of the congregations are deeply concerned about the current turmoil in Hong Kong society, they do not agree that social movement songs are applicable to the sacrificial ceremonies.'

The statement went on to defend its blanket ban on the grounds of liturgical norms (that is, eucharistic celebrations are not the time for political statements), on the fact that the words of hymns have to 'conform to the principles of the church' and on the nebulous grounds of 'etiquette'. It is notable too that Carrie Lam, the embattled Chief Executive, is also a prominent Catholic.

While it is long and widely held that the Catholic Mass should not be the place for partisan political protests, it is also clear that at times of widespread social injustice the Eucharist's identity as the source and the summit of believers' experience cannot be so easily divorced from life outside the church's walls. After all, saints like Oscar Romero and John Paul II are as much recognised for their outspoken proclamations about social injustice as they are for their holiness.

That the Catholic Church in Hong Kong has not only chosen to remain silent during this momentous time, but also enforce this silence through the banning of a song, is itself a political act. Financial Times journalist Primrose Riordan is working on a piece that ponders whether or not this silence is a consequence of the Vatican's recent agreement with the PRC about the appointment of bishops within China, and these considerations do seem to have merit.

What is clear, however, is that once the streets hopefully return to normal, the people will continue to sing their Cantonese song for Hong Kong and the Church's decision to keep their head below the parapet will be seen to be not so much a prophetic act as a cowardly washing of hands. Regrettably, the church's sounds of silence will long be remembered by a populace already cycnical and weary of much church leadership throughout the world, and one which is increasingly determined to speak and sing with its own voice.



Jeremy ClarkeDr Jeremy Clarke, PhD, is the founding director of Sino-Immersions Pty Ltd, a China consulting company, and a Visiting Fellow in the Australian Centre on China in the World, Australian National University.

Main image: Pro-democracy protesters sing a protest anthem during a rally at a shopping mall in Shatin district of Hong Kong on 12 October 2019. (Photo by Billy H. C. Kwok/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Jeremy Clarke, China, Hong Kong



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Existing comments

Nothing cowardly about remaining silent. What happened to render under Caesar?
Sentinel | 04 November 2019

China has always objected to “so-called universal values”. In 2018 President Xi became a life-long dictator who administers a surveillance system, and a “social credit” policy, on every man, woman and child, of which Orwell’s Big Brother would be envious. And while China was becoming more repressive, the Catholic Church did a deal with them. One of the architects of that deal seems to have been disgraced Archbishop Theodore Mc Garrick who once said, “President XI and his government are concerned about the things that Pope Francis is concerned about.” But if the Hong Kong Church has been cravenly silenced, they are not alone. There are an estimated one million Uighur Muslims in detention camps in China. Last July, 22 countries sent a letter to the UN condemning the camps, However within a few days a letter supporting China’s human rights was signed by 37 other nations including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, UAE, Qatar, Angola and Tajikistan. Some of those countries are benefiting from China’s US$1 trillion Belt and Road infrastructure program. Similarly, the wealthy US Basketball Association caved in to Chinese pressure when one manager tweeted “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”
Ross Howard | 05 November 2019

Mrs Lam is in the invidious position of being a Roman Catholic. How difficult, politically, for her at this time.
Helen Martin | 05 November 2019

Were Cardinal Zen still in office in Hong Kong I have little doubt his stance on the current protests there would be different to his successor. There has been criticism of the current Vatican rapprochement with Beijing. The current regime in China is no friend to religion. The Catholic hierarchy may have taken note of what has happened to Falun Gong, the Muslim Uighurs and the followers of the Dalai Lama. It is not encouraging.
Edward Fido | 05 November 2019

Obvious;y this writer has nothing else to talk about except to take it to the Catholic Church. You cannot sing protest songs etc in any Catholic Church under normal religious Catholic masses anywhere including Australia. He would also know that in China the Catholic Church is suppressed so why would they want to take a chance of being hounded out of Hong Kong. Instead of ''bagging'' the church why doesn't he write of the fantastic good works done by many missionaries to China and Hong Kong.
PHILLIP ROWAN | 05 November 2019

Yet another instance of the Catholic Church clerical organisation failing to apply the gospel message and opting instead for safety and tolerance of yet another police state. When will these old men learn?
Tom Kingston | 05 November 2019

There too is ban on ping pong in Hong Kong!
Dave Ostranegus | 05 November 2019

Our church has kept quiet too often and those in the pews turned a blind eye. Enough is enough. We resisted . In Poland yes many. Paid the price but kowtowing to China. Is not the answer either.
Irena | 05 November 2019

Dave Ostranegus strikes the right cynical note! When Hong Kongers are prepared to rise up en masse to defend the rights of the poor in their midst to an equal share of Hong Kong's wealth, they will have earned the right to be listened to and supported by the rest of the world. Until then, the Vatican, like Carrie Lam and millions of Chinese Catholics, would be painfully aware that not many Chinese go to bed at night with an empty stomach. One simply can't evangelise on a starvation diet!
Michael Furtado | 06 November 2019

There is a bill Chinese citizens pay for their prosperity and that is absolute obedience to the state. Their living standards are certainly rising. It is easy for us who live in a democracy which tolerates protest to tell Hong Kongers what to do. People such as Cardinal Zen are very brave. He is hewn from the same sort of material Gandhi and Mandela were. He talked truth to power. I suspect the seeds he sowed will bear fruit long term. In the meantime we in Australia should support the rights of Hong Kongers to protest. We also need to ensure that the huge number of Chinese students here and the Confucius Institutes and other Chinese initiatives are not used to undermine our universities. China is intent on carving a very large place in the world. We need to ensure we aren't carved in the process.
Edward Fido | 08 November 2019

Not to quibble, but the Catholic Church of the past has frequently backed the wrong side - that aspiring to protect personal liberty and property rights - against those of the common good. Fortunately a century and more of the development of Catholic Social Teaching has led to the papacy as well as a generally altered state of Catholic consciousness recognising the flaws in and disasters occasioned by an unalloyed anti-communist view - one invariably committed to the notion of personal liberty as well as supportive of nationalist causes, even to the point, on several occasions, of siding with fascism. The greatest danger to the world, and one that has been apparent for several decades since the end of the Second World War, has been occasioned by US foreign policy. And China's crimes pale by comparison, even in regard to the Great Leap Forward, when assessed alongside the Rape and Obliteration of Nanking by the Japanese.
Michael Furtado | 09 November 2019

I agree that politics should not invade the Mass,but that does not stop Church leaders protesting at cases of social injustice or oppression .Too many Catholics and other Christians too, have died defending basic human rights in recent decades , particularly in Latin America. I am reminded of the late Cardinal Jamie Sin, Archbishop of Manila. His support for the Edsa Protests led to the Popular Peoples Revolution against Marcos leading to his exile. The Church must always stand up for the oppressed and marginalized. AND we are CHURCH!
Gavin O'Brien | 10 November 2019


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