Symposium Introduction



On September 28, 2014, the Hong Kong protests took the Anglo-American world by surprise. Dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution” by western media, the student-initiated pro-democracy demonstrations are now being described as a “movement”—a fluid network of street occupations in Admiralty on Hong Kong Island and in Mong Kok in Kowloon where protesters have set up tents and come prepared to face tear gas and pepper spray with goggles, plastic wrap, and umbrellas. In the face of government stonewalling and popular opposition to the protests, the demonstrations show little sign of abating. Indeed, they have now entered into a new phase called the “Shopping Revolution,” where protesters claim that they are merely following the government’s encouragement to boost consumption in the occupied areas.

Even more surprising to the western media has been the conspicuous presence of Christians at the helm of the leadership. News outlets, both religious and secular, have run articles revealing that student leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung demands universal suffrage because he believes that “everybody is loved by Jesus.” Among Roman Catholics, the retired bishop Joseph Cardinal Zen has been a visible and critical presence among the students. The movement Occupy Central with Love and Peace is chaired not only an openly Christian law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting, but also a retired Baptist pastor Rev. Chu Yiuming. Indeed, so visible have Christians been in the protests that gentle reminders have been issued that there are other religious and philosophical traditions present on the ground: shrines to Chinese popular deities like Guan Gong and Cai Shen, Buddhist chants, Taoist rites, and even rearticulations of Chinese Communist Party figures like Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping.

While all this has been novel for Anglo-American audiences, the protests have been long in coming for those who have watched and participated in shaping the ground in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover. If theology has percolated to the surface of the Umbrella Movement, one can be sure that theologians have also been watching and participating. The Umbrella Movement may be far from over. But if its themes of democracy, church-state relations, and grounded theologies have been simmering under the surface for quite some time, it is still worth asking some theologians how the movement’s theological significance might be articulated.

This forum collates some of these theological perspectives. Two of our theologians are on the ground in Hong Kong, Chinese University of Hong Kong’s liberation theologian Kung Lap Yan and feminist theologian Rose Wu Lo Sai. One is a Hong Kong Chinese American: Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary’s New Testament scholar Sam Tsang. (Full disclosure: I am also a Chinese North American with professional and personal interests in the Chinese diaspora and Asian America.) Think of these as three theological windows that can be shone into the Umbrella Movement, three different angles on how to interpret the theologies that have percolated to the surface of Hong Kong society. If the complaints in the Anglo-American world are valid that secularization processes have privatized religion and silenced theologians, Hong Kong is perhaps the place to look to recover how public theologies are done from the ground up. Public theology properly done is, after all, no surprise. It’s simply what practitioners do as part of the act of careful, rigorous witness.



Occupy Central, Umbrella Movement, and Democracy

A Theological Articulation

The Umbrella Movement marks the watershed of the political movement in Hong Kong. This is the first time that the people of Hong Kong have expressed a relatively strong political consciousness, striving for their own destiny no matter whether one says yes or no to the movement. While the Hong Kong government intentionally misinterprets the movement as simply a kind of social movement that can be solved by paying attention to specific policy issues, this is a political movement that is reshaping the ideological landscape of Hong Kong.

As a theologian, my concerns are twofold. On the one hand, my job is to articulate the theological significance of the movement. On the other hand, my task is to challenge the movement theologically so that it can serve the well-being of the people better. In this short paper, I will move in three parts so that I can make this theological reflection effectively. After defining the terms “Occupy Central” and “Umbrella Movement” as they have been used on the ground, I will unfold the central questions about how Christians have participated in the movement. Raising more questions than answers, I will then use that inquiry to articulate three themes that I as a participant in these events see emerging from the Umbrella Movement: chaos and order, reconciliation and tension, and identity politics.

Defining Terms: “Occupy Central” and the “Umbrella Movement”

Before I articulate these three themes, a short introduction is in order, especially as there is some confusion between what was called “Occupy Central” and what is now being called “the Umbrella Movement.” The original themes now at play on the ground come from the movement, Occupy Central with Love and Peace (hereafter, Occupy Central). Occupy Central was introduced to Hong Kong in January 2013 and was executed at 1:40 am on September 28, 2014. However, the Umbrella Movement also started on the night of September 28 after the police used tear gas to clear the protestors around 6 pm. Since then, the Umbrella Movement has superseded Occupy Central, and its development has gone beyond Occupy Central’s script.

It is important to emphasize this succession from Occupy Central to the Umbrella Movement because though they share similarities, the two movements are qualitatively different. First, Occupy Central had a clear leadership and organizational structure, but the Umbrella Movement is relatively loose and emphasizes there is no leadership. The current protestors are self-motivated to join the occupation; they are not motivated by the call of leaders.1 Second, if there is truly a “leadership” in the Umbrella Movement, it is the Hong Kong Federation of Students (mainly university students) and Scholarism (mainly high school pupils) who have taken up the “principal role.” This differs from the leadership of Occupy Central that consisted of Professor Benny TAI, Professor Kin-Man CHAN and Rev Yiu-Ming CHU.2 In contrast to the older members of Occupy Central, the Umbrella Movement is dominated by young people. Third, most people estimated that Occupy Central would not last for more than a week, and the police expected that they would not encounter too much resistance to clear roads. But up to the date of writing this paper (November 26), the Umbrella Movement has already lasted for 60 days, and the occupied areas have been extended from Admiralty to Causeway Bay and Mong Kok.3 The protestors are more resilient and dedicated than what the police suppose. In short, the Umbrella Movement is more extensive and intensive than Occupy Central. Some have commented that these differences also signify the clash of generations.4

Despite these differences, however, the Umbrella Movement does share the core values of Occupy Central, namely, non-violence and justice. Both demand universal suffrage for the election of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong in 2017, which was promised by the Chinese authorities in the Basic Law, but not honoured in the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s resolution made on August 31, 2014. The August decision conditionally allows the people in Hong Kong to have the right to vote on the next election of the Chief Executive only if the candidates running for the Chief Executive obtain more than half of the total vote from the members of the Nomination Committee. The problem is that it is also expected that more than half of the number of the Nomination Committee is pro-establishment due to the existing structure of formation. This is why the fundamental catchphrase of Umbrella Movement is “I demand real universal suffrage” (我要真普選)—to be given the choice among three predominantly pro-establishment candidates is really to have no choice at all.

A final point of clarification: the “Umbrella Movement” is not a term that Hong Kong protestors invented. Rather, it is used by the western media in lieu of their original phrase “Umbrella Revolution.” Why the emphasis on “umbrella”? Because the protestors intentionally use umbrellas to prevent pepper spray by the police. Umbrellas were defensive tools, but now the media converted them to become icons of the movement. Once the icon of the umbrella became accepted on the ground, the protestors deliberately changed the media’s term “Umbrella Revolution” to the “Umbrella Movement,” because they did not want the Chinese authorities to have an excuse to misinterpret it and correlate it with the colour revolutions, a term used to describe various movements in the former Soviet Union during the early 2000s that led to the overthrow of governments.

All this said, the Umbrella Movement is a political movement seeking political reform, especially in relation to the legitimacy of the current Chinese authorities.

The role of religion in the Umbrella Movement

Now that our terms are defined, we can move to theology. In comparison with other religions, Christianity has had a more obvious role in the movement. There are three perspectives from which I will explicate this Christian involvement: Christians in the movement, the involvement of churches, and public perception of the Christian role.

Before saying anything on Christianity, it may be worth giving a brief note that other religions are also present in the movement. Religions like Buddhism and Daoism have taken a non-supporting attitude to both Occupy Central and the Umbrella Movement. This is not a surprise, for Buddhism and Daoism have had a long history of compliance to the authorities.5 However, it is interesting to note that a small shrine devoted to Guan Gong has been set up by the protestors in Mong Kok, one of the occupied areas. Guan Gong is a human god representing justice and power in Chinese folk religion. Why do the protestors choose to venerate Guan Gong? Worshipping Guan Gong is a common practice among the police, and a shrine of Guan Gong is found in most police offices. However, there are more conflicts in Mong Kok between the protestors and the police than other occupied places, and there are more reported cases of the police abusing their power. The protestors set up a shrine of Guan Gong to challenge the police: the police’s god of protection has left them and joined the protestors, for justice is on the side of the protestors. Even though the police would not mind where Guan Gong goes, the shrine does carry a symbolic meaning in the conflict, that is to say, police no longer represent the exercise of justice and law.

One could say that the role of institutional Christian churches is just as ambivalent as their Buddhist and Daoist counterparts. Before the police used tear gas on September 28, most churches in Hong Kong were quiet on the issue of universal suffrage, except the Methodist Church. Even though some churches have issued pastoral letters in response to Occupy Central, the main concern of the pastoral letters was to call for the respect of differences on Occupy Central among believers; they did not address the core concern of Occupy Central, which was universal suffrage. After September 28 and the opening of the Umbrella Movement, more churches have condemned the excessive use of force by the police, and urged the government to have an honest dialogue with the protestors in order to solve the existing political predicament. Despite this, churches making such kind of public statement are still in the minority.

There are two churches that illustrate this dynamic between establishmentarianism and solidarity with the protestors. Kong Fok Church, Evangelical Free Church of China, located in Admiralty where the Umbrella Movement has taken place refused to let the people use its restroom during the early days of the movement, and the reason given is that this is private property. On the surface, it is a matter of management, but since the pastor of this church, Daniel Chung Man NG, has openly opposed Occupy Central, it is hard to be convinced that the decision not to open its restroom for public use is simply a matter of management. Furthermore, the catholicity of the church contrasts the belief that the church is private property. The church is called to carry God’s mission, the inclusive love of God, and openness toward all. ‘Offen für alle’ was both the belief and practice of St. Nicholas’ Church in Leipzig during the time of the Communist regime in East Germany. The free use of restroom perhaps is a significant expression of God’s open for all. By contrast, the Methodist Church in Wan Chai (5–10 min walk from Admiralty) had opened its church premise as a refuge for protestors suffered from tear gas on September 28. Until now, the church is open till 12 midnight daily for protestors coming for rest as well as meditation. Celebrated as this might be, Mr. Kwok Him YIP, a pro-Beijing member of the Legislative Council, has used this church refuge to allege that churches providing shelter and food to the protestors are signs of American intervention into China’s domestic affairs. The Methodist Church had rebutted Yip’s unfounded allegation. These cases show that the Umbrella Movement has made a great challenge to the authenticity of the church, that is, what the church is and how the church lives in Hong Kong.

The Christian influence on the Umbrella Movement can be articulated in two ways. First, what is Christian influence on the leading figures of Occupy Central and the Umbrella Movement? Second, how is the Christian presence in the movement? Two out of the three architects of Occupy Central, Professor Benny TAI and Rev Yiu Ming CHU, are Christians. On different occasions, Tai has shared how the Christian faith has sustained him in the movement. Chu is a retired pastor of the Chai Wan Baptist Church, and has had a very long history of participating into social movement. In addition, he is one of the significant persons helping the dissidents of Tiananmen Democratic Movement to escape from China to Hong Kong, and from Hong Kong to other countries. The third architect, Professor Kin Man CHAN, is not a Christian, but he attended the Lutheran church when he was in high school. He also proposed adding the words, “with love and peace,” behind “Occupy Central.” Love and peace are not exclusively Christian terms, but they carry a very strong Christian correlation. Joshua Wong, the spokesperson of Scholarism, comes from a Christian family, and he openly confesses how important his faith strengthens his political involvement.6 It would be very interesting to study how religion and spiritual capital are correlated, and how spiritual capital works and accumulates in a person to bring social transformation.

While it is not easy to give a full survey of Christian presence in the movement, here are some brief examples I have gathered as a participant in the movement. Students from the Divinity School of Chung Chi College, Chinese University of Hong Kong, held Taizé prayer meeting at Tamar Park during the period of class boycott. Christians ran a rest zone in Admiralty and provided counselling services and spiritual care to anyone needing it. Christians set up St. Francis’ Chapel in Mong Kok to show that Jesus protects every people there. Different Christian NGOs organized forums at different times in different occupied places. I was personally invited to give a public speech on the topic of ‘Dialogue’ at Admiralty on the eve of the meeting between students’ representatives and the government on Oct 22.7

Theological Reflection

As a participant in the movement, I can articulate three theological themes from and for the movement. These themes group together key theological questions for future reflection.

First, how do we understand chaos and order? The Anti-Occupy Central Movement criticizes the protestors for blocking roads, allegedly turning Hong Kong into chaos and creating a lot of inconvenience to many people. More importantly, the protestors not only violate the law, but also do not respect the court ruling to withdraw from the occupation. This may seem like a sign of anarchy. However, we have to ask about what kind of order the anti-Occupiers are talking. The issue is more than a matter of order, but whether the existing order leads to justice or to the maintenance of the status quo. Should we allow a little bit chaos in order to achieve a more just order? Is the law ultimate? What purpose should the law serve? Why do the people choose to be civil disobedience? If, theologically speaking, order belongs to the creation mandate, to what extent is the existing political order a manifestation of the creation mandate? Does the creation mandate allow the emergence of chaos in order to challenge the pseudo-order represented by the status quo? Is chaos disorder, or is chaos the forerunner of order? Is chaos a result of social construction by the dominated order? Besides, police is another important controversial issue. Are they maintaining status quo or promoting justice? All these questions require us to have serious theological and political considerations.

Second, how do we practice the ministry of reconciliation? Since the introduction of Occupy Central, the people in Hong Kong have been torn apart due to their political stand. Relationships between people have become very strained, sundering friends, family, church members, and generations. Should both Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement be blamed for it? Or should we see tension in human and social relationships positively, for totalitarian governments would not allow tension within and without? Should we consider striving for a more democratic political structure in order to handle tension non-violently and rationally? Theologically, the church has a very rich resource to articulate and practice reconciliation, but the practice of reconciliation has nothing to do with the Chinese ideology of harmonious society. There is no reconciliation without justice, and therefore, tension and confrontation are unavoidable in making reconciliation realized. Moreover, reconciliation should not be confined to personal relationships. It always has structural and cultural dimensions. It is the duty of the church to reflect critically and practice imaginatively about the ministry of reconciliation.

Finally, how do we identify who we are, that is, Christian, Hongkonger and/or Chinese? Due to the unique Hong Kong political structure of “one country, two systems,” the issue of identity is always controversial and sensitive. Are the people of Hong Kong Chinese Hong Kong, Hong Kong Chinese, Chinese or Hongkongers? One of the core reasons why the Chinese authorities do not allow the implementation of universal suffrage in Hong Kong is because they are afraid of separatism in Hong Kong featured by the growing strong localist identity. Recent opinion polls have shown that Hong Kong identity has been surging while Chinese identity has been fading among Hong Kong residents, particularly among youth.8 In fact, the correlation between Umbrella Movement and local consciousness is undeniable. The issue is not whether it is wrong to emphasize local identity, but whether the Chinese authorities have the capacity to embrace the differences among their citizens. Theologically, in what way does the emergence of local consciousness shape Hong Kong contextual theology? How does Christian identity give meaning to Christians in Hong Kong seeking their local and national identity? What is the meaning of being Chinese Christians, Hong Kong Christians or Christians as alien residents? Should Christians follow the exodus model articulated by liberation theology or the exiled model emphasized by John Howard Yoder?

I have raised more questions than that I am able to answer, because Hong Kong is in a new era that she needs to have right questions to think, not to have right answers to follow.


Most people are concerned about the future development of the Umbrella Movement. Would the authorities use force to clear the movement? Would the movement succeed to achieve its goals? As a theologian, my answer is that no matter how and when the movement will end, the questions like chaos and order, reconciliation and tension, politics of identity articulated from the movement would remain valid during the movement and post-movement. The theological significance of the Umbrella Movement does not lie in its political success, but in the questions that will shape the political movement of Hong Kong for a long time to come.

  1. Joseph Chan and Francis Lee, ‘A Preliminary Study of the New Organizational Form of Occupy Movement’,MingPao, November 10, 2014. (in Chinese) (佔領運動新組織形態初探).

  2. Both the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism initiated class boycotts on the week of September 22, 2014. At the same time, they started to protest at Tamar Park in Admiralty (10 minutes walk from the Central). The execution of the Occupy movement was a response to support the students’ protest. This is why the venue of occupation is Admiralty, not Central.

  3. The police cleared the Mong Kok protest site on November 27, 2014.

  4. Since the late 2000s, young pro-democratic protestors are suspicious of the mentality and approach adopted by old pro-democratic protestors. For instance, the younger generation challenges the older generation’s hierarchical structure of leadership, partisan-oriented politics and avoidance of civil disobedience tactics.

  5. See Lap Yan Kung, ‘Embodying Faith in Social Policy and Faith-Based NGOs in Hong Kong’. I presented this paper at the workshop of Religion and Social Policy in Australia and Neighbouring Countries, Social Research Policy Centre, University of New South Wales, November 24–25, 2011.

  6. Joshua Wong is named one of the 25 Most Influential Teens of 2014 by the Time Magazine.

  7. However, I also have to admit that Protestant image in the movement is relatively negative, for most churches have shown indifference to the movement, and the Anti-Occupy Central speeches delivered by Rev Daniel Chung Man NG and Archbishop Paul KWONG (Anglican Church) are very damaging. On the contrary, the Catholic has had a more positive public image in the movement due to the consistent courageous word and action of Cardinal Zen.

  8. People’s Ethnic Identity Survey, Public Opinion Program, University of Hong Kong. Also see Ho-Fung HUNG, ‘Three Views of Local Consciousness in Hong Kong’, Asia–Pacific Journal, 12 (2014):1. (accessed: November 10, 2014)

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    Sam Tsang


    Response from Sam Tsang

    The best line, “there’s no reconciliation without justice.” This should remain the unifying principle of the movement. Thank you.



The Rebirth of Hong Kong

Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

—Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”

In the course of history, no group of people has ever achieved their freedom without resistance and sacrifice, from the Israelites’ rebellion against Pharaoh’s oppression to American women fighting for universal suffrage to South African blacks’ long march to end apartheid to sexual minorities worldwide reclaiming their human dignity and equal rights, etc. This lesson from history is just as true for Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement today.

From Occupy Central with Love and Peace to the Umbrella Movement

On March 27, 2013, a pro-democracy alliance, Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), led by Benny Tai Yiu-ting, associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong; Chan Kin-man, sociology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; and the Rev. Chu Yiu-ming, officially set off to pressure the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to grant an electoral system which “satisfies international standards in relation to universal suffrage” in Hong Kong’s chief executive election in 2017 as promised according to Article 45 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

One of OCLP’s programs was a civil referendum, or mock plebiscite, in June 2014 to let the people of Hong Kong choose from three proposals on how the chief executive election should be conducted. Nearly 800,000 people took part by voting online or in designated polling stations. The civil nomination proposal in which citizens have the ability to nominate chief executive candidates gained the most votes. OCLP also threatened to organize an occupation of the streets of Hong Kong’s main business and financial center in Central on Hong Kong Island to paralyze it, if necessary, in an act of civil disobedience.

As a response to Beijing’s rejection of the proposal involving civil nomination, OCLP originally planned to launch their protest campaign on October 1, 2014, the PRC’s National Day. However, OCLP announced the commencement of Occupy Central earlier on September 28 in the midst of a heated weeklong class boycott organized by the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) and Scholarism.1 The original student strikes quickly expanded and developed into a wave of demonstrations by others in the community who were not only for civil nomination and a more democratic electoral proposal for the 2017 elections but who were also against the excessive use of force by the police when they used pepper spray and tear gas on the protesters on September 28. The subsequent widespread civil disobedience campaign and occupy movement on such an unprecedented scale went far beyond the initial intentions of the OCLP organizers. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong police received widespread condemnation and criticism for the aggressive methods they used to disperse the demonstrators. Differing from previous movement mobilizations, the Umbrella Movement is neither planned nor led by any leader; it is a non-centralized occupy movement that has spread to several districts of Hong Kong. Moreover, the movement is the result of creative and flexible collaboration among constituents. The protesters show an exceptionally strong autonomy in their struggle. Even the name Umbrella Movement—used due to the use of umbrellas by the protesters as self-defense from the police’s use of pepper spray—highlights the creative tactics being employed.

Awakening the Young Generation

The process of democratic cultural change involves people transforming themselves from subjects ruled by others, which Hong Kong’s people have always been, to citizens who rule themselves. This process of transformation means changing the way Hong Kong’s people see themselves. It does not mean, in the first instance, that the subjects ask the ruler for citizenship rights, for the ruler will not freely grant them. It means that the subjects refuse to accept the rule of the ruler and instead act as free citizens, demanding their full rights as citizens and demanding ownership of the society that is rightfully theirs. In the midst of the current struggle for genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong, this transformative process is occurring.

Joshua Wong Chi-fung, the convener of Scholarism, gave a clear explanation of the differences of his generation compared with earlier generations:

Earlier generations, many of whom came here from mainland China, wanted one thing: a stable life. A secure job was always more important than politics. They worked hard and didn’t ask for much more than some comfort and stability.

The people of my generation want more. In a world where ideas and ideals flow freely, we want what everybody else in an advanced society seems to have: a say in our future.

Our bleak economic situation contributes to our frustrations. Job prospects are depressing; rents and real estate are beyond most young people’s means. The city’s wealth gap is cavernous. My generation could be the first in Hong Kong to be worse off than our parents.2

Recently, the editor of City Magazine, Cheung Tei-chi, entitled an article “The Rebirth of Hong Kong” to describe Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. In his article, he wrote:

Before the Umbrella Movement, no one would believe that the students could be so determined and persistent to reclaim their rights to universal suffrage. No one would imagine that the people could act so courageous to stand against the threats and violence of the police in using pepper spray, tear gas and batons in an attempt to disperse the mass protesters.

The youth of Hong Kong through their words and actions have given new life and new hope to the democracy movement in the community.

Umbrella Movement: A New Pentecostal Experience

From a Christian perspective, I have a strong feeling that this is like a new Pentecostal experience for those who have fully engaged themselves in this occupy movement in Hong Kong.

First of all, this new Pentecostal experience comes as a faith challenge.

We seem to live in the end times, and yet also experience a new era of hope. No longer do we look to the old structures and political power which have only led us to despair and hopelessness. No longer do we look to the present order and law or to the old temple rituals. Now we look to the Spirit, whom God is pouring out on all flesh, on old and young, on men and women, on slaves and free (Acts 2:17–18). God is calling all of us to faith and eternal life in Jesus.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). This is an invitation to enter the Kingdom of God through faith.

This faith is a real challenge for the protesters as they face not only the government and police but also the anti-Occupy groups which blame them for disrupting people’s normal lives, the rule of law and public order.

Jürgen Moltmann rightly points out the tension to live out our faith in God in the present reality of our time:

That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.3

This trialof faith not only calls us to move beyond our present security and to risk our life to seek a more just and democratic world for all. It also calls the Church in our time to choose between remaining faithful to God by denouncing the injustices in our society or to bow down to those who hold power.

Secondly, this new Pentecostal experience also inspires us to believe that love and self-respect are the power to overcome fear and violence.

In addition to pepper spray, tear gas and batons, the peaceful protesters have also been threatened by many violent attacks from time to time by people who oppose the occupation of the streets and even reportedly triads.

The first violent scene broke out on October 3 in the busy streets of Mongkok where I was an eyewitness. A large group of masked men, armed with iron bars, threatened the peaceful protesters, destroyed all the booths and attempted to plunder the essential supplies of the protesters, including their first aid equipment.

At that moment, I was standing with several young students at the supply booth. I noticed that my heartbeat was very fast, and I was worried about their safety as well as my own. Thus, I told them I would protect them and asked them to come with me to a church nearby which would be opened as a shelter. However, the students, instead of accepting my proposal, said they could protect me and would stay there to watch all of the essential supplies. They also said they were not afraid of the violent threats because they knew many more people would come and support them very soon. I was so moved and inspired by these young students. Because of their conviction of love and solidarity, they are no more living under the dark shadow of fear and violence.

There is another form of violence, however, that is specifically directed at female protesters who are being targeted with sexual assaults and harassment during violent encounters in Mongkok and Causeway Bay.

According to the witness of a Mr. Tsang, a man in his 40s, shouted to others, “We can’t beat her [a female student] even if we don’t like her!” As he shouted, he held the female student from the back with both hands touching her breasts. As she struggled and released herself from the man, she ran to join the Occupy crowd while the man stood there laughing.

There have also been other incidents in which female protesters have been accused of “wearing too sexy clothing” or being told that, “since you come out to protest, you better be prepared to be assaulted,” etc.

As a response, a group of womenorganized a “Slutwalk” on October 26.4 The goal was to march with survivors and groups from different communities to stop all sexual, gender-based and body-based violence. To stop survivors of violence from experiencing secondary victimization and to reclaim their bodies, the slogans included “My Body, My Choice,” “Blame the Rapist, Not the Victim” and “Going to Protest Is Not the Cause of Sexual Assault.”

Another initiative was to organize a self-defense workshop for the female protesters to learn how to defend themselves when they face sexual or physical attacks.

This kind of proactive approach to sexual harassment incidents shows that women in Hong Kong are not willing to accept a culture of silence and submissiveness like their parents’ generation. The power to change is based on their ability and efforts as women to reclaim their own freedom by redefining women’s sexuality, by taking back control of their own body rather than living with the threat of being attacked at any moment.

Lastly, this new Pentecostal experience empowers us not only to believe in the value of democracy but actually to witness a transformed community of love and care.

Hong Kong’s students and protesters have now been out on the streets for more than six weeks, camping in tents outside government buildings and blocking major streets in the city. They have endured attacks by the police with tear gas, pepper spray and batons, but they are no longer just enduring violence passively; they have begun to organize all kinds of creative expressions to voice their views and concerns through words, songs and art. They have also developed a strong sense of a neighborhood spirit that one can rarely find in the community outside of the Occupy areas of Hong Kong.

For instance, one can see students volunteering to collect and recycle trash, young men cleaning the floors and toilets, a carpenter carrying discarded wooden boards from Wan Chai to Admiralty every day to build tables for a study hall for students to study on Harcourt Road. Similarly, a restaurant began sending tables and chairs to Admiralty’s Umbrella Square. A library corner offers protesters a choice of books donated by supporters. Food, drinks and blankets are freely shared among the protesters. One feels so welcome to talk and share their views with strangers. There are many, many more stories and surprises that one can discover in this small world on the streets of Hong Kong.

In addition to material needs, there are also spiritual and meditation activities offered by different religious groups. The protest site in Mongkok is known for its pantheon of deities erected by protesters to guard the barricades, which includes Jesus, Buddha and the war god Kwan Tai.

Recently, a friend of mine, who is a lesbian social activist, shared a moving story on her Facebook page. Even though she has made many new friends in the Occupy area, she still felt hesitant to approach Christians based on her bad experiences with people of this faith in the past. However, one evening she was greeted warmly by some Protestant pastors, who even told her that “Jesus loves you,” and then a Christian woman told my friend that previously she did not support equal rights for gays and lesbians but that this Umbrella Movement has changed her attitude: she will support their equal rights now as well as democracy. This experience not only brought comfort to my friend, but it also inspired her to see the true spirit of democracy, a spirit that is able to break down all human divisions and barriers.

Moreover, the Umbrella Movement has given rise to a new political mass, one that incorporates people of all races, demographics and backgrounds, people with all sorts of different and varied connections to the city. Hong Kong has become truly a home for everyone.

This communal spirit is so beautiful. It reminds me of the Biblical scene of the first Pentecost in Acts 2: “All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts. Praising God and giving the goodwill of all the people.”

This is a true spirit of shalom which puts life before profit, relationship and caring before competition, building communities before individual success and finally justice replaces exploitation.

With the baptism of this new Pentecostal experience, Hong Kong will not be the same anymore.

  1. Scholarism, formed on May 29, 2011, is the first pressure group against the introduction of national education into the high school curriculum and became a leading organization of high school students.

  2. Joshua Wong Chi-fung is a co-founder of the student activist group Scholarism. This article was translated from Chinese for the New York Times.

  3. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope (London: SCMP Press, 1974).

  4. The Slutwalk parade originates from the name of a seminar on rape in Canada. The Canadian police said, “Women, if do not want to be a victim, you should avoid dressing like sluts.” Women are convinced that their sexual autonomy and clothing should not be an excuse for rape.



Right Texts, Wrong Applications

The Exegetical Typhoon against the Hong Kong Umbrella

There isn’t a lot to be thankful for in Hong Kong during this Thanksgiving season.

Forgive me for the rhetorical flourish before I wax exegetical, but the Hong Kong police have practically declared war on the people.1 By the “people,” I don’t only mean the “protesters.” Some eight policemen surrounded, beat and arrested the local NOW TV technician who was setting up his work ladder.2 A New Zealand reporter from NZ’s Asian station was reportedly hit by the police and had to check into the hospital. The most unbelievable news probably comes from the arrest of Apple Daily reporter who was accused of trying to grab a police’s gun while holding on to his own camera.3 One citizen who was merely passing through the protest site was hit behind the neck with a baton even while trying to shield his female companion.4 The baton barely missed another senior citizen passing by. In another instance, a woman passerby merely shouted, “Please don’t hit the protesters” and the cops dragged her by her head and threw her against a pole.5 Another young lady alleged that one of the cops told her to shut up or they’ll arrest her and take her back to the station to rape her which drew the ire of the bystander to the degree that many resorted to violence to defend her honor.6 Meanwhile, the eighteen-year-old student leader of the protest who started it all, Joshua Wong, was arrested and beaten on charges of contempt of court and obstruction of justice. After his release on bail, his lawyer said that the police kicked and punched him in the groin no less than six times.7 These stories are just the official news reported not just by sometimes-sensational Apple Daily to the respected Wall Street Journal and South China Morning Post. A deluge of news about injuries with real people (even some friends) fills my Facebook wall. This is just the news this week out of the two months of ongoing protest.

Where did all this begin? It began with a group of students getting inside the government compound on the night of September 28 this year, demanding the government to honor its promise to work towards a free vote for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive during the handover in 1997, based on Article 45 in Hong Kong Basic Law. China’s president Xi Jinping had stated clearly that China would not honor the promise. Hong Kong’s chief executive C.Y. Leung echoed Xi. Meanwhile, the police have been trying to clear protest sites, with some using extreme and unselective violence against mostly peaceful protesters.

What does one say to a reigning authority that does the above? The church is split between those supporting the government and those who seek democracy. Among these two camps, there’re also those who may not approve of the method but still support democracy at the middle part of the spectrum to those who think that asking Beijing for democracy is just plain useless. The interesting thing for me as a biblical studies specialist is both sides use scriptures. Especially of great interest for me is the way the pro-government faction uses scriptures. The most common response, as expected, is to quote Romans 13.

At the forefront of those opposing the protests is the Rev. Daniel Ng, the senior pastor of Kong Fok Church. In the past, Ng studied in the US with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but couldn’t finish his PhD. Since coming back, he dabbled in academics before becoming the senior pastor of Kong Fok Church, a mega church of the Evangelical Free denomination located in Admiralty near one of the protest site. This beautiful church is known for both its architecture and its upper middle class membership with political and entertainment connections.

In an interview printed for the worship bulletin, ironically and unexpectedly for the weekend of the start to the Occupy movement with Ming Pao (a very large and respected local newspaper), he states that within the protests, there’s no absolute and when people make absolute what is relative, division in the church would happen.8 In the same exact interview, he predicts that the Hong Kong police would have enough capacity to deal with the situation professionally. Ironically and out of his expectation, that same weekend that the interview appeared in his church bulletin was when the Hong Kong police fire tear gas unprovoked. Further down the interview, Ng explains his understanding of Romans 13. He states that Romans 13 teaches that God is the only one who will cause the ultimate change. Due to the fact that God knows what justice means, the Christian is to obey and trust in God rather than trying to bring changes. The Christian’s duty is to live within the relative justice of the society. By “relative,” he means that they ought to select what they think is just in God’s value system and cooperate with the government. Additionally, he uses the cliché WWJD to say that Jesus probably wouldn’t use the Occupy method to protest government’s policies, while stressing caution against reading modern context into Jesus’ background. In trying to explain the ideological sources of this movement, Ng claims that the liberalism from foreign (implicating the West) theological framework might have been the cause to all this trouble.

After reading the interpretation by Ng—which is a dominant narrative with Hong Kong pro-government Christian rhetoric—I find an interesting parallel in the “democratic” West. The best example is Wayne Grudem’s Politics according to the Bible.9 This book must be critiqued because its reasoning so closely parallels the anti-protest interpretation of Romans 13 in Hong Kong right now.10 Although Grudem, the foundational theologian for the New Calvinist movement, claims to be a systematic theologian and has taught theology for a number of years, his PhD was actually in biblical studies from Cambridge.11 Expectedly, his systematic theology is widely used among Chinese churches and seminaries both in Asia and in North America. In this book, Grudem gets so much mileage out of Romans 13 and 2 Peter 2.13-14 that are easily the most quoted passages in any of his supportive positions towards the government.12 Grudem’s basic assumption about Romans 13 is that Romans 13 endorses the American Constitution as the symbol of the government’s role.13 With such an endorsement, Romans 13 ought to be obeyed for all American citizens, simply because of the justice that the Constitution supposedly represents. Grudem, however, fails to understand that “obedience” to Romans 13 or to the Constitution is a hermeneutical exercise. Furthermore, he fails to grasp that the claim of “obedience” to the Constitution historically relegated black people to the back of the bus and separate toilets just some fifty years ago because simply the interpreters, especially conservative ones, tend to also advocate racist policies. He even advocates US government intervention of reforming tribal land ownership and breaking up Indian reservation using Romans 13, simply because Romans 13.4 says that government does things “for your good.”14 In his view of the government in relation to the international community, his orientation is implicitly based on US imperial doctrine of manifest destiny. Even in in his lack of discussion about colonial genocide of the Native Americans, he insists that the Natives should now live according to law established by white men.15 To narrow the implication of Grudem’s rhetoric and logic, not only are American lives more valuable but white American lives are the most valuable. This two-tier (the two tiers being Americans and American whites) American exceptionalism plagues this book at almost every issue.

Who would imagine such a reading of Romans 13 can be so against democracy and against the universal appeal of the gospel? Hong Kong people would!

Yet, Grudem’s book is both a study on church history and timing in publication. Even though Barack Obama was already president when this book was published, the writing of this book has strong Republican bend. The book was clearly written in the Bush era. The only reason why it was published during Obama’s presidency is due to the typical delay of editing. Many of the topics and framework are firmly Bush era stuff (e.g. war on terror, anti-welfare etc.).16 What we have here is a reflection of an era when the allies of Grudem were in power and Grudem’s writing only lends to an attempt to preserve that power. Who wouldn’t want to obey the government when the government guarantees your privilege and power? Interpretation is political. Politics have real-live grounded consequences!

In contrast to Grudem’s reading, it is interesting to see what New Testament scholars have been saying about Romans 13 lately besides the typical literal reading. Sze-kar Wan, in an excellent article, points out that we should distinguish between plural “authorities” from the singular. The plural refers to local magistrates; the singular refers to Absolute Authority that properly belongs to God alone.17 The plural of Rom. 13.1c is a play on the plural of Rom. 13.1a and the singular of 13.1b & 13.2a. By these words, Paul creates a strong monotheistic subordination of human government under God’s law. This is something that those who stress absolute obedience to government have neglected. Mark Nanos, one of the most published scholars on Paul and Judaism in recent times, has suggested a reading in an unpublished article that provides yet another direction based on historical circumstances.18 He contends that the specific circumstances Paul called for obedience had to do being subjected to Jewish taxes by the community of believers. Since Claudius’ expulsion of Jews, the community had been taken over by gentiles, but now the returning Jews had created tension in the community.19 By reading Romans 13 in close proximity to Romans 11, Nanos concludes that obedience to government required the non-Jews to work closely with fellow Jews. In just these two examples, Wan and Nanos have illustrated the important of both history and the careful reading of the words in the text. Even as Paul wrote in colonial rule, he understood the political implications of his mission. As such, his application was specific to one situation without some kind of universal rule towards Christian views of the state.

Having seen how interpretation of Romans 13 can vary once we consider its background, we must draw some conclusions. While there may be no direct influence from Grudem to Ng, the parallel interpretation yields certain harmful results. The first result is that such interpretations stack the cards against the weak. Even if democracy exists relatively (e.g. the case of the US), it is a system with privilege for the strong. At its most extreme from, Ng and Grudem interpret in such a way that declares their respective war against the democratic ideal, thus trampling on human dignity. While looking at the audiences of Ng and Grudem along with Paul, we realize that their views on reality are based on their audience. For Ng, his audience is the mostly upper middle class and a number of powerful movers of Hong Kong. By stacking the cards in the favor of the powerful, he loses nothing. Grudem’s readers are mostly those who side with the power (not just whites, but also those Chinese overseas who align with the powerful). So, Grudem loses nothing by arguing his cases this way. In contrast, Paul’s readers were mostly diverse, with some being gentiles and others being Jews. Instead of stacking his cards for the powerful, Paul stacked his cards in favor of God’s ultimate rule. God’s rule, even more important than government rule, was the very ideal these two potentially divided communities under which they could unite. If they split, Paul could lose his mission that is built on the dignity of all humans in Christ, especially not abandoning the role of the Jews. By looking at matters via these nuanced lenses, Paul’s mission is much closer to the democratic ideal than the other two.

By my parallel reading from two locations of Hong Kong and the US, we can see who pays the ultimate heavy price for misreading. The Umbrella Movement has exposed the enduring damage of a wholesale buy-in of western fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. It further questions whether a government that violates its own agreement from Article 45 of Hong Kong Basic Law on universal suffrage is still worth obeying. It questions the violation of the law that gives humans their basic dignity. It has become the mirror that exposes not only certain impoverished political stance, but its utter bankruptcy in theology and biblical interpretation.20 More importantly, this Umbrella Movement shows to American Christians that interpretation is an ethical issue with very deadly consequences. The colonization of the Bible once again colonizes the oppressed.

  1. http:/C:/dev/home/

  2.【合併觀看】《明報》now新聞台攝得工程人員被捕短片/web_tc/article/20141126/s00001/1417009869223 I’ve decided to footnote my Chinese sources in case any reader wants to read the original report.

  3. What remains a mystery however is how a reporter is holding on to his camera with both hands while trying to disarm a policemen.被警方拘捕蘋果日報攝影記者凌晨獲准保釋-202800252.html

  4. https:/C:/dev/home/


  6. Notice in the film clip here how the policeman who supposed passed out immediately popped up as soon as they found his id at 1.26 seconds. This illustrates the resuscitative power of the police id.


  8. I do not think the church expected the nearby government building would be occupied when the bulletin was prepared. http:/C:/dev/home/ The Rev. Enoch Lam, another Hong Kong pastor of the Crossroad Community Church, another mega-church and a friend of Ng’s, also says something similar in this sermon shortly after the protest kicked off. http:/C:/dev/home/

  9. Wayne Grudem, Politics—according to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).

  10. The critique here is modified from a book review I wrote earlier “Review: Politics—according to the Bible,” Hillroad 32 (2013): 166–71.

  11. Published as The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). See Colin Hansen, “Young, Restless and Reformed,” Christianity Today 50/9 (2006): 6, on Grudemn’s theological influence on the New Calvinist movement.

  12. E.g. Politics, 74, 77–81, 87–90, etc.

  13. Ibid., 153.

  14. Ibid., 549.

  15. Ibid., 548–49.

  16. The fact he endorses Mitt Romney shows the era (pre-Obama era) in which he originally wrote the book. Ibid., 67.

  17. Sze-kar Wan, “Coded Resistance: A Proposed Rereading of Romans 13:1–7,” C. B. Kittredge, E. B. Aitkin, & J. A. Draper (eds.), The Bible in the Public Square, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 173–84. Please read his entire article for additional rationale for his anti-imperial reading, which I fully endorse.

  18. Mark Nanos, “To the Churches within the Synagogues of Rome,” in Jerry L. Sumney (ed.), Reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Resources for Biblical Studies 73; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), 11–28.

  19. Ibid., 18–19, casts doubts on whether all Jews were expelled.

  20. The very same can be said about Jesus studies. See Justin K. H. Tse, “Placing the Neoliberal Jesus,” Bulletin for the Study of Religion 43/3 (2014): 3–9. James G. Crossley, Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism (London: Routledge, 2014).



Mapping the Umbrella Movement

Uncovering Grounded Theologies in Hong Kong

[Note from the Managing Editor: Stephen Chan, who was scheduled to be the final contributor to our symposium on The Umbrella Movement and Theology, was not able to submit his essay. In his place we have asked the symposium moderator, Justin K.H. Tse, to submit a final essay.]

As this Syndicate forum on the Umbrella Movement and theology winds to a close, the physical occupations in Hong Kong seem to be nearing their end stage. With court injunctions, police clearances, statements of support from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for the Hong Kong government, the attempted voluntary surrender of Occupy Central leaders to the police, and a student hunger strike after over seventy days of street occupations, it might seem late in the game to call for the mapping of “grounded theologies,” “performative practices of placemaking informed by understandings of the transcendent,” woven into the political constitution of the Hong Kong protests.1 However, as I shall argue, there is no better time to get to work.

The three previous contributors to this forum agree that the Umbrella Movement protests have altered the way that political agency is imagined in Hong Kong. Kung Lap Yan’s opening declaration that the Hong Kong protests constitute a political movement, not merely a social one, captures the tenor of this paradigm shift,2 what Rose Wu calls a “New Pentecost3 and what Sam Tsang observes to be an opportunity to decolonize biblical hermeneutics.4 As Kung writes,

As a theologian, my answer is that no matter how and when the movement will end, the questions like chaos and order, reconciliation and tension, politics of identity articulated from the movement would remain valid during the movement and post-movement. The theological significance of the Umbrella Movement does not lie in its political success, but in the questions that will shape the political movement of Hong Kong for a long time to come.5

Whether or not there will continue to be tents, umbrellas, booths, and rallies on the streets of Hong Kong, our contributors concur that the Umbrella Movement is far from over. Even if the Hong Kong government is successful with its legal strategy to completely remove the physical occupations, the work of theological reflection will become even more timely because it will be time to examine at a subterranean level what changes have been wrought in the theopolitical consciousness of Hong Kong citizens, whether they have been for, against, or indifferent to the protests. Indeed, one need not support the protests to arrive at the conclusion that a paradigm shift has occurred. One Hong Kong journalist who has been vehemently against the demonstrations, Michael Chugani, reiterates time and again that the Hong Kong protests have seared the soul of the city.6 So too, pro-establishment politician Regina Ip speaks of the need for healing and a new identity, though her proposals that Hongkongers need to learn to love the Chinese nation-state will only add fuel to the fire of protest.7

The time is ripe to interrogate the new geographies that are being constructed and contested by these new theopolitical subjects. However, let me begin this call for research by first asking Syndicate readers to indulge me. I am not an academic theologian, but a social scientist—a geographer, to be precise. This is not an act of false humility; John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theoryput an end to such dissembling when he showed in 1989 that social scientists do theology all the time.8 Instead, if my proposals for a new theological methodology in Hong Kong sound foreign to those trained in the ways of academic theology, its strangeness can perhaps be blamed on my disciplinary formation.

As an ethnographic researcher, I can’t help but observe an irony about the way that theology in Hong Kong is done. As many theologians and pastors in Hong Kong hold degrees from Anglo-American and German institutions, public theological scholarship in Hong Kong has focused upon interpreting empirical data within borrowed theological and theoretical frameworks while creating definitional taxonomies, ideal types, and intellectual trajectories. While these practices privilege scholarly elites, the irony is that these same scholars participate in shaping events on the ground. When I did ethnographic fieldwork at a forum on social concern and political participation at Yau Ma Tei’s Truth Lutheran Church in 2012, I heard Hong Kong theologians vigorously debating whether Martin Luther’s “two kingdoms” theology was a “model” or a “paradigm,” whether Karl Barth and the Barmen Declaration required Christians to stand apart from the current regime, whether Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s conception of “truthfulness” permitted pragmatic relationships with the authorities, and how the call of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas to bear witness against Constantianism should be put to work in Hong Kong. I learned that this was typical: a joke, as one key informant quipped, was that “everybody around here is either a self-stylized Barth or Bonhoeffer.”9 One could rightly accuse such theologians of imposing onto the ground Western theological categories. But as scholars of what Anthony King calls “actually existing postcolonialism” point out, such borrowing produces political subjectivities and theological geographies of its own.10 Hong Kong theology is no less Hong Kong theology for articulating Hong Kong events via such frameworks. Indeed, these intellectual practices make of Hong Kong a theological playground.

Indeed, the situation in Hong Kong leading up to the Umbrella Movement would not have taken the political shape it did without this theological modus operandi. In January 2013, Occupy Central with Love and Peace’s Benny Tai proposed a nonviolent movement of civil disobedience based on his reading of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s struggles for decolonization.11 Combining these insights with those of virtue ethicists like Alasdair MacIntyre, he contends that there must be a higher law of virtue for which it is ethical to conduct “illegal” actions to save the body politic, which he articulated on the night anticipating the August 31 Beijing decision against civil nominations as a house on fire and a body that is sick.12 Tai’s articulation of “illegal” civil disobedience met with the opposition of Kong Fok Evangelical Free Church’s Rev. Daniel Ng Chung-man, the megachurch pastor who since 2013 has threatened to “excommunicate” any of his congregation members who would participate in Occupy Central and who (as Kung points out) has forbidden the use of his church’s toilets for any Umbrella Movement protesters.13 As Tsang suggests, Ng is as much of a borrower as Tai; Ng’s source is Wayne Grudem, whose reading of passages like Romans 13 leads him to oppose any “illegal” activities as challenging both the authorities putatively put in place by a sovereign God and the authority of the Scriptures that call for such political submission.14 The same is true of the opposition of the Anglican primate, the Most Rev. Paul Kwong: in his published dissertation, he reveals that his theology is undergirded by the work of Miroslav Volf, which leads him to pursue pragmatic dialogue with the Beijing and Hong Kong governments instead of supporting the Hong Kong protesters.15 Syndicate readers might also find this dynamic operating in the three previous forum posts: Kung’s use of Latin American liberation theology and theories of church-state relations, Wu’s citation of King in the struggle to decolonize Hong Kong, Tsang’s debate between Ng-Grudem and the anti-supersessionist approaches of Mark Nanos and Sze-kar Wan.

In other words, Hong Kong theology is inseparable from the non-Hong Kong theological sources woven into its constitution. The Umbrella Movement, however, signals that it is time to change. If the demonstrations have indeed altered the political and theological consciousness of Hong Kong citizens—indeed, if the Hong Kong protests have produced sites of worship on the street that articulate new theologies for a new Hong Kong16—such morphologies also signal that the paradigms of the students, scholars, clergy, and public intellectuals are shifting.

Indeed, the Umbrella Movement has forced academics onto the streets. Though the chancellor of universities in Hong Kong is the Chief Executive C.Y. Leung—which is why university students have facetiously called for their chancellor to resign—university vice-chancellors have played active roles in mediating between the protesters and the government: the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s (CUHK) Joseph Sung made visits to the ground and has vouched repeatedly for the protesters’ civility, while Lingnan University’s Leonard Cheng moderated the dialogue between the Hong Kong Federation of Students and the government on October 16.17 Professors from across the political and intellectual spectrum have signed open letters of support for the student strikes since before the Umbrella Movement, and noted Hong Kong faculty members, including those from the major seminaries from across the theological gamut, have sat in solidarity with the students.18 Some have joined the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement’s Rev. Wu Chi Wai in organizing a Pastoral Care Group; others have held seminars on democracy with the protesters. Such faculty involvement has not been lost on the Anti-Occupy Central “blue ribbon” protesters: Anti-Occupy’s Leticia Lee took the fight to the University of Hong Kong and CUHK on October 17, calling for the firing of tenured professors Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man for inciting the students to illegal acts through Occupy Central.

That faculty have been so involved in their students’ struggle indicates that a new form of public scholarship in Hong Kong is taking shape. As the academy gets closer to the ground, grounded actors can be seen as serious theological practitioners, including those whose theologies may seem pro-establishment, secular, and pragmatic. Indeed, given Milbank’s annihilation of the boundary between theology and secular social theory, it does not matter that these academics that I discuss are a mix of theologians and secular scholars. As Kung, Wu, and Tsang have also noted before me, what is really going on in the Umbrella Movement is a grounded debate about political theology. Because the initiating actors have been students, scholarship has been a site of struggle, which means that these faculty and administrative debates, as well as the swelling public interest in universities and seminaries in Hong Kong, indicate that these concerns about the future of Hong Kong is not restricted, as it is commonly held in popular Hong Kong parlance, to the “post-1980s” (八十後) and “post-1990s” (九十後) generation of the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism.19 What the Umbrella Movement has done, in short, is to move university academics, theological and secular, from the ivory tower to the streets, dismantling the image of scholars as purveyors of Western elitism and joining them in solidarity with the masses of the Hong Kong public.

In this light, I am calling for the usage of the ever-shifting urban landscape of Hong Kong as a theological source in its own right. While Ackbar Abbas has observed that Hong Kong’s cityscape is constantly subject to a culture of “disappearance,”20 Southeast Asian urban geographer Terry McGee has called for scholars to get “under” the city to examine how historic colonial geographies still thread their way into contemporary postcolonial landscapes.21

To do this, Hong Kong theologians could show that Hong Kong historiographies put in conversation with contemporary Hongkonger geographies reveals that Hong Kong has not only been a theologians’ playground, but has made theologians of all Hongkongers. In 1985, historian Carl T. Smith launched a new wave of Hong Kong social history with a provocatively titled monograph: Chinese Christians: Elites, Middlemen, and the Church in Hong Kong. Smith sought to reclaim Hong Kong history from both the British colonial and anti-colonial Marxist historiographies that gave British colonizers complete agency in Hong Kong. Seeking instead to trace Hong Kong Chinese actors from the birth of the colony in 1842, he found that the majority of the elites who became go-between compradors between the British colonizers and the colonized Chinese had been educated in Christian schools. As his student Elizabeth Sinn then showed, these Christian-educated middlemen pragmatically achieved their legitimacy by taking on the Taoist ritual functions of the Man Mo Temple and holding court as quasi-Confucian elites in the Tung Wah Hospital. Since Smith and Sinn, a new paradigm of social history took shape in Hong Kong that has resulted in renewed interest in local Hong Kong histories from the nineteenth century up to the present. These narratives situate the landscape between the British and Chinese empires and analyze how colonized Chinese subjects collaborated with the colonizers to legitimize their political power.22 In this analysis, the struggle between elites who now collude with the new Hong Kong regime and the pro-democracy protesters who challenge their legitimacy makes more sense. Theology, it turns out, has long been about elite power in Hong Kong, whether those theologies are Christian or not.

The Umbrella Movement presents a geographical challenge to this theological elitism, precisely by rearticulating theology not for the elites, but for those protesting for political agency. Instead of creating taxonomical models and intellectual genealogies about how the Umbrella Movement could theoretically engage theology in the abstract, scholars who take the movement seriously might turn their attention to how the eclectic convergence of local Chinese and colonial Christian traditions has done to construct the Hong Kong elite historically. In this way, the new democratic tradition that arose in the 1960s and 1970s and that has culminated in the current occupations might be seen as radical indeed.23 Asked this way, the joke that everyone is a Barth and a Bonhoeffer in Hong Kong will no longer need to be told. The theological debate will not be between, say, Daniel Ng’s Wayne Grudem, Paul Kwong’s Miroslav Volf, and Benny Tai’s Martin Luther King, for Ng, Kwong, and Tai will be recognized as theological actors in their own right, contesting each other—and not each other’s representative Western theologian—over visions of how Hong Kong’s theological publics should look. Indeed, the actions of those on the ground—Joshua Wong undertaking a hunger strike, protesters setting up shrines to Chinese territorial gods as well as for Chinese sacraments, the constant debates about Basic Law as the constitution of the body politic—will be seen as grounded theological actions worth the time of academic theologians to examine in Hong Kong terms. Even non-Christian theologies count: one fascinating figure, Professor Horace Chin Wan-kan, has conducted Taoist rites that subtly call the legitimacy of the current regime into question and frequently communicates Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian, and Chinese territorial theosophies on his social media platforms. If the elite compradors of the nineteenth century used these eclectic theological convergences to secure their own political power, theologians like Chin are reworking those traditions for democratic self-determination, with Chin calling outright for the autonomy of Hong Kong as a sovereign city-state as a way to preserve Chinese territorial traditions from what he perceives as British and PRC colonizations.24 So too, the contributions to our forum are significant because they too use the Umbrella Movement, not some abstract theological source, as the point of departure for constructive theology. Kung’s account makes the protesters defining “Occupy Central” over against the “Umbrella Movement” an act of theological definition. Wu centers the feminist “Slut Walk” initiators and lesbian demonstrators she met as theologians in her piece. As much as Tsang disagrees with Daniel Ng, his concern with his exegetical method stems precisely from the grounded reality that Ng’s exegesis constructs theological realities. Theological actors are not interesting because of where their sources come, but because of how they put theology to work on the ground.

To pay such close attention to the political agency of these once-colonized theological subjects is to decolonize the study of theology. That act of theological decolonization, my forum colleagues and I have argued, is the theological significance of the Umbrella Movement. As these grounded theologies percolate to the surface of Hong Kong’s society, the landscapes of the protests challenge the colonial elitism of theological scholarship. It turns out that the real work of theology is done on the ground, for Hong Kong’s political actors can be heard as saying that secular publics remain constituted by theology. For those who have ears to hear, they teach us that those who do politics, at least in the shaping of Hong Kong’s political landscape, are really all theologians.

  1. Justin K.H. Tse, “Grounded theologies: ‘religion’ and the ‘secular’ in human geography,” Progress in Human Geography, 38, no. 2 (2014): 202.

  2. Kung Lap Yan, “Occupy Central, Umbrella Movement, and Democracy: A Theological Articulation,” Syndicate: A New Forum for Theology, 1 Dec 2014.

  3. Rose Wu, “The Rebirth of Hong Kong,” Syndicate: A New Forum for Theology, 3 Dec 2014.

  4. Sam Tsang, “Right Texts, Wrong Applications: The Exegetical Typhoon against the Hong Kong Umbrella,”Syndicate: A New Forum for Theology, 8 Dec 2014.

  5. Kung, op cit.

  6. Michael Chugani, “Occupy protests leave Hong Kong directionless, divided and further from its democracy goal than ever: Michael Chugani says the Occupy protests have changed Hong Kong forever, but greater democracy is further away than ever,” South China Morning Post, 17 Oct 2014.

  7. Michael Forsythe, “Hong Kong lawmaker searches for democracy within China’s embrace,” New York Times, 3 Oct 2014.

  8. John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason1989,Second Edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 1. Milbank accuses both theologians and social scientists who claim not to cross-fertilize of “false humility.”

  9. As a geographer, I mix qualitative methodologies to collect data that I can triangulate. I conducted the bulk of my fieldwork in Hong Kong from February to April 2012, which included 45 key informant interviews, four focus groups, and the gathering of an audiovisual archive on Christian involvement in Hong Kong’s public sphere. Because this 2012 data was collected during the contentious Fourth Chief Executive Election, I use it as a hermeneutical key to interpret events subsequent to my field work, including the Moral and National Education protests of 2012, the Occupy Central with Love and Peace campaign of 2013–14, and the Umbrella Movement of 2014.

  10. Anthony D. King, “Actually Existing Postcolonialism: Colonial Urbanism and Architecture after the Postcolonial Turn,” in Postcolonial Urbanism: Southeast Asian Cities and Globalization, eds. Ryan Bishop, John Phillips, and Wei-Wei Yeo (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), 167–86.

  11. Benny Tai Yiu-ting, “公民抗命的最大殺傷力武器 [Civil disobedience’s most effective weapon of mass destruction],”Hong Kong Economic Journal, 16 Jan. 2014. See also Benny Tai Yiu-ting, 佔領中環 : 和平抗爭心戰室[Occupy Central: peaceful protest as a war in the heart] (Hong Kong: Enrich, 2013).

  12. twgrundy, “Occupy Central organiser Benny Tai, 29.08.14 at LegCo,” Soundcloud, 30 Aug 2014. For a tentative analysis of Tai’s virtue ethics and political theology, see Justin K.H. Tse, “Benny Tai as a political theologian, or what Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig might have to say about Occupy Central #HongKong,” Religion. Ethnicity. Wired., 2 Sept 2014.

  13. Ming Pao Daily News, “吳宗文:「教徒犯法應逐出教會」. 反對佔中[Daniel Ng Chung-man: ‘Christians who act illegally should be excommunicated’. Opposes Occupy Central.]” Ming Pao Daily News, 7 May 2013.

  14. Tsang, op cit. I also have an analysis of Ng debating the historical Jesus with Occupy Central’s Rev. Chu Yiuming. See Justin K.H. Tse, “Placing Neoliberal Jesuses: Doing Public Geography with the Historical Jesus,” Bulletin for the Study of Religion 43, no. 3 (2014): 3–9.

  15. Paul Kwong, Identity in Community: Toward a Theological Agenda for the Hong Kong SAR (Zürich and Berlin: LIT Verlag Münster, 2011). The term “prophetic” to characterize the Hong Kong Christian protest tradition can be traced to Beatrice Leung and Shun-hing Chan, Changing Church and State Relations in Hong Kong, 1950-2000 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2003). Kwong’s analysis of the Hong Kong situation relies heavily on Miroslav Volf,Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996).

  16. See Jennifer Ngo, “Religion on the Occupy Central front line puts faith into practice: Christians, in pursuing equality and justice, have long been part of the city’s fight for freedom,” South China Morning Post, 27 Oct 2014.

  17. Not all vice-chancellors have been so supportive, though. Though CUHK’s Joseph Sung commended the protesters and voiced optimism about the rule of law during the November graduations, Hong Kong Baptist University’s Albert Chan Sun-chi denounced the protests in his convocation speech.

  18. Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, “Don’t let the striking students stand alone: an appeal from and views of a group of teachers and staff at tertiary education institutes,” Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, 10 Sept. 2014.

  19. See Lachlan Barber, A relational geography of heritage in post-1997 Hong Kong, unpublished PhD dissertation, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, 4 July 2014. Barber explores the politics of heritage as practiced by a “post-1980s” generation of activists.

  20. Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

  21. Terry McGee, “Many knowledge(s) of Southeast Asia: rethinking Southeast Asia in real time,” Asia Pacific Viewpoint 48, no. 2 (2007): 270–80. I agree with McGee’s recommendations of Brenda Yeoh’s study of colonial Singapore and Abidin Kusno’s account of architectural politics in Indonesia as examples of urban scholars getting “under” the city. See Brenda Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power Relations and the Urban Built Environment(Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1996); Abidin Kusno, Behind the Postcolonial: Architecture, Urban Space, and Political Cultures in Indonesia (London: Routlege, 2000).

  22. Carl T. Smith, Chinese Christians: Elites, Middlemen, and the Church in Hong Kong 1985 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005); Elizabeth Sinn, Power and Charity: A Chinese Merchant Elite in Colonial Hong Kong 1989, Second Edition (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2003); W.K. Chan, The Making of Hong Kong Society: Three Studies of Class Formation in Early Hong Kong(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991); Jung-fang Tsai, Hong Kong in Chinese History: Community and Social Unrest in the British Colony, 1842–1913 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995); Tak-wing Ngo (ed.), Hong Kong’s History: State and Society Under Colonial Rule (London: Routledge, 1999); Christopher Munn, Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong, 1841–1880 2001 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009); James Carroll, Edges of Empire: Chinese Elites and British Colonials in Hong Kong(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); James Carroll, A Concise History of Hong Kong(Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007); Law Wing Sang, Collaborative Colonial Power: The Making of the Hong Kong Chinese(Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009).

  23. See Justin K.H. Tse, “It has always been the students—and the clergy—and Catholic social teaching #HongKongProtests,” Religion. Ethnicity. Wired., 29 Sept. 2014; Justin K.H. Tse, “Can American Christians Care about Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement?” Missio: The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture, 18 Nov. 2014; Artur Rosman, “The Catholic Umbrella in Hong Kong: An Interview with Justin Tse, Part II,” Ethika Politika, 16 Oct. 2014.

  24. 陳雲 [Horace Chin Wan-kan], 香港城邦論 I [Hong Kong as a City-State I] (Hong Kong: Skylight Publishing, 2011).