SCMP: ‘God’s servant’: Beijing-friendly and born again, former HK official Stephen Lam wants to woo Christians in Canada

I am thrilled that journalist extraordinaire Ian Young has put up a story about the upcoming visit to Vancouver of Hong Kong’s former Chief Secretary, Stephen Lam Sui-lung, on his blog, The Hongcouver on the South China Morning Post. I was interviewed for this piece. I also discovered that – independent of my leads (which means that Ian has to be credited for doing his homework!) – my colleague Dr Sam Tsang (Hong Kong Baptist Theological Seminary and Ambrose University) also gave his two cents.

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Here’s what’s happening. Later this month in June 2016, Lam will be visiting three Chinese evangelical churches as part of a ‘cross-Canada evangelistic tour’ where he will be speaking on the theme, ‘From Public Servant to God’s Servant.’ The event is being hosted by the Chinese Christian Mission (CCM) Canada, a parachurch organization that tries to bridge the gap between ‘the church and the world.’ This upcoming set of talks has been generating some commotion among Christians about whether Chinese Protestant churches in Vancouver are, in Hong Kong terms, ‘pro-establishment’ (supportive of the Hong Kong government and its ties to Beijing) or ‘pro-democracy’ (critical of the Hong Kong government and its ties to Beijing for not allowing Hong Kong residents full political agency in, say, ‘genuine universal suffrage’ or even ‘Hong Kong autonomy,’ depending on how radically democratic one is). It is uncontroversial to say that Lam himself is ‘pro-establishment’: as the former second-in-command in Hong Kong’s government establishment, he was active in attempts to push forward a democratic reform bill that would lead to a Hong Kong that would have a democratic façade but be ultimately controlled by Beijing. As Young rightly notes, this reform package split the pan-democratic parties in Legislative Council in 2010 and ultimately generated the frustration that led to the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the 79-day street occupation where Hong Kong residents demanded ‘genuine universal suffrage’ (instead of democratic reforms that were all for show with no real substance).

Here were my comments to Young on Lam’s upcoming visit:

Lam’s visit is being debated in Chinese-speaking Christian circles in Vancouver, according to Dr Justin Tse, who teaches religious studies at the University of Washington in Seattle and human geography at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He said the tour and the reaction to it were emblematic of the way “democracy and establishment forces in Hong Kong [are] vying for the attention of the diaspora” in Canada. Churches, he said “served as political hubs” of the Hong Kong diaspora in Canada, even as they claimed apolitical status.

“It’s a contest over whether these churches should be having a pro-Beijing politician speak for an evangelistic event, a mass rally intended to convert people to Christianity,” he said. The debate was being played out in private Chinese-language social media, drawing hundreds of comments.

One Facebook posting highlighted by Tse called for “joint action” against the tour. “If any of you or your righteous relatives would like to welcome in Vancouver Stephen Lam Sui-lung, the servile former official who tries to wipe the slate clean with theology, please send me your personal messages,” said the poster.

“There’s no denying that for Chinese people living in Vancouver, there is a sense that the Church has a moral voice. Even if you are not Christian, for instance, you might want to send your kids to Sunday school so that they can learn to be good and moral people,” said Tse. “There’s a sense [even among non-Christians] to think of the church as a moral centre of the Chinese community, and we have the former chief secretary come over to speak and spout a particular version of Hong Kong ideology.”

Tse said that Lam’s previous efforts in such venues had amounted to a “Christianised account of his time in office”. “Chinese churches in Vancouver have this thing where famous people – politicians, movie stars, singers whatever – are used to attract people. Stephen Lam’s celebrity comes from his time in political office. That’s the draw.”

He said the CCM was not overtly political, and Chinese evangelical churches traditionally prided themselves on being able to separate “the private face of the church from public political life”. “It’s being billed as an apolitical event, but what we have seen of the content [of Lam’s previous evangelical speeches] they are fairly ideological” he said, and likening such events to claiming a “biblical mandate”.

“Democracy people or autonomy people are lamenting this event – not just that Stephen Lam is being given this platform, but from their understanding that the church as an apolitical institution… is very easily manoeuvred into political positions without knowing it.”

In this way, I hope that I have successfully and clearly made several important points that Young’s audience can easily understand. For many historical and ideological reasons, Chinese evangelical churches in Vancouver have billed themselves as apolitical since the 1970s – they take particular pride in being able to distinguish their private religious community from their involvement in secular, non-Christian politics. That Lam is a politician means nothing except that he is an individual who will be speaking on putatively apolitical things, like why his audience needs to convert to (evangelical Protestant) Christianity. However, as pro-democracy Christians in Hong Kong have been pointing out, this apolitical bent is a politics in and of itself. What sometimes happens is that people and institutions that are good at circulating ideologies will couch their messages in apolitical tones and be able to convince people in apolitical churches that what they are saying is simply the way things are in reality. As Young’s reporting shows several paragraphs above my comments, this is what Lam has been doing since his resignation from political office in 2012: in 2014, he spoke about the ‘resurrection’ of the hotly contested political reform package in 2010 as an example of how God was with him in his political maneuvering. The God-talk feels apolitical; the content, for those who know the context, has a bit more of a bite.

This is by no means something that is unique to Hong Kong-Vancouver Chinese Christianity. The relationships between churches and transnational political geographies constitute a particularly interesting part of our news cycle currently. One useful comparison, for example, could be the way that the ‘Russian World’ ideology from Putin’s government circulates through the Moscow Patriarchate in the Orthodox world and is combatted by, say, Ukrainians who have churches of their own; interestingly, this ideology may well be affecting the last-minute preparations and scrambling for the Orthodox to get their Holy and Great Council together next week. Another interesting case to come through Vancouver’s news cycle is of a Filipino man who fled an authoritarian church in the Philippines but is currently being targeted by that institution through its international membership. All of this seems to be about the political attempts of national church structures attempting to ideologically influence their transnational diaspora churches, which is not a straightforward process because this often results in ideological contestation in the diaspora religious communities – and increasingly so because of social media. I find all of this very geographically interesting, which is why I said what I said to Young.

I am thankful to Young for being interested in this story. It is also good and interesting to have my comments alongside my friend Sam Tsang. I hope that SCMP/Hongcouver readers will find this piece interesting because Chinese evangelical churches are part and parcel of the landscape of Vancouver’s civil society.

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