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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ABC Religion and Ethics Report: The role of religion in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

I was recently on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s (ABC) Religion and Ethics Report with Andrew West talking about ‘the role of religion in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution.’ The other guest on the show, Professor David Palmer, is a sociologist of Chinese popular religions who chairs the University of Hong Kong’s sociology department. They told me that they found me because of my interview with Jennifer Ngo on the South China Morning Post on religion in the Hong Kong protests.

Andrew West asked some very good questions during this show. He began with my comments on Religion Ethnicity Wired and on Ethika Politika (parts 1, 2, and 3), on the Catholic Church in Hong Kong. We then moved into a clarification of how Protestant denominations and ecumenical alliances have been at work on the ground, and we had an extended discussion on the controversial role played by Hong Kong’s Anglican primate, the Most Rev. Paul Kwong, in opposing the demonstrations. Finally, West asked about the connection between the protests and religious freedom in China, to which both Palmer and I emphasized that the Umbrella Movement has little to do with ‘religious freedom’ per se, but that does not mean that people like Joseph Cardinal Zen might not have it in the back of their minds.

I’m very thankful to Andrew West and Scott Spark for an excellent interview and for this chance to meet David Palmer on air. I’m also thankful to Jennifer Ngo for creating this opportunity to speak more about the Hong Kong protests. I’ve actually regularly podcasted ABC Religion and Ethics Report during my commutes, and I was thrilled to be on this show that provides such consistently good religion reporting.

South China Morning Post: Chinese parents clash with striking Canadian teachers as school year fails to start

Photo: CBC

Yesterday in The South China Morning Post, Ian Young did another spectacular job trying to suss out some of the intricacies of the trans-Pacific social field that we find in Vancouver. In this most recent article, he wrote on how some Chinese parents associated with the British Columbia Parents’ Federation (BCPF) protested the teacher’s union, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), for the strike that is finally starting to come to an end. Young reached out to me for a comment, and this is what I noted about the BCPF:

Dr Justin Tse, an academic who has studied activism within the British Columbia Chinese community, said that although the BCPF’s desire to get children back in class was shared with other opponents of the strike, there was also a strong undercurrent of anti-unionism in general that ran through the protests.

“My sense is that there is a view that unions disrupt business, and most Chinese migrants have this view that unions get in the way of the free market,” said Tse, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Washington. “For them, it’s not really just the educational stuff – it’s the union stuff.”

The BCPF has garnered supporters via Chinese-language social media, and the couple of dozen members at Sunday’s protests all appeared ethnically Chinese. The federation has attempted to widen its outreach to non-Chinese parents, but these efforts appear to have been aborted, for now. A Facebook page and an English-language website seeking new BCPF members were visible on Sunday, but were taken offline that night.

“A lot [of Chinese immigrants] are kind of scared of public protest,” said Tse. “They want the media to capture their numbers at a protest, but they don’t want to be singled out as individuals, so you get the face mask thing. You can’t really have it both ways, but that is the sentiment.”

Tse said conservative Chinese political activism in BC was informed by “a specific vision of democracy” that focused on majority rule alone, without emphasising some of its other aspects, such as deliberation, consensus and accountability.

“There is this sense that democracy means you get to say your private views in public, no matter how outrageous, because that’s free speech, and that it is all about getting numbers,” said Tse. “This view is that democracy just means majority wins, majority rules.”

My comments here need to be read in conversation with a piece that I wrote on my blog, Religion Ethnicity Wired, arguing that the constitutional issues swirling around the BCTF strike provide a remarkable mirror to the democratic movement in Hong Kong, Occupy Central with Love and Peace. This is because what I said there qualifies what Ian Young and I talked about in relation to Chinese immigrants.

The impression that I do not want the public to get is that there is something about this nebulous term Chinese culture that is against labour unions, public protest, and deliberative democracy. Such a statement would not only be irresponsible — it would be empirically unsubstantiated. After all, if that were the argument, then movements such as the May Fourth Movement, the Beijing Spring of 1989 in Tiananmen Square, and the recent democratic movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong would have to be marked as un-Chinese. As Craig Calhoun insists in Neither Gods Nor Emperors, it would be more accurate to say that these democratic movements constitute a strand of Chinese tradition. So too, Asian American author Frank Chin observes in his novel Donald Duk that even Confucian concepts like ‘the Mandate of Heaven’ are a de facto form of democratic consciousness because it is a term that can be deployed by the people to criticize unjust power.

However, it is true that many of those associated with the BCPF were ethnic Chinese — its spokespeople seem to be Putonghua-speaking, and as their name suggests, they represent parents. Here, I also rejected the discourse of the ‘tiger parent’: Amy Chua’s essentialist caricature of Asian American (and Asian Canadian) parenting has simply reinforced notions of the ‘model minority’ that should have been put to bed in the late 1960s right where it started. This is not to deny that Asian Americans and Asian Canadians themselves take on the discourse of the ‘model minority’ as an identity statement — indeed, my work explores that at an ethnographic level — but using the ‘model minority’ as an essentialist explanation for Chinese parental behaviour stops the conversation at several points. First, it conveniently isolates Chinese parents from the general population, blinding us to how Chinese parents are saying some of the similar things as even Anglo-Canadians. The second is that it doesn’t get at the specific undercurrents that make up the discourse of the ‘model minority.’

What I’ve done here is to try to listen to what these parents are actually saying. They agree with the general population that the BCTF strike has crippled education in BC. However, while public opinion has been turning against the BC Liberal Government for its flouting of the Canadian constitution and the bargaining rights of the teachers, these parents are placing the blame squarely on the teachers for striking and thus using collective bargaining as a bullying tactic that has put their kids out of school. This sounded a lot like my dissertation research, in which conversations about the BCTF in 2011 (well before this set of strikes) quickly led into discussions of how a variety of labour unions tended to obstruct the free market.

Moreover, it sounded a lot like how many of my interview subjects and focus group participants wanted to participate in public protests, but were shy about having their pictures taken or being interviewed by the press. When members of the public engaged them in debate, they tended to see this as an attack on their freedom of speech instead of an opportunity for public deliberation. Their goal, as they told me, was to build an awareness that the majority in fact supported their positions because that was the point of democracy.

While this could be called ‘Chinese’ in some senses of the word, I prefer to think of it as part of a debate about the relationship between Chineseness and democracy. After all, while such majoritarian and non-deliberative arguments about the nature of democracy certainly comprise one faction in Greater Chinese and trans-Pacific contentions about democracy, there are movements as old as the 1970s — and dare I say, even the May Fourth Movement in 1919 — that advocated for a more deliberative form of democracy that also pays attention to minority rights. In other words, there is a political spectrum among ethnic Chinese views on democracy, and the BCPF represents one strand in a larger conversation. I was asked about the BCPF, so I answered along the lines of what the BCPF represented. But you have to read my blog post on Religion Ethnicity Wired to get the catch on what I said.

In short, I am very happy that Ian Young got me on record about the BCPF. As always, I enjoy my collegial relationship with journalists like Ian who are at the top of their craft. This incident certainly was of public interest in Vancouver, as well as in the trans-Pacific social field, and I look forward to this conversation piece doing what it’s intended to do — engender more conversation!

Vancouver Sun: Douglas Todd, ‘We Must Stand On Guard for Canada’

In the Vancouver Sun, Douglas Todd has given the Canadian public a fascinating discussion piece on the limits of liberal multicultural democracy. I’m quoted in the piece, so I thought I might offer a few critical reflections in light of what Todd says.

Todd’s piece takes its departure from what he describes as the rise of ‘religious extremists’ and what Immigration Minister Jason Kenney calls ‘homegrown religious radicals’ due to contemporary Canadian migration policy. Interviewing Liberal politician Ujjal Dosanjh and the Laurier Institute’s Farid Rohani, Todd finds these liberals of colour are themselves concerned that new migration trends to Canada are bringing more forms of abusive patriarchy within families, opposition to interracial and interreligious marriage, refusal to fit into the unspoken secular sartorial code in Canadian workplaces, and homophobic discrimination. On that last point, Todd reaches out in collegial fashion and quotes me: ‘Both Rohani and Dosanjh are aware of widespread anti-homosexual beliefs among many religious immigrants, which can lead to actual discrimination. And University of B.C.-trained scholar Justin Tse has cited the strong degree to which many Chinese Christian immigrants find Canada’s human rights laws regarding homosexuality “ridiculous.”’ The main point of the article, in turn, is that Canadian liberal democratic values are under strain from these new migrations and thus needed to be guarded more carefully. What’s smart about the article is that Todd seldom quotes from white Canadian public figures; all of the quotes are from people of colour, including me.

In many ways, Todd represents me fairly well. The attitude that Canadian human rights legislation is ‘ridiculous’ is a direct reference to my dissertation, which was cited in the South China Morning Post saying the same thing – that many of conservative Cantonese evangelicals with whom I spoke in Vancouver felt that Canadian human rights legislation was ‘ridiculous.’ That this is what my dissertation actually finds among conservative Cantonese evangelicals in Vancouver means that I feel very well-quoted and thankful that Todd has reached out yet again in a such a fine showing of collegiality.

But because this is a discussion piece, I also feel that I’m allowed to register a bit of collegial dissent from Todd’s conclusions. This is because I think Todd and I, while recognizing each other as colleagues in the public forum, are working on two fundamentally different social projects.

Gérard Bouchard (left) and Charles Taylor (right) listen intently.

While Todd makes the case that Canada has to guard its liberal multicultural democratic values, my project is to interrogate why it is that some migrants — in my case, some (but not all) Cantonese-speaking Protestants — were opposing the very liberal things that Todd wants to guard. I don’t pass judgment; I ask why. This is because the social (and arguably, political) thrust of my academic project is in many ways informed by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and his call for mutlicultural societies to practice the ‘politics of recognition.’ What this means is that various communities in the modern world have taken on certain identities that they don’t want to be unrecognized or misrecognized; misrecognition, in fact, can be viewed as an insult. What we have to do, Taylor proposes, is to recognize the other — to get past simple disagreements to understand precisely how the other’s identity is formed and how that othered identity is in fact part of the ‘we’ in this society. Taylor himself has put that into political practice: at a time when controversy erupted in the mid-2000s over head-coverings in Quebec (as Todd notes about Quebec’s proposed Charter of Values, it’s still under contestation), Taylor teamed up with Gérard Bouchard to form a commission to get every voice possible on the record about the practice of multiculturalism/interculturalism in Quebec, including all the nasty stuff people wanted to say about the hijab, niqab, and sundry. The result was a report titled Building the Future: A Time for Reconciliation, in which Taylor and Bouchard painstakingly detail the problems with interculturalism in Quebec, report on every possible voice that they heard during their time on the commission, and propose that what’s needed is an open secularism, a sort of society where religion is not excluded but in fact included in everyday public deliberations.

In many ways, that’s what that section in my dissertation on Cantonese evangelicals in Vancouver calling Canadian human rights legislation ‘ridiculous’ is trying to do. To stop at that assertion of ‘ridiculousness’ is to cut the project short right at the beginning. If you read the dissertation (yes, it is publicly accessible), you’ll find that my question then goes to why these Cantonese evangelicals thought that Canadian human rights legislation tended to be ‘ridiculous.’ As the South China Morning Post succinctly quoted me in May, it’s because the sort of rights-based legislation around sexuality (hate crime bills, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, etc.) went against a certain vision of a ‘rational, orderly society.’ As I discovered, this wasn’t so much a ‘culture’ thing — ‘Chineseness’ was frequently invoked and qualified by my interviewees — but a performative agenda that understood best practices in civil society to be the creation of private, family-based economic units in which the second generation could be trained to become productive, private citizens in Canada. This means that sexuality is only the tip of the iceberg; other issues that contributed to what they might call the ‘irrationalization’ of society included the legalization of marijuana (medical or otherwise), harm-reduction drug treatment (some spoke of methadone; a few contested halfway houses in their neighbourhoods; most spoke of Vancouver’s inSite safe-injection program), the Anglican Church of Canada’s embrace of religious and sexual pluralism, and the building and expansion of casinos. The Cantonese evangelical public activism that propels this vision is certainly not un-Canadian; it is Chinese Christians wading into the fray of the partisan debates around what it means to be Canadian. That is, the fact that it is a socially conservative, privatized understanding of Canadianness does not make it un-Canadian; it makes it part of the debate around how Canada should be constituted as a nation.

My dissent, then, from Todd’s otherwise excellent, provocative discussion piece is that Todd seems to be portraying new immigrants, including the Chinese Christians that I studied, as bringing their religiously-based homeland politics to contest our hard-won liberal, multicultural, democratic Canadian values. But as my dissertation clearly states, the reasons that some Cantonese evangelicals thought that their rational, orderly vision of society was under assault tended to be modern and secular. It wasn’t a sort of backward homeland politics being imposed onto Canadian values. After all, this sort of politics of privatization comes from the need not to protect ‘culture,’ but as a business strategy in a globalizing world. This sort of rationality may be ideologically ‘conservative,’ but it is rooted in a very modern version of how society should operate. It may be theologically informed (as I argue elsewhere, what isn’t?!), but the reasons given for this rational, orderly society sound rather more to do with the very secular goal of maximizing private participation in the market economy. One may not agree with this sort of vision for a ‘rational, orderly society,’ especially one so rooted in the politics of privatization. But one cannot disagree that it is a vision.

In other words, I’m collegially dissenting from Todd’s piece because I don’t think that Canadians need to stand on guard for liberal, democratic, multicultural values. Instead, what’s more needed is a recognition that the ‘other’ is one of us, locked into the deliberations of democracy of which we are all a part. Contrary to Todd’s interview with Tung Chan in which Chan says that we need to ‘educate’ people and then let them go their merry way, this public deliberation is itself educative. It’s because it’s in deliberation — public, honest, open, and even heated deliberation (like the Bouchard-Taylor Report) — that we realize that the solution is never ideological entrenchment, but openness to the other as fellow citizens, persons even. Talking softens us. What perhaps needs emphasis is not so much the part of the national anthem to ‘stand on guard’ for Canada. It’s rather that if this is indeed ‘our home and native land,’ well, then, it is ours together. We need to keep talking.

South China Morning Post: School Transgender Policy Row

I have received quite a warm welcome back to Vancouver for my doctoral graduation today. Ian Young has done a masterful job of quoting me in today’s edition of the South China Morning Post.

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The article is about how Chinese Christians — in particular, Cantonese-speaking evangelicals — in Vancouver are contesting the Vancouver School Board’s proposed policy for transgender faculty, students, and staff. There is both a main article and a side column based mostly on a reading of chapter 5 of my dissertation.

The controversy centers on those who have opposed the policy because they feel that their ‘parental rights’ to educate their children primarily in the private sphere have been violated. As I explained to Young:

This is not really a debate about homophobia. It’s a debate about parental rights … and this has been the long-standing theme in these debates in Vancouver…Chinese Christians have this vision for a rational orderly society. A particular reading of the Bible may inform this, a particular reading of the Chinese classics may inform this. But at the heart of it, it’s about a rational orderly society, where parents are the primary educators for their children. What they are seeing instead with this kind of stuff [the board’s proposals] is that this is irrational and disorderly. That’s why there is such a strong pushback.

In addition, I emphasized that these political activities ‘were not a “church effort” but involved churchgoers in a secular way, “through Chinese Christian e-mail chains, informal conversation and assorted Chinese Christian media”.’

I am very thankful to Ian Young for our collegial relationship. He first contacted me last year about an article on youth transitioning to adulthood between Hong Kong and Vancouver, a topic that Jo Waters and I had written on in Global Networks. I found Young’s questions very perceptive and incisive, always pushing me to draw out my points, to illustrate with examples, and to pose counter-illustrations. I suppose I should expect no less from the former International Editor of the SCMP, but I must say that it is always a pleasure to work with someone at the height of his craft.

I also appreciate how Young engages multiple sources in his account in order to draw out the multi-sided complexity of this debate. His interview with Cheryl Chang is revelatory both because of how Chang insists on her secularity as a concerned parent activist and because she was the legal advisor for the Anglican Network in Canada, a realignment group that sued the diocese for their property because they insisted that it was they who were holding to historic Anglican orthodoxy on theological doctrine and sexual praxis. He not only quotes me about the non-church-based Chinese Christian networks, but goes right to the source, Truth Monthly, one of the two premier Chinese Christian newspapers in Vancouver (the other is Herald Monthly). He has done his research on Charter Lau, mostly through my dissertation, but instead of just quoting the thesis, he has used it to trace the precedents for this poobah in both Burnaby’s Policy 5.45 controversy in 2011 and the ongoing debate about Bill C-279 to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (my dissertation fieldwork took place during the C-389 controversy).
[UPDATE: May 23, 2014: These items have been corrected in the online edition.]

As this information develops, however, I do want to make two very minor clarifications to the record, none of which affect Young’s larger point. The ‘CSCF’ that Young mentions is the ‘Christian Social Concern Fellowship,’ not the ‘Christian Social Conservative Fellowship.’ While many of its members are politically conservative and some are card-carrying members of the federal Conservative Party of Canada, ‘social concern’ is a term derived from mainline Protestantism in Hong Kong to talk about the church getting involved in social action. The second is that the Truth Monthly post date is from the January 2014 issue. That this post predates the debate by four months instead of several weeks in fact strengthens Young’s point about this transgender issue being widely discussed in Chinese Christian media.

Again, many thanks to Ian Young for a very thorough article and sidebar for SCMP. I look forward to further collaboration in the future.