16 February 2019
Carrie Lam proposes the establishment of a Religious Affairs Unit to coordinate relevant policies, raising fears that religious freedom in Hong Kong may be threatened. Photos: RFA, Bloomberg,
Carrie Lam proposes the establishment of a Religious Affairs Unit to coordinate relevant policies, raising fears that religious freedom in Hong Kong may be threatened. Photos: RFA, Bloomberg,

Is the devil in the detail of Carrie Lam’s policy on religion?

Carrie Lam finally submitted her application to join the chief executive race with the support of 579 Election Committee members.

While she easily surpassed the number of nominations of her rivals, election victory is based on the number of votes the candidates will get on election day later this month, and appointment by the central leadership, but of course.

(Some naughty netizens, in fact, remarked that the number 579 sounded like the phrase “not that enough” in Cantonese pronunciation.)

Unsurprisingly, nominations for Lam came mainly from the pro-Beijing camp, including representatives of the agriculture and fisheries sector, the Heung Yee Kuk and New Territories District Council, as well as those from the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and National People’s Congress, all of whom reportedly had been told by the national government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong to back the former chief secretary.

It’s worth mentioning, though, that 38 members of the 60-strong religious sector in the Election Committee threw their support behind Lam. They were mostly pro-Beijing Muslim, Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian representatives.

None of the Catholic representatives nominated Lam.

There should be good reason for Christian representatives on the Election Committee to feel reluctant to support her.

Lam has hinted at a potential change in Hong Kong’s religious policy since the 1997 handover in her election manifesto, something that drew criticism from some Christian leaders.

In her manifesto announced on Monday, Lam mentioned three points regarding religious policy. 

She promised to study the possibility of establishing a “Religious Affairs Unit” under the Home Affairs Bureau, which will be responsible for coordinating relevant policies. 

The current policy on land premium for sites used for religious purposes will be reviewed to support the development of religion, Lam said as she stressed that religion leads people towards kindness, benevolence, peace and tolerance.

Indeed, she said, religion plays a very important role in society all over the world.

Lam’s suggestion to establish a regional affairs unit raised doubts among several religious leaders such as Yuen Tin-Yau and Ying Fuk-tsang.

They said such a proposal could indicate that Lam may try to tighten the grip on local religious groups and their development via the proposed unit.

Their fear is not exactly unfounded. In the mainland, the term “religious affairs” indicates a state policy of interference in the operations, activities and organization of churches and religious groups.

The core of such a policy is to keep all religions as well as religious leaders and groups under Beijing’s control and ensure their loyalty to the Communist Party, above their religious beliefs and devotion to their respective divinities.

In fact, Hong Kong enjoys freedom of religion, and it is protected under the Basic Law. Religious freedom is one the fundamental tenets of the “one country, two systems” principle.

Under Article 141 of the Basic Law, “the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall not restrict the freedom of religious belief, interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations or restrict religious activities which do not contravene the laws of the Region.”

This particular provision implies that Hong Kong religious organizations have to follow local laws in undertaking their activities and performing their educational, medical and charitable services.

There is no reason for Lam to establish a new religious affairs unit to oversee the religious development of Hong Kong.

On the other hand, central authorities have a religious affairs unit to monitor and regulate religion.

So it comes as no surprise that her proposal was seen as an attempt to suppress religious freedom in the territory, something which runs counter to the provision in the Basic Law.

In fact, Ying pointed out that the central government had proposed the inclusion of a religious policy in the draft of the Basic Law, but it was dropped from the final version due to massive opposition from the religious sector.

Now Lam’s initiative is to bring back the controversial idea of creating a government body to monitor religious developments in the territory. 

That would damage the uniqueness of Hong Kong, particularly its religious freedom.

The government simply has no role to play in the religious development of Hong Kong. 

All leaders of the various religions know what to do when it comes to keeping their flock and developing their congregation.

They know their role in giving aid and comfort to followers of their religion.

After all, the church or shrine or temple is a place of worship, of prayer and harmony. It has no room for politics.

Attempting to follow the Beijing model in the development of religion is a dangerous step to take. It will destroy Hong Kong’s autonomy. It will be a mockery of the “one country, two systems” principle.

While Hong Kong people cannot vote in the chief executive election, they can raise the issue of religious freedom, which could provide some food for thought to members of the Election Committee before they cast their votes on March 26, especially for those 276 committee members who didn’t nominate any candidate in the election.

These members could be persuaded to listen to the people, rather than seek direction from Beijing. They could provide the only way to stop Lam from implementing her policy on religion.

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EJ Insight writer

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