Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement

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Editor(s): 
Justin K.H. Tse , Jonathan Y. Tan
Asian Christianity in the Diaspora
  • New York, NY: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , July
     2016.
     184 pages.
     $95.05.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781349948451.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

September 28, 2014 is known as the day that the political consciousness of the people of Hong Kong began to shift. From that day up until December 15, the city witnessed largescale protests, mostly attended by white- and blue-collar young middle-class residents of Hong Kong, which were marked by occupations, peaceful talks, arrests, urban instabilities, small-scale creative endeavors, hunger strikes, and much more. The primary goal of this movement was to encourage Beijing to grant universal suffrage to the residents of Hong Kong.

While much has been written about the so-called Umbrella Movement (named after the umbrellas used by the protestors to shield off pepper spray), this timely and innovative book by Justin Tse and Jonathan Tan takes a different approach to the explication of the movement by placing emphasis on questions of theology. The book engages with earlier publications on theology and political movements that the world has witnessed in the past decades, such as Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude by Joerg Rieger and Pui-lan Kwok (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012). The book by Rieger and Kwok was one of the first English-language publications on liberation theology in contemporary occupy movements, such as the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement. In it, they argue for the creation of a new Christian theology: a theology of the multitude. In opposition to Rieger and Kwok, Tse and Tan wonder whether the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement similarly qualifies as a “liberation theology.” Instead, they argue, its theological dimensions should be analyzed from Hong Kong’s colonial and postcolonial context; hence the need for a place-specific theologizing. With this, Tse and Tan seem to primarily open up a space for discussion on theology in Hong Kong, and only secondarily in social and political movements in general. As such, the book is an important contribution to our understanding of the Umbrella Movement, and our understanding of the relations between religion and politics in this specific Asian context.

The book is part of the series “Asian Christianity in the Diaspora,” and it indicates the important position of Christianity in this particular diaspora. As of 2013, Christians represented over 12% of the Hong Kong population with fewer than half adhering to Catholicism. Notwithstanding this small percentage, the influence of Christianity on Hong Kong society is disproportionally large. In colonial Hong Kong, Christianity was privileged over “Chinese” religions (such as Buddhism) as an ally in the fight against Chinese communism. Consequently, Christian faith-based activism matured, and Christian groups were emancipated. The privileges gained from the close relation with the colonial government also led to opportunities for Christian organizations to set up social service centers in Hong Kong, most notably schools. The education offered in these schools, as well as the high visibility of Christian clergy in media and societal debates nowadays, makes Christianity a prominent factor in Hong Kong’s everyday life, and likewise in the Umbrella Movement.

This edited volume is composed of an introduction and six chapters. The first of these chapters is a rather long explication of the political landscape of Hong Kong. The chapter is lengthy and detailed, and is one of the more clearly written chapters available in English language literature on the history of politics in the region. It also clearly illustrates the “messy-ness” of the Umbrella Movement as a leaderless movement that encompassed many different actors with divergent interests. For those not familiar with the situation in Hong Kong situation, this chapter provides an interesting glimpse into the city. For those more familiar with Hong Kong, the details of especially the first half of the chapter feel slightly redundant, making one wonder whether the writer would have been better advised to focus purely on the divergent stances of Christian churches and leaders in Hong Kong’s political sphere.

The following four chapters are written by prominent Hong Kong theologians (Rose Wu, Mary Yuen, Lap Yan Kung, and Sam Tsang) who reflect on the Umbrella Movement from different theological perspectives (Catholic solidarity, feminist and queer theology, the theology of Kairos, and biblical exegesis, respectively). From their chapters, two points become clear. First, each of the contributors has been given considerable freedom to write about their own topic of interest, leading to an interesting mix of chapters, and very divergent theological considerations on the Umbrella Movement. The editors of the book have attempted to bring this wide diversity together in an epilogue, in which redefinitions are given of the theological notions of liberation, exegesis, and solidarity. Second, each of the contributors strongly supports the cause of the Umbrella Movement. This subjectivity is acknowledged by the editors in the introductory chapter. Because of this, the book does portray a rather one-sided picture of both the Movement and the political landscape in Hong Kong.

Another point of criticism would be that the intended audience of the book could have been more clearly defined, especially in the chapters. While some of the chapters give an extensive overview of Hong Kong’s political space, others assume background knowledge of the situation. A good example is the chapter by Wu, which seems to align the Umbrella Movement to the original Pentecost movement in Jerusalem—a claim that might seem far-stretched to those who are less familiar with the intense impact the Umbrella Movement has had on Hong Kong society. Additionally, while some chapters are easy to follow for non-theologians (and because of that perhaps too simplistic for theologians), others demand a high level of knowledge about, for example, liberation theologies. A more clearly defined audience might have made the chapters more compatible with each other, and the book overall a more coherent piece of reading. Regardless, as a scholar interested in the role of religion and knowledgeable about the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of theological insights I gathered from the book.

The book intends to “inspire and provoke discussion on faith and politics at a time when Asia has become a key geopolitical area in shaping the economic and political destiny of the world and the future of the planet” (vi). I fully share the opinion of the editors regarding the need for such a discussion. I therefore hope the book will indeed inspire scholarly and theological discussions, not only regarding Christianity, but also other religions such as Buddhism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mariske Westendorp is Lecturer in the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies, and the Department of Religious Studies at Radboud Unviersity in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

This book gathers the voices of four local Hong Kong theologians.

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