Separation of church and state? Christians debate the role of religion in choosing the next Chief Executive

Ahead of next year’s election of Hong Kong’s leader, the Hong Kong Christian Council – an umbrella organisation of Christian groups – is holding a two-round ballot to fill the ten seats on the Chief Executive Election Committee designated to the Christian community.

The lottery was recently announced by the Council, which had in the past used an election to select the ten representatives. The new arrangements have drawn mixed responses from the Christian community, with critics accusing the Council of setting rules favourable to bigger – and possibly pro-government – churches.

At the heart of the debate are questions around whether the new arrangements are fair in light of the power structure of Hong Kong’s Christian institutions, and what role religion should play in politics.

The religious sub-sector

Hong Kong’s leader is elected by a 1,200-member Chief Executive Election Committee. Annex I of the Basic Law, the territory’s mini-constitution, stipulates that the Election Committee shall be “broadly representative.” The 1,200 members come from four sectors, or a total of 38 sub-sectors representing various trades, professions, social services groups and district organisations.

Before the 2017 chief executive election, 37 sub-sectors will be holding ordinary elections on December 11 to form the Election Committee.

The last one, the religious sub-sector, is not required to hold elections under the Chief Executive Election Ordinance. Instead, it will simply select persons to sit on the Election Committee using any method of their choosing.

The religious sub-sector is entitled to 60 seats, with ten seats each for six religions: Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. The government designates an organisation for each religion to be responsible for submitting names to the Election Committee. The Hong Kong Christian Council is the designated body for the 400,000-strong Christian community in the territory.

The Christian establishment

The Christian Council previously picked the ten Election Committee members through elections. In 2011, voter turnout was about 18,000, around 4.5 per cent of the Christian population.

Some Christians have long been complaining that the Council’s previous election arrangements were tilted in favour of big churches. For example, polling stations for electing the Election Committee members were mostly located in large churches, immediately following Sunday services.

Kung Lap-yan, an assistant professor at the Chinese University’s Divinity School, told HKFP that the location advantage had allowed big churches to promote their favourite candidates and get their congregation to vote for them. “Some churches that served as polling stations even showed only the posters of the candidate they endorsed, and no posters of other candidates.”

Other problems reported at the time included longer polling hours in churches whose personnel were in the race, and the denial of votes for Christians belonging to smaller churches owing to verification issues.

Kung said that the past arrangements, coupled with the power structure of the Christian establishment, had effectively restricted the electoral access of Christians.

The lottery arrangements

To rectify the lack of representativeness due to low voter turnout, the Christian Council announced last month that it would adopt two rounds of lotteries to fill the ten Election Committee seats.

Under the new arrangements, a Christian can be nominated through four categories: individuals, denominations, churches and organisations. For the “individuals” category, a candidate must obtain 20 nominations from fellow Christians.

Ten candidates from each category will be picked in the first round of ballot, scheduled to take place on October 30. The second round will choose the final ten from a pool of 40 candidates. In comparison, the Catholic community has one lottery round and does not have multiple categories.

‘Bid-rigging’

The Democratic Party’s Howard Lam Chi-kin, who is a Christian and leading a campaign against the Council’s decision, criticised the new mechanism as being a “bid-rigging” process designed to ensure that large denominations and big churches win most of the seats.

He said that the the bar imposed on an individual Christian to obtain 20 nominations is high. As for the “organisations” and “churches” categories, Lam said that they favour large denominations because denominations can mobilise their own churches and groups, whereas it is difficult to engage smaller groups to begin with.

Lam added that that the Christian Council’s eligibility criteria for churches based on their tax-exempt status is irrelevant and unfair, as many small churches do not have tax-exempt status due to limited resources.

“Many small churches will effectively be barred from nominating a candidate,” Lam said.

The Council’s defense

The Christian Council General Secretary Po Kam-cheong countered that the two ballot rounds were meant to prevent big churches from dominating and to allow every candidate to have the same chance.

“The new mechanism is actually not good for large denominations, because the four categories restrict the number of people that the denominations can nominate,” Po told HKFP.

“Imagine if large denominations mobilised their members to participate, they would easily outnumber other churches and have a higher chance of being elected if we did not have the four categories and two rounds of ballot.”

Po said that for the “organisations” and “churches” categories, smaller groups have more advantages since denominations cannot give orders to their own churches and organisations – such as elderly homes and schools – on the elections, and smaller groups outnumber those belonging to large denominations such as the Anglican Church.

“A church with only 1,000 members and a big church can both only nominate one candidate,” said Po. “I don’t see how our new arrangements favour large denominations.”

Separation of church and state

Instead of focusing on the arrangement details, Kung, the Chinese University professor, said he has for two decades urged the Council to give up the ten seats altogether on the grounds that religion should stay away from politics.

To Kung, the core of the problem is the church’s engagement in state affairs. “This completely goes against the spirit of religion. Religion should stay transcendent. It should focus on serving others, not sharing power with the powerful.”

He added: “The Basic Law clearly states that the Election Committee is meant to be ‘broadly representative’ to give the government a sufficiently democratic basis. But the chief executive election is a small circle election, and religion is being used to legitimise an undemocratic system.”

Kung said that although realistically it is difficult to prevent other sectors from participating in the election, religious groups should refrain from taking part. “There is no need for religion to consider political power. Maybe it should hold a critical attitude towards politics, but it should definitely not participate in it.”

“Religious people can participate in the public life through their respective roles in society. They should be critical of our system and try to improve it,” he added. “Churches should play this role too.”

Asked about his thoughts on the Christian Council, Kung said that any organisation would tend to become conservative and prefer the status quo as it “moves towards the core of power.” He gave the example of the Anglican Church in Hong Kong, which has close ties with the government and often takes a pro-establishment position on various issues.

But Po of the Christian Council disagreed with Kung. “I think most churches don’t think that their participation in politics would affect their independence. Some churches believe they have a responsibility to promote democracy.”

Po added: “We hope that our ten Election Committee members would at least bring some influence to the election and make decisions based on the Christian values.”

‘History will remember’

Is abandoning the ten seats, as proposed by Kung, realistic?

Lam, who has recently formed an alliance to oppose the Christian Council’s new arrangements, said: “We are prepared to compromise because the possibility of the Christian Council giving up the seats is low. But we ask them to at least get rid of the four categories and use only one round of polling like the Catholic community.”

But Kung thinks that giving up the seats would make a lasting political statement. “If the Christian Council abandons the ten seats, the government would have to ask other religious groups to share the extra ten seats. But since it is only two months away from the Election Committee elections, the government won’t make it in time.”

“That means there will only be 1,190 members on the next Chief Executive Election Committee. And even if the ten seats may eventually be given to other sub-sectors, the gesture of the Christian community will always be remembered in history,” Kung said.

“People in the future would ask: Why did this group refuse to participate in the election? They would understand our position that religion is not part of the system, because the current chief executive does not represent the people.”

An alternative solution, Kung said, is to open up the polling to the Hong Kong public. “Since the law does not impose on the religious sub-sector any particular method for choosing the Election Committee members, they can open up the 60 seats designated for the sub-sector to all Hongkongers.”

Principle versus pragmatism

Not all pro-democracy supporters agree with Kung’s position of abandoning the seats. Some see the Christian Council’s new mechanism as an opportunity for more public participation.

Lawyer Herman Tang Wai-chung, who lost in his bid in representing the Christian community on the Election Committee in 2006, said: “It’s a question of principle and pragmatism. If we insist on principle, the 35 functional constituencies in LegCo are also unacceptable. But pragmatically speaking, if you don’t do anything, nothing will get done.”

Tang represented the legal sub-sector on the Election Committee in 2011, but he told HKFP he would not be running again this year and would leave it to young people. He said that although the current chief executive election system is not ideal, it at least provides a channel for pro-democracy supporters to make their voices heard.

Tang also disagreed that the new arrangements were unfair. “Except for the ‘denominations’ category that would allow denominations to nominate twice [through the ‘denominations’ and ‘churches’ categories], I don’t think the arrangements tilt towards the side of big churches.”

“Besides, it is not really a ‘small circle’ election if we assume the Christian community to reflect the political spectrum of Hong Kong society, meaning about 60 per cent pro-democracy and 40 per cent pro-establishment,” he added. “Of course, if possible, I would want the arrangements to be more progressive.”

Fighting for representation

As the nomination deadline nears, many Christians are considering entering the lucky draw through the “individuals” category. Chris Fan, an IT consultant and activist, collected 20 nominations and submitted his application to the Christian Council on Friday.

“To me, separation of church and state means that religion should not be used for political ends, but it doesn’t mean Christians should not participate in public life,” Fan said. “I am not only participating in the poll as a Christian, but also as a citizen.”

“Since I can’t change the Election Committee system, I will join it. Because if I don’t, the seats will still be up for grabs and the pro-establishment camp will benefit from my non-participation.”

Fan said he felt a sense of social responsibility to partake in the lucky draw. “If you truly follow the teachings of the bible, Christianity is about doing justice. Now that the opportunity has opened up for average Christians, I want to bring my voice to the Election Committee.”

He said he will be calling other Christians to join the lucky draw. “Many churches are not open-minded and pro-democracy supporters are a minority in the church community, so I’ve been telling others to run for the seats themselves. But for some reason, I haven’t seen much enthusiasm in my circle of Christian friends.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *