One year ago, thousands of people were on the streets of Hong Kong to demand full voting rights in selecting the chief executive of the Chinese Special Administrative Region. Key Hong Kong protest leaders now say spiritual values ignited and guided their movement. The leaders spoke in Los Angeles at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
When police launched tear gas at Hong Kong protesters in September 2014, the demonstrators' numbers only grew as thousands joined the so-called Umbrella Movement.
Among protest leaders were a Christian law professor, a Baptist minister and sociologist Kin-man Chan of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
While not himself religious, Chan said the movement called Occupy Central with Love and Peace was based on spiritual values and rejection of the prevailing ideology — "the idea of materialism, developmentalism. And we really wanted people to stop for a while during the occupation to think about what kind of life we want in Hong Kong.”
Law professor Benny Tai of Hong Kong University was inspired by his Christian faith and said the movement was guided by another Christian leader, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the late U.S. civil rights reformer.
“The underlying values we adhere to and also the strategy adopted by King in the Civil Rights Movement influenced our moves,” Tai said.
The street protests divided Hong Kong and its religious communities. Tai and his colleagues surrendered to police last December to end the demonstrations. He credited religious values of both protesters and their critics in averting violence.
A sociologist in the United States who studies Chinese society, Fenggang Yang of Purdue University in Indiana, said that religion plays an unappreciated role in China. He noted that Christian leaders helped bring democracy to Taiwan, which was under martial law until 1987.
“We have become so secular in our perception and just cannot see the religious factor," Yang said, "but Christianity especially, but also including some other religions, played very important roles in Taiwan's democratization process.”
He said it's happening again in Hong Kong. The leaders of the protests say the former British colony, with its thriving faith groups and civic institutions, can be a model for China.