Hong Kong is not America, so keep religion out of politics

Yonden Lhatoo takes exception to the leading candidate in Hong Kong’s chief executive election openly flaunting her faith in an already divided secular city

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 January, 2017, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 January, 2017, 7:10pm

Talk about special preference for Hong Kong. For all its misgivings about religion – the Catholic Church in particular – Beijing is on the verge of allowing a borderline Bible thumper to be installed as our city’s next leader.

We’re talking about Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the former No 2 official who – barring a Donald Trump-style upset – is most likely to emerge the winner in the small-circle election to pick the next chief executive come March.

She raised more than just a few eyebrows last week when she told a gathering of senior civil servants that “God” had told her to run for the top job.

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“God told me ...” There’s something about those three words that make most sensible people’s eyes glaze over unless they’re listening to a religious sermon with a willing suspension of disbelief. Or unless they’re voters in America, where it’s a prerequisite to profess your unquestioning adherence to the Judeo-Christian faith if you’re running for president.

Remember poor Barack Obama and how he had to publicly disavow his Muslim roots – like there’s something toxic about Islam. And his predecessor George W. Bush, who openly flaunted his purported faith – to the extent that he declared he was on a mission from God to justify some of the worst atrocities in human history.

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“God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me, ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did,” he was once quoted as telling the Palestinians.

It’s easy to ridicule people who like to talk loudly about God, but it’s also pointless when they’re so deeply ensconced in their beliefs. So rather than take cheap shots at Lam, allow me to point out some pertinent facts.

Granted, Christianity enjoys a far higher profile than any other religion in Hong Kong, a status quo that can be attributed to the city’s British colonial past. That’s why we have three public holidays for Easter and another two for Christmas, as opposed to only one for the Buddha’s birthday and zero for Muslims.

But let’s not forget that while the focus is blatantly skewed towards Christianity, it is not Hong Kong’s main religion. The vast majority of the 7.3 million who live in this city follow Chinese traditional religious beliefs, which can be a mishmash of Taoism, Buddhism, folklore-based faith and ancestor worship. Official estimates put the number of Taoists and Buddhists at more than two million, while Protestants and Catholics together account for fewer than half that number.

Yes, religion is part and parcel of politics here, and a religious subsector features prominently in the Election Committee that will pick our next leader. But religion, especially one that does not represent the bulk of the population, should not play a part in governance – particularly when we’re looking for a leader to heal deep social and political divisions.

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We’ve had a devout Catholic in the hot seat before. Former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was a regular churchgoer and took pride in his faith, but I don’t recall him openly flaunting it.

To be fair to Lam, she’s not alone in hearing voices from above. Former finance chief Antony Leung Kam-chung, when asked whether he intended to join the race, replied: “I still haven’t heard the call from God to run, so I have no plans.” He wasn’t joking.

Lam’s faith is her personal choice, the word “personal” being key here. If there’s any confusion about separating church from secular government and society, the Bible itself offers a handy solution. When Jesus’ enemies try to trap him into making a stand on paying taxes to the Jews’ Roman rulers, he replies: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” There you go.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post