‘God’s servant’: Beijing-friendly and born again, former HK official Stephen Lam wants to woo Christians in Canada
Ex-chief secretary Stephen Lam embarks on a cross-Canada evangelical tour next week - but pro-democracy Christians are ringing alarm bells
Religion and politics go hand in glove south of the border, but in Canada, politicians have traditionally been more shy about making big with their beliefs.
Ex-PM Stephen Harper’s politics were closely scrutinised for the extent to which they were influenced by his evangelical Christianity – but even that suggests Canadians find the prospect of mixing the two awkward in a way that many of their American cousins do not.
Enter Stephen Lam Sui-lung, the former chief secretary of Hong Kong and devout Christian, who exited the battle over Democratic reform in Hong Kong in 2012 to read theology at Oxford University. Lam next week embarks on what is being billed as a “cross-Canada evangelistic tour”, speaking on his transformation “from public servant to God’s servant”.
The organisers of the tour, the Chinese Christian Mission (CCM), deny any political aspect to the tour, but some pro-democracy Christians are deeply discomfited by the prospect of Canadian pulpits being occupied by Lam, once derided as “The Eunuch” for his behind-the-scenes Beijing-friendly manoeuvring and as “the human recorder” for his pro-forma public responses.
Lam – once touted as a future chief executive of Hong Kong - will kick off his tour next Tuesday in Calgary, going on to speak at churches in Edmonton, Richmond, Port Moody and Vancouver over the next five days.
A spokeswoman for CCM said a board member of the mission had recommended Lam as a speaker, and she had no specific details about what he planned to say. However, she rejected the suggestion of a political component.
“No, not at all. From our organisation’s name, you can see that this is an evangelistic meeting, it’s nothing regarding politics – it’s his calling from God, and that’s it,” she said.
“I can assure you: it’s got nothing to do with politics.”
Lam has previously spoken at evangelical gatherings about his time in office from a religious context, describing how he helped establish “a prayer meeting for government secretaries – that today spans all three levels of government”. “God continues to respond to our prayers,” he told one such gathering in Hong Kong in 2015.
Ming Pao reported that at another event, at Kong Fok Church in Admiralty in Hong Kong in mid-2014, he described in religious terms the passage of the government’s hotly contested 2010 political reform bill, that would split the SAR’s so-called pan-democratic movement.
When the reform bill was passed with the help of the Democratic Party - to the outrage of many fellow democrats who saw it as kowtowing to Beijing - it was as if “God had blown air at the seemingly dead proposal and resurrected it”, Lam reportedly told the gathering as part of a sermon entitled “Nothing is too difficult for God”.
The pan-democratic rift in turn helped give rise to the Occupy Central movement that shut down parts of the city in 2014 and triggered the emergence of more radical pro-autonomy groups.
Dr Sam Tsang, an author who teaches preaching at HK Baptist Theological Seminary and New Testament Ambrose University in Canada, is among those concerned by Lam’s tour.
“I’ve preached in some of those churches, and I feel very uncomfortable to know that we’re occupying the same pulpits,” he said.
Lam’s visit is being debated in Chinese-speaking Christian circles in Vancouver, according to Dr Justin Tse, who teaches religious studies at the University of Washington in Seattle and human geography at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He said the tour and the reaction to it were emblematic of the way “democracy and establishment forces in Hong Kong [are] vying for the attention of the diaspora” in Canada. Churches, he said “served as political hubs” of the Hong Kong diaspora in Canada, even as they claimed apolitical status.
“It’s a contest over whether these churches should be having a pro-Beijing politician speak for an evangelistic event, a mass rally intended to convert people to Christianity,” he said. The debate was being played out in private Chinese-language social media, drawing hundreds of comments.
One Facebook posting highlighted by Tse called for “joint action” against the tour. “If any of you or your righteous relatives would like to welcome in Vancouver Stephen Lam Sui-lung, the servile former official who tries to wipe the slate clean with theology, please send me your personal messages,” said the poster.
“There’s no denying that for Chinese people living in Vancouver, there is a sense that the Church has a moral voice. Even if you are not Christian, for instance, you might want to send your kids to Sunday school so that they can learn to be good and moral people,” said Tse. “There’s a sense [even among non-Christians] to think of the church as a moral centre of the Chinese community, and we have the former chief secretary come over to speak and spout a particular version of Hong Kong ideology.”
Tse said that Lam’s previous efforts in such venues had amounted to a “Christianised account of his time in office”. “Chinese churches in Vancouver have this thing where famous people – politicians, movie stars, singers whatever - are used to attract people. Stephen Lam’s celebrity comes from his time in political office. That’s the draw.”
He said the CCM was not overtly political, and Chinese evangelical churches traditionally prided themselves on being able to separate “the private face of the church from public political life”. “It’s being billed as an apolitical event, but what we have seen of the content [of Lam’s previous evangelical speeches] they are fairly ideological” he said, and likening such events to claiming a “biblical mandate”.
“Democracy people or autonomy people are lamenting this event – not just that Stephen Lam is being given this platform, but from their understanding that the church as an apolitical institution… is very easily manoeuvred into political positions without knowing it.”
Lam declined the SCMP’s request for an interview ahead of his tour.
Additional reporting by Tony Cheung
The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email [email protected] or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70.