By Western ideological standards, Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former Roman Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong, would hardly be considered a progressive. On social issues, he has previously opposed legislation extending anti-domestic violence laws to same-sex couples. On liturgical matters, he is a staunch defender of the pre-Second Vatican Council Tridentine Latin mass. At the level of Vatican ecclesiastical politics, he pals around with the likes of the late Cardinal George Pell, who aside from being doctrinally conservative, was also implicated in shielding paedophile priests in Australia.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Hong Kong pop singer, Denise Ho. So outspoken has she been about LGBT rights, at least by Asian standards, that she was once banned from performing in Malaysia over her LGBT identity. She has campaigned for gay marriage rights in Hong Kong. She once said, ‘[w]e can be openly gay as someone else can be Christian or Muslim,’ seemingly implying that homosexual and religious identities are mutually exclusive.
If Zen and Ho were in the West instead of in Hong Kong, it is likely that they would have nothing to do with one another except as adversaries. For many decades now, self-declared ‘conservatives’ and ‘progressives’ in the West have fought never-ending culture wars over various social and identity-related issues. These include religion, rights related to sexual orientation and identity, reproductive rights, race, language, national identity (in the UK’s case, this is particularly apparent in relation to Europe) – you name it.
Political and culture-war affiliations in the West are linked increasingly with social as opposed to economic identities. Particularly in places like places like the United States and Australia, the traditional alliance between secular progressives and religious voters from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and those who emphasise economic justice over issues of personal morality, is unravelling. Centre-left political alliances have attracted less religious support.
But Zen and Ho are not in the West. Far from falling in with Western culture war faultlines, they have made common cause in the fight for democracy and autonomy in Hong Kong. Zen is an old warrior on this front, having been involved as early as 2003 in backing mass protests against China’s first, aborted attempt to impose national security laws on Hong Kong. In addition to her LGBT rights advocacy, Denise Ho became identified with Hong Kong’s democracy movement when she openly supported Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement, which involved mass protests for genuine universal suffrage.
Then came the protests of 2019. What started as mass protests against the Hong Kong government’s proposed legislation allowing for extradition to China expanded to a full-blown resistance movement for democracy and against authoritarian police brutality. As the period of the protests lengthened from days to weeks to months, the number of protesters being arrested mounted. From the outset, organisations were set up to provide various forms of assistance to those hurt or arrested by Hong Kong’s increasingly authoritarian regime.
Once such organisation was the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which was named after the date (12 June) of the first major episode of indiscriminate police brutality during the 2019 protests. According to its website, the fund provided ‘humanitarian and relevant financial support to persons who are injured, arrested, attacked or threatened with violence’; the support provided was primarily ‘legal, medical, psychological and emergency financial assistance’.
The fund was overseen by a board of trustees. Its members included Joseph Zen and Denise Ho. The fact that Zen and Ho were, by Western standards, ideological opposites on culture wars issues, did not appear to be a problem for them in co-operating on the cause of democracy in Hong Kong and resistance to authoritarian violence. In overseeing the fund, they stood together, they were arrested together, and they were convicted together.
In the democracy movement, and the resistance to China’s authoritarian overreach in a Hong Kong that had been promised at least 50 years of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ as part of the deal in China’s resumption of sovereignty, Zen and Ho’s co-operation was not unique. Benny Tai, the initiator of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, is a devout Christian who contributed to a Chinese language anti-LGBT rights book. Yet he is currently on trial under Hong Kong’s National Security Law with LGBT rights figures such as Ray Chan and Jimmy Sham for their joint involvement in a 2020 informal primary election.
The well-known, and now also jailed, Hong Kong democracy activist, Joshua Wong, had his run-ins with his socially conservative father. Yet his father was also the one who inculcated pro-democracy ideas into him from a young age (link in Chinese), and was highly supportive of his activism. And prior to its disbandment in 2021, an umbrella organisation called the Civil Human Rights Front organised many of Hong Kong’s largest protests in favour of democracy and against the erosion of human rights. Its member organisations include a diverse assortment of religious, feminist and LGBT rights groups, as well as political parties and anti-Communist trade unions.
So what kept Zen, Ho and these various groups, whose views on issues in the Western culture wars varied wildly, working together, right up until the point when China imposed a draconian National Security Law on Hong Kong in July 2020 to crack down upon resistance? This is a question that has not really been discussed and analysed within Hong Kong itself. It was as if the fact of co-operation between these individuals and groups to resist China’s authoritarian overreach was taken as a given. Nobody made a big deal about any ‘cross-ideological grand alliances’. And yet, on further reflection, whether conceptually or as a matter of factual circumstances, these people’s and groups’ decision to put aside the culture wars and face a greater adversary together as one makes sense.
Conceptually speaking, in order to have a culture war, one needs an environment that tolerates it. This would involve the existence of, or even respect for, freedom of speech, assembly, association and conscience, as well as a democratic government obliged to take account of the strength in numbers that culture warriors claim to represent. But when these basic freedoms are under threat and are undermined by an authoritarian government, everyone, no matter what his or her opinions, is at risk. It therefore made sense for those with ideological differences in Hong Kong to work together to resist authoritarian attempts to silence them all.
The campaigners’ concerns about being silenced are justified by the facts. China has a track record of cracking down on civil society groups of all stripes. It has cracked down on both Catholic and Protestant churches, as well as on Uyghur and Hui Muslims. It has cracked down on LGBT advocacy groups. It has cracked down on civil society generally to the point of collapse. And in the case of Hong Kong, the fears of being silenced were realised. Since China’s full-scale crackdown against the city started in 2020, at least 58 civil society groups have folded, and those that remain have become muted.
China’s programme of cracking down on diversity of opinion and dissent does not stop at its own borders. It seeks to silence dissidents living abroad with surveillance and threats. Its ‘United Front’ operations in the West are little more than influence, interference and infiltration operations designed to undermine democratic processes. Its intimidation tactics have in the last year or two started escalating to the point of going after families of popularly elected Members of Parliament who have been critics of China. This has happened in places such as Britain (creating obstacles to the university applications of Iain Duncan-Smith’s children) and Canada (attempts at intimidating the family of Michael Chong MP).
Despite the real threat that China presents to the West’s relatively free and democratic way of life, many participants in Western public debates remain consumed by their obsession with the culture wars. If anything, the tenor of the disputes appears to have deteriorated since around the mid-2010s, coinciding with the onset of Trumpism and, in the UK, the Brexit movement. What had once at least been relatively reasoned if ideological arguments over controversial issues has now descended into puerile name-calling, with terms like ‘woke’, ‘fascist’ and ‘TERF’ being bandied about almost at random. And on the question of the threat posed by China, ideological cultural warriors have used it either to go down the ethno-nationalist ‘yellow peril’ path (eg ban all overseas students from China) or to engage in insidious anti-Western whataboutery (eg dismissing atrocities against Uyghurs because Australia treated its indigenous people poorly).
These exacerbated divisions and name-calling merely play into China’s hands. Moreover, the continuation and intensification of the Western culture wars has in itself taken an authoritarian turn, in which both sides manifest a lack of tolerance and respect for opposing viewpoints. The way the China issue has played out in the context of the culture wars, with the two sides as usual adopting equally extreme positions – either in support of a racialised approach in dealing with China or in defence of its authoritarianism – is but a case in point.
This is fertile ground for China to push its anti-democratic agenda beyond its borders, such as through disinformation campaigns. The West’s ability to resist is weakened by its own internal obsessions and intolerances. And while China cannot necessarily impose itself on the West as quickly or as directly as it has done in Hong Kong, it has shown itself capable of establishing firm footholds and exercising control over apparently democratic processes. Take, for example, China’s secret funding and compromising of candidates for elected office in Canada, its disinformation campaigns about the political system in Australia, its illegal funnelling of political donations to both major parties in New Zealand, and its suppression of Hong Kong dissident protests in the UK. Activities such as these are stepping stones towards displacing the Western liberal democracy-based world order led by the US, and replacing it with a China-led authoritarian world.
There is a real risk that by the time the bickering cultural warriors realise that their freedoms and rights are being undermined by a greater force, it could be too late.
This is where the examples of Joseph Zen, Denise Ho, Benny Tai, Ray Chan, Jimmy Sham, Joshua Wong and his father, and various ideologically diverse groups in the now-defunct Hong Kong Civil Human Rights Front, are instructive for the West. Of course, it may be said that despite their refraining from fighting culture wars and standing in solidarity in resisting authoritarian China, they have suffered setback after setback. What is the point of cross-ideological solidarity if it makes no difference in the end?
Except it very probably did make a difference. China’s push to erode and ultimate destroy Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms did not just start in 2019. It had been taking place for many years under the radar, even at local community levels. By putting culture wars to one side in the face of a common threat, pro-democracy Hong Kong activists and groups with divergent views on social issues played an important role in holding the line against China, until the dam broke upon the state’s full-scale crackdown in 2020. This crackdown has been all-encompassing, ranging from mass arrests and the jailing of dissidents, to the dismantling of civil society groups, education curricula and electoral systems, to the removal of politically sensitive books from libraries, to the general silencing of all criticism of authority by ordinary people.
Hong Kong is under China’s sovereignty and is ultimately subject to its authoritarian whims. The odds were therefore stacked against Hongkongers even though they were relatively united. The situation is different for Western democracies, where China needs more time and must use less direct methods to gain influence.
Where those engaged in socio-political discourse in the West are willing to set aside their internal differences to resist China’s efforts, they stand a much better chance at keeping China’s creeping authoritarianism at bay than Hongkongers ever had. In contrast, however, for Western democratic societies that choose to continue to allow themselves to be consumed by the culture wars, China’s efforts to undermine and, potentially, control them will be left relatively unopposed. The West’s inward-looking obsession with the culture wars, or just inertia, has, for example, enabled the Chinese government to open up secret police stations in many Western countries to facilitate the intimidating of its critics there. It is only in the last year or so that they are being discovered and gradually looked into by Western governments.
For those in the West who are caught up in arguing ceaselessly about their ideological differences, trying to set all that aside and work together to resist a more nefarious force may appear difficult. But the likes of Joseph Zen and Denise Ho have shown that it can and should be done. Internal squabbles may be a tolerable or even acceptable part of political discourse when democratic ways of life are not under threat. However, they become a luxury that one can ill afford when the distraction they afford opens the door for authoritarian encroachment.
As China becomes increasingly assertive in imposing its influence and control around the world, it is high time for the voices on both sides of the culture wars to lay aside their differences and give solidarity a chance. Hong Kong has shown the world how, even in the most difficult of circumstances, solidarity between erstwhile adversaries matters when confronted by an authoritarian giant. If Hongkongers can do it, then so can those in the West.
Enjoy this article? Subscribe to our free fortnightly newsletter for the latest updates on freethought