2016 Report on International Religious Freedom: China (Includes Tibet, Hong Kong, and Macau) - Hong Kong

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Report
August 15, 2017

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Executive SummaryShare    

The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), as well as other laws and policies, states residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Religious groups are exempt from the legal requirement that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) register, but they can apply for subsidies and concessional terms to run schools and lease land if they register. The government invites all religious groups to comment on whether proposed measures discriminate on the basis of religion. Two venues cancelled contracts with organizers of a Falun Gong-sponsored dance competition; the group then moved the event out of the SAR. Falun Gong representatives said one of the cancellations was due to the Hong Kong government’s action; the government said the space was one of many needed under longstanding procedures for election training. Some residents reported Mainland Chinese authorities encroached on their religious outreach and engagement activities with Mainland visitors and students. A Hong Kong-based religious organization expressed concern that language in a draft of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) religious affairs regulations could have a negative impact on Hong Kong’s religious freedom.

In January an anonymous bomb threat disrupted a gathering of approximately 1,000 Falun Gong practitioners. Falun Gong members said they suspected members of a Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-affiliated organization were behind the fake bomb, while police reports indicate the suspect may have been an emotionally disturbed individual.

The U.S. consulate general affirmed U.S. government support for promoting and protecting freedom of religion and belief in meetings with the government, religious organizations, and civil society groups. The Consul General and officers at all levels met regularly with religious leaders and community representatives.

Section I. Religious DemographyShare    

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.2 million (July 2016 estimate). The Hong Kong government’s Information Services Department data states that approximately 43 percent of the population practices some form of religion. The two most prevalent religions are Buddhism and Taoism, which are often observed in the same temple. According to SAR government statistics, there are approximately two million Buddhists and Taoists; 480,000 Protestants; 379,000 Roman Catholics; 100,000 Hindus; 20,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons); 12,000 Sikhs, and 5,000-6,000 Jews. Local Muslim groups estimate the SAR has approximately 300,000 Muslims. Small communities of Bahai and Zoroastrians also reside in the SAR. Confucianism is widespread, and in some cases elements of Confucianism are practiced in conjunction with other belief systems. Human rights organizations estimate there are between 500 and 1,000 practitioners of Falun Gong.

There are approximately 50 Protestant denominations, including Anglican, Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Church of Christ in China, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Seventh-day Adventists. The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong recognizes the pope and maintains links to the Vatican; the Bishop of Hong Kong and his retired predecessor are the only Catholic cardinals in greater China.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious FreedomShare    

Legal Framework

Under the Basic Law, the Hong Kong SAR has autonomy in the management of religious affairs. The Basic Law calls for ties between the region’s religious groups and their mainland counterparts based on “nonsubordination, noninterference, and mutual respect.” The Basic Law states residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Basic Law also states the government cannot interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations or restrict religious activities that do not contravene other laws.

The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the ICCPR, which include the right to manifest religious belief individually or in community with others, in public or private, and through worship, observance, practice, and teaching. The Bill of Rights Ordinance states persons belonging to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture, profess and practice their own religion, and use their own language. The ordinance also protects the right of parents or legal guardians to “ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” These rights may be limited when an emergency is proclaimed and “manifestation” of religious beliefs may be limited by law when necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the rights of others. Such limitations may not discriminate solely on the basis of religion.

Religious groups are not legally required to register with the government; however, they must register to receive government benefits, such as tax-exempt status, rent subsidies, government or other professional development training, the use of government facilities, or a grant to provide social services. To qualify for such benefits, the group must prove to the satisfaction of the government that it is established solely for religious, charitable, social, or recreational reasons. The government determines whether a religious group’s application for tax-exempt status is accepted. Registrants must provide the name and purpose of the organization, identify its office-holders, and confirm the address of the principal place of business and any other premises owned or occupied by the organization. If a religious group registers with the government, it is entered into the registry of all NGOs, but the government makes no adjudication on the validity of any registered groups. Religious groups may register as a society and/or tax-exempt organization as long as they have at least three members who hold valid SAR identity documents; the registration process normally takes approximately 12 working days. Falun Gong is not classified as a religious group under the law, as it is currently registered as a society, under which its Hong Kong-based branches are able to establish offices, collect dues from members, and have legal status.

The Basic Law allows private schools to provide religious education. The government offers funding to cover 90 percent of the budget of schools built and run by religious groups, should they seek such support. Government subsidized schools must adhere to government curriculum standards and may not bar students based on religion, but they may provide religious instruction as part of their curriculum, which may be mandatory for all students. Teachers, however, may not discriminate against students because of their religious beliefs. The public school curriculum mandates coursework on ethics and religious studies, with a focus on religious tolerance; the government’s curriculum also includes elective modules on different world religions.

Religious groups may apply to the government to lease land at concessional terms through Home Affairs Bureau sponsorship. Religious groups may apply to develop or use facilities in accordance with local legislation.

The only direct government role in managing religious affairs is the Chinese Temples Committee, led by the secretary for home affairs. The SAR Chief Executive appoints its members. The committee oversees the management and logistical operations of 24 of the region’s 600 temples and provides grants to other charitable organizations. The committee provides grants to the Home Affairs Bureau for disbursement as financial assistance to needy ethnic Chinese citizens. The colonial-era law does not require new temples to register to be eligible for Temples Committee assistance.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive is elected by an approximately 1,200-member Election Committee. The Basic Law stipulates that the Election Committee’s 1,200 members shall be “broadly representative.” Committee members come from four sectors, divided into 38 subsectors, representing various trades, professions, and social services groups. The religious subsector is comprised of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, the Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association, the Hong Kong Christian Council, the Hong Kong Taoist Association, the Confucian Academy, and the Hong Kong Buddhist Association. These six bodies are each entitled to 10 of the 60 seats for the religious subsector on the Election Committee. The religious subsector is not required to hold elections under the Chief Executive Election Ordinance. Instead, each religious organization selects its electors in its own fashion. Each of the six designated religious groups is also a member of the Hong Kong Colloquium of Religious Leaders.

Government Practices

During the year, Falun Gong practitioners reported generally being able to operate openly in Hong Kong and engage in behavior that is forbidden elsewhere in the PRC, such as distributing literature and conducting public exhibitions. They were able to obtain the required permits to display information in high-traffic areas and conducted public protests against the treatment of fellow practitioners in Mainland China.

In June Hong Kong Falun Gong Association representatives said Hong Kong government action prompted the cancellation of a prepaid venue contract between Falun Gong-affiliated New Tang Dynasty Television (NTD-TV) and a district council organization-owned theater to host a classical Chinese dance competition. According to the Falun Gong-affiliated Epoch Times, NTD-TV said the theater’s management cancelled the contract to allow the government to use the theater to train local election monitors in preparation for September legislative elections. The district council organization that owns the theater said the cancellation was routine, noting the management group’s longstanding policy is to prioritize government requests over all other bookings. The Hong Kong government said it requested the use of the dance hall and many other district council-controlled spaces across Hong Kong simultaneously for election-related training, as part of its longstanding practice. According to the Legislative Council, district councils across Hong Kong had the option of working with the government to reschedule the training, or rebooking outside groups who had leased their respective spaces. The theater’s management said they also offered NTD-TV a full refund of its contract and assistance in arranging an alternate site for the dance recital, which was planned to be moved to a government-subsidized stadium. According to Epoch Times, the stadium also cancelled its contract with NTD-TV, citing “safety issues” after reportedly CCP-sponsored groups began protesting outside the stadium on July 20. Other sources said NTD-TV feared the performance would be disrupted by similar groups and decided to move the dance competition to Taiwan.

Several Hong Kong religious NGOs stated their members faced harassment after entering the Mainland, while some Mainland religious practitioners reported Mainland authorities barred them from entering Hong Kong to practice their faith.

According to Christian Daily, in April more than 50 Christians marched to the Hong Kong-based Central Government Liaison Office to protest the Central Government’s treatment of Christian groups on the Mainland, including demolitions of crosses at over 2,000 churches in the Mainland’s Zhejiang Province. The Christian Daily article stated the Catholic Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, Joseph Cardinal Zen, said he believed the anti-Christian campaign on the Mainland could reach Hong Kong in the future.

One NGO expressed concern that the draft PRC religious affairs regulations could have a negative effect on Hong Kong’s religious freedom. NGO representatives said the Mainland’s draft law would require religious groups to register and obtain approval from both government-sanctioned religious bodies and Central Government religious affairs authorities in order to operate legally on the Mainland. The group said language in the draft law regarding Hong Kong-Mainland exchanges offered few protections for religious organizations. The draft language stated, “Religious exchanges between the Mainland and Hong Kong SAR are handled in accordance with relevant laws, administrative regulations, and relevant national provisions.”

Religious groups stated their faith leaders were freely able to meet with and administer to the religious needs of prisoners and detainees of all nationalities in Hong Kong prisons. They reported the Hong Kong Correctional Services Department accommodated prisoners’ and detainees’ religious-based dietary restrictions and actively solicited religious groups’ advice in ensuring prisoners’ and detainees’ religious requirements were met during incarceration.

The Home Affairs Bureau functioned as a liaison between religious groups and the government. The government invited all interested groups, including affected organizations or individuals, to provide views on whether proposed measures would discriminate on the basis of religion.

Senior government leaders often participated in large-scale events held by religious organizations. For example, clergy from all major faiths led a prayer or recitation at a Remembrance Day Ceremony to pay respects to all who died during the two World Wars. The SAR government and legislative council representatives participated in Confucian and Buddhist commemorative activities, Taoist festivals, and other religious events throughout the year.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious FreedomShare    

In January an anonymous bomb threat to a police emergency hotline prompted the disruption and evacuation of approximately 1,000 local and visiting Falun Gong followers attending a meeting in a local hotel ballroom. The South China Morning Post reported police immediately evacuated the area and the bomb unit found a package containing gas canisters and stopwatches, which was later determined to be a fake bomb incapable of causing an explosion and presenting no threat to conference attendees. The conference did not resume. The Epoch Times reported the threat came from the Hong Kong Youth Care Association, a reportedly CCP-affiliated group that has harassed Falun Gong practitioners in the past. The police in February arrested five individuals in conjunction with the bomb threat, all of whom were suspected of affiliation with local criminal triad groups, according to local press reports and police statements.

Religious groups, some of which received government funding, provided a wide range of social services open to those of all religious affiliations including welfare, elder care, hospitals, publishing services, media and employment services, rehabilitation centers, youth and community service functions, and other charitable activities. Jewish leaders hosted public Holocaust awareness events.

The Hong Kong Colloquium of Religious Leaders took steps to promote interfaith understanding and dialogue. It donated more than 3,400 documents and images, as well as a time capsule to the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), to help preserve the history of interreligious dialogue in the territory. CUHK will use the collection as part of a publicly-accessible electronic database intended to increase the public’s understanding about different faiths and religious traditions.

Catholic and Protestant clergy from Hong Kong accepted invitations from state-sanctioned patriotic religious associations on the Mainland to teach at religious institutions. There were also student exchanges between state-sanctioned religious groups on the Mainland and Hong Kong-based religious groups.

In July an international ecclesiology research institute organized a four-day conference in Hong Kong addressing the future of Christianity in the PRC. Religious scholars and leaders from various denominations gathered at the conference to discuss challenges worshippers faced on the Mainland, including the appointment of Catholic bishops.

Religious groups continued to provide input in the government and civil society’s politics and governance. The Hong Kong Christian Council, in response to criticism that its internal voting procedures to select its 10 representatives to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Election Committee favored larger denominations, in October switched from elections to a lottery system. Under the new arrangements, the Christian Council’s electors can be nominated from four categories: individuals, denominations, churches, and organizations. Some groups said the new system also discriminated against small groups because a candidate must be nominated by 20 Christians to participate in the lottery in the “individuals” category. Others said that religious groups should not participate on the electoral committee to keep church and the government separate.

Section IV. U.S. Government PolicyShare    

Consulate general officers at all levels, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue in meetings with Hong Kong government officials including the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau, Home Affairs Bureau, several legislative representatives, and other high-level government officials.

Consulate general representatives also met regularly with religious leaders, NGOs, and community representatives to receive reports about the status of religious freedom both in Hong Kong and in the Mainland.

The Consul General met with Buddhist, Taoist, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim leaders throughout the year to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. In these interactions, he discussed the work of Hong Kong’s Colloquium of Religious Leaders, a local organization aimed at fostering interreligious dialogue and promoting tolerance. He also attended events to commemorate the Holocaust. In each of these interactions, the Consul General voiced support for religious freedom and emphasized the importance of tolerance.

The Consul General met frequently with leaders and members of the local Islamic community. Noting that Hong Kong is one of the only communities in the world in which Sunni and Shia Muslims regularly worship together, the Consul General discussed the community’s contributions to the protection of religious freedom. In June he hosted an iftar at which he discussed the importance of religious freedom and cooperative activities to counter violent extremism, as well as the promotion of religious tolerance.

Throughout the year, the Consul General showed American respect for all religious traditions by marking all major Chinese traditional holidays through regular visits to local Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist temples. He also participated in festival celebrations with the Zoroastrian, Hindu, and Christian communities. Coverage of the Consul General’s activities on consulate general social media platforms, which regularly included captions highlighting the importance of religious freedom, received positive comments from communities on the internet.

Other consulate general officials participated in Holocaust-related events and hosted religious leaders at prominent events.