American pastor Butch Tanner says Hong Kong has changed dramatically in the few years he’s been here.
“Hong Kong, as Hongkongers see it, is a totally different place than it was two years ago,” Tanner told CBN News during an interview.
Tanner moved to Hong Kong from Texas in 2017 to lead Kowloon International Baptist Church.
Then in June 2019, anti-government protests erupted over a controversial extradition law, plunging the city into months of chaos and bloodshed.
Tanner’s church became a place for healing.
“We would have, actually, police officers plus have protesters that would gather in our building and pray together and sing together,” Tanner said.
The protests have since died down, but fear now looms over the city’s future as China’s grip on Hong Kong tightens six months after imposing a sweeping new national security law.
“We have a lot of fear in Hong Kong, among the people, there’s a lot of fear that things are not going to settle down or be anywhere near the normal that they used to be,” Tanner observed.
And that fear is being realized.
On January 6th, more than a thousand Hong Kong police officers raided 73 different locations across the city, arresting 53 politicians, pro-democracy leaders, human rights activists, and others.
Lam Cheuk-ting was one of the lawmakers arrested. He captured the moment police barged into his home.
“You are suspected of violating the national security law, subverting state power,” a Hong Kong police officer told Lam as he forced his way past the door.
Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last governor, says what’s happening in the city is nothing short of China’s “brutal destruction of a free society”.
“This a further turning of the screw in Hong Kong. A further attempt to destroy the freedoms of a city which has thrived under the rule of law,” Patten said during an interview.
Also arrested, John Clancey, an American priest turned lawyer, who now faces prison for challenging China’s authoritarian rule over the city.
“My approach has been you live according to your conscience, you live according to your principles, you live according to the people you’re working with, and you keep going forward,” said Clancey, who is the first American and foreigner charged under Hong Kong’s new national security law.
“Even in the darkest days, I think it’s very important to maintain hope,” Clancey added soon after being released on bail.
Authorities have also rounded up Christians, including Joshua Wong, a prominent activist seen in a picture entering prison in early December.
Later that month, two Catholic nuns were also arrested.
“If they think they can lock up the idea of freedom and democracy forever, they’re kidding themselves,” Patten said. “The truth is they’re absolutely terrified of what liberal democracy stands for.”
Reports estimate more than 300 thousand Hongkongers are planning to flee the city in the coming months.
Lap Yan Kung, who teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told CBN News that several pastors have already left, while others have gone underground.
“The government, as well as the police, use all kinds of means to use this law to persecute the pastors as well as the people, ” Kung said.
Beijing defended the mass arrests, despite calls for their release by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“No one has any privileges outside the law,” argued Hua Chunying, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson. “The law must be followed and anyone who violates the law must be held to account.”
Anthony Blinken, President Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, calls the arrests “an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights”, adding that a Biden administration would “stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.”
Once a freewheeling city, Hong Kong is now witnessing dramatic transformation on all levels.
China’s President Xi Jinping has moved in recent months to reshape schools, the media, legislature, and the courts with more changes on the way.
“The leadership in schools are changing, schools that have never had any communist connection before, are having communist leaders come in and replace positions,” Tanner told CBN News. “Textbooks are being changed, what is allowed to be taught is being changed.”
Christians fear Hong Kong is becoming like any other city in mainland China and that religious regulations there combined with the new security law, will soon apply to them–making it almost impossible to practice their faith.
“A kind of self-censorship is emerging among the people in Hong Kong and many of us are very cautious about what we can say,” said Kung.
Chinese Christians currently experience some of the harshest government persecution ever witnessed.
Christians here are also preparing for the same.
“We have learned a lot from the Christian churches in China in the last 70 years, they suffered quite a lot, so maybe this is also a time that we also learned something from our brothers and sisters in China,” Kung said.
Still, a division exists between Christians who support Beijing’s rule and those who don’t.
Ricky Wong, a former Hong Kong police officer, pastors Trinity Theology Baptist Church. He supports Beijing and says the new law will not curtail religious freedom in the city.
“For me, I’m quite positive about this new law and also I think we have to just pray and look upon Jesus,” pastor Wong told CBN News.
Others like Dr. Hugo Chan, a leader with the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship, say despite potential restrictions, the gospel of Jesus Christ will go forward.
“Yes, we have a lot of confusion and a lot of polarization going on but ultimately, even in China, I believe the Kingdom will prevail because this is unchangeable,” Chan said.
Most churches in Hong Kong have gone virtual since the pandemic. Pastor Tanner’s are meeting in small home groups.
“We’ll continue to lead our people to focus on Jesus, lead our people to bring light to the darkness and hope in the middle of the brokenness,” Tanner said.
Tanner says he plans to continue boldly proclaiming a message of love—come what may.
“What we look at and what we prepare for is the fact that whatever happens, we need to present Jesus, if that includes suffering, yes,” Tanner told CBN News. “If that includes being exiled, yes, whatever it includes, we want to honor Jesus with whatever we do, however we live, however we react.”