The Hong Kong Protests: It’s Monotheism, Stupid
To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party domination of China, Chairman Xi Jinping, adorned in a Mao suit, rode in an open-top armored Hongqi Limo. The ceremony he presided over as the guest of honor began with a monumental musical concert, followed by a gargantuan civilian-military parade, and culminating in his rousing speech.
It is 2019, but the celebration would have been familiar to the Pharaohs of yesteryear. The bombastic music, exuberant dance, carefully choreographed theatre, stunning pageantry, fanning oratory, and public “chariot ride” were straight out of the playbook of ancient Egypt. The objective: to show Xi’s total authority as the god-king of the People’s Republic and his regime’s robust and commanding military/police power.
Hong Kong’s Christians recognize the Communist regime for exactly what it is — idolatry. As reported in the ecumenical religious journal First Things, a pastor at a Hong Kong rally recently proclaimed, “They [the Chinese government] have already canceled the First Commandment — I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me — because it challenges the power of the Chinese President.”
The Christians of Hong Kong and the mainland understand what the West has forgotten. Idolatry is not some frivolous outmoded bowing before statues. Idolatry is a set of lies about power: it is about ascribing super power and super authority to finite beings, ideologies, and in the ancient world, natural processes and animals. Such divine power and authority are used to justify pronouncing any law, controlling all resources, and ruling over all the people.
Modern dictators without exception have all indirectly proclaimed their divinity. Stalin had his image projected into the sky by the Soviet space agency, Mao’s image was given the iconography of the Buddha, and North Korean children are taught that Kim Jong-il was a god who could read minds. Other examples abound. With such unfettered power, it is no wonder that these dictators did as they pleased, including the murdering of millions. In China, Mao alone directly caused the death of some 75 million Chinese. He once said that it would be acceptable if 300 million Chinese died if it was to ensure Communist victory. Mao succeeded in this gruesome feat and died peacefully himself because the people recognized him as a god-king.
China, of course, wants to present a kind, gentle face, as the People’s Republic. But as an idolatrous regime, it must control the “truth.” Thus, it must first and foremost outlaw and control all other religions, since no idolatrous god-king can tolerate a larger god. This is why China has murdered over 1.2 million peaceful Tibetans and imprisoned countless others. This is also why the 11 million Uighur Muslims are subject to constant surveillance via DNA testing, facial recognition, and physical security checks. It is unclear how many have vanished, never to return.
This is why Christianity is tightly controlled. During my career, I met Chinese Christians at business conferences abroad. They are very circumspect and careful about discussing beliefs even outside of their county, wary of informants. The Chinese government has also censored the Bible to make it more compatible with Communist ideology and does not permit unredacted Bibles among its 1.4 billion people. Religious services are surveilled and attendees subject to heightened scrutiny.
China’s crackdown on the Bible, Islam, and Christianity is emblematic of all modern idolatrous states. The Bible’s prohibition against idolatry is the conceptual foundation for all political and economic justice. If there is no God but God and all humans are created in His image, then we must treat each other as we wish to be treated. Therefore, the Bible rejects unlimited power for any government, forbids economic and political monopolies, and separates powers. The Biblical king was to be a commander-in-chief and executor of the divinely legislated laws of the Bible. He was constrained by the institution of the High Priest/Temple, which had its own financial base.
The judicial branch, the Sanhedrin, ruled independently and the Prophets acted in place of the Fourth Estate; however, none were financed by the king. Within this framework, individuals — including women — could buy and sell freely, provided they did so honestly. Not surprisingly, the Bible’s laws and political model inspired modern liberalism and most of the 19th and 20th century movements for political and economic justice from abolitionism to the civil rights movement. Clearly, it seems the Bible threatens ideologies that want to control their subjects completely.
The Bible’s story of the liberation from idolatrous power is a story that dictatorships need to suppress. The Israelites escaped Pharaoh, thanks to the covert civil disobedience of five women: two Egyptian midwives and Pharaoh’s daughter as well as Moses’ sister and mother. All of them knew that if they failed, they would be killed. Yet, understanding Pharaoh’s lies about power gave these women the courage to take huge risks. This understanding also inspires Hong Kong Christians. They “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” as a clear rejection of the Pharaoh of Beijing. It is the reason that the Hong Kong protests are not losing momentum as analysts had expected.
The minds of the Hong Kong protesters are not focused on the specific issues such as the proposed extradition law, but rather on the danger of becoming controlled by the idolatrous religion of Communism. Once idolatry rears its power, it is difficult to turn back, but monotheism does hold out hope.
Few expected Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Mohammad Hatta in Indonesia, Costilla and Morelos in Mexico, Lech Walesa in Poland, and a host of others to be successful. Indeed, many prior to them were not. The Hong Kong protesters believe, like all their courageous predecessors, that when you stand up against idolatry, then God will provide a tailwind to defeat Pharaoh.
Scott A. Shay is Chairman and co-founder of Signature Bank of New York and the author of In Good Faith; Questioning Religion and Atheism (Post Hill Press, 2018). A version of this article was originally published in The Asia Times.