What Hong Kong reveals about the future of China

August 20, 2020

I was in Hong Kong in November 2019, at the height of the pro-democracy protests late last year. These protests brought a sharp reaction from the Hong Kong police, and in turn the international media were flooded with images of firebombs, tear gas, and students barricaded in the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. I stayed just a few blocks from the university in a neighborhood called Tsim Sha Tsui. I was utterly unprepared for the daily and nightly devastation that would occur in that neighborhood during my time there. 

During that trip last fall, I met with high-ranking government officials, prominent former legislators, religious leaders, student activists, and other pillars of the community. I traveled with a filmmaker and storyteller, and our goal was to interview a wide range of people to tell the story of what was happening in Hong Kong as a way of explaining what we feared might be the trajectory of China under President Xi Jinping’s leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. 

We hoped to release this film this week in order to help you understand what was happening there and what we together might be able to do to help the people of Hong Kong and in mainland China. Our policy goal has been to persuade this administration and members of our government that the United States must counter China on a moral plane, in addition to seeking to counter China in terms of trade, aid, and security.

Unfortunately, you can’t see the film we produced. 

Between the time that we filmed these interviews and the time we were preparing to release the documentary, Beijing imposed a draconian new national security law on Hong Kong that eviscerates the island city’s autonomy. This move by the communist regime has made nearly every person in our film too afraid to speak out, particularly to an international audience.

The political and security situation in Hong Kong—and the posture of Beijing toward the city—has moved at an incredible and alarming pace. Today, the future of Hong Kong is unclear. Since the 19th century, Hong Kong has served as a sort of doorway between the East and the West. It appears that this door is closing—it may very well already be closed. What this means for relationships between Eastern and Western nations remains to be seen, as do the personal futures of Hong Kong’s nearly eight million residents. 

One country, one system

Hong Kong has long been a special place, a hub for trade between China and the rest of the world, as well as a place for deep and rich cultural exchange. Hong Kong serves as a major media hub for China and the entire region. This is possible because Hong Kong is governed under a different set of rules and laws than mainland China.

Based on a set of agreements that goes back to the 1980s, Beijing allowed Hong Kong to operate with a “high degree of autonomy.” In exchange, Western democracies granted Hong Kong a status that is different from the rest of China. Hong Kong enjoys preferential trade and visa treatment, and Western companies are permitted to operate in Hong Kong free of interference from the Chinese Communist Party.

The term of art to describe this diplomatic arrangement is “one country two systems”—Hong Kong since 1997 has formally been a part of China, but Hong Kong and mainland China are governed under two separate legal and political systems.

Or rather, Hong Kong and China were governed under two separate legal and political systems. The situation has changed dramatically in the last few months. Last month, Beijing imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong, which outlaws such vague crimes as “secession,” “subversion,” and “collusion with foreign or external forces,” and empowers mainland Chinese security forces to enforce these laws. 

It appears—and the U.S. government has taken this position—that Hong Kong is no longer able to exercise a high degree of autonomy in its internal politics and affairs. The only question that remains is how long it will take for Beijing to complete the task of undermining Hong Kong’s rich tradition of democracy, liberal values, and the rule of law. 

For instance, under the pretext of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam—a Beijing loyalist—delayed the national elections scheduled this year. It is widely believed that if the elections were held this year, a wave of pro-democracy legislators would be elected to the Hong Kong Legislative Council. Even when those elections are held, a number of elected officials are barred from running again.

All of this is staggering, considering the trajectory China seemed to be on in 1997, at the handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China. Indeed, these developments tell us that China is on a much different trajectory today.

A coal mine canary

In the early 20th century, coal miners took canaries deep into the mines as an early warning for carbon monoxide emissions. Canaries are more sensitive to carbon monoxide than humans, and if the canary expired, miners had time to escape the mine or use a breathing device to survive.

This is a stark, macabre analogy, I know. I would not mention it here if several of the people we interviewed for the film hadn’t used this analogy to describe their own situation. The Chinese Communist Party’s actions in Hong Kong today reveal their intentions for the future, and they reveal the dark side of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Beijing today is self consciously working to export its model for governance to the developing world as an alternative to liberal democracy.

What will this mean for the international order, when authoritarian regimes resistant to pressure from the West to liberalize—and thereby expand freedoms to their people—are offered a different path? A model for economic development without expansion of human rights will be too tempting to turn down. Those who suffer, of course, will be the very people who are most vulnerable today.

Standing for Hong Kong, and standing up to China

Last year, Russell Moore wrote in the Wall Street Journal that China’s main threat is a moral one. What has unfolded in Hong Kong in the last three months shows that the need to confront China morally is as urgent as ever.

The U.S. government must use all of the tools at its disposal to protect and defend the human rights of Hong Kongers. At the same time, the Congress should take action to offer our shores as a refuge to Hong Kongers fleeing persecution at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party and pass the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act

Right now, the fate of eight million Hong Kongers is hanging in the balance. Their fate, however, points to even greater threats in the future. Today, let us stand for a Hong Kong that is free and respects the God-given rights of its citizens.

Postscript: The U.S. government must also confront China for its abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang Province in western China. Chelsea Sobolik recently wrote on this topic. Join our free webinar on Friday, Aug. 21, featuring Russell Moore, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, USCIRF Commissioner Nury Turkel, and Rushan Abbas, Founder and Executive Director of Campaign for Uyghurs. Learn how you and your church can help.

Travis Wussow

Travis Wussow serves as the Vice President for Public Policy and General Counsel. Travis led the ERLC’s first international office located in the Middle East prior to joining the Washington DC office. He received a B.B.A. in Finance from The University of Texas at Austin and a J.D. from The … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24