05/05/2024, 13.05
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Faith in the diaspora: British Chinese communities and the flight from Hong Kong

A study sponsored in London by the British and Foreign Bible Society measures the impact of the arrival of more than 200,000 Hong Kongers in the country over the past three years. There are now 18% Christians in the communities, a much higher percentage than in China, Taiwan or Hong Kong. But even among those who are not linked to any religious denomination, interest in Christianity is emerging.

Milan (AsiaNews) - The flight of tens of thousands of young families from Hong Kong to Great Britain, after the new climate created by the harsh repression of the protests in 2019, is one of the most evident voids created in the great Chinese metropolis. But how are these new communities abroad changing the face of the Chinese diaspora? And within it, what impact are they having on Christian communities?  

This is the interesting theme addressed in two articles recently published on the website chinasource.org by the sociologist of religions Yinxuan Huang, who between 2021 and 2023 for the British and Foreign Bible Society coordinated the research project The Bible and the Chinese Community in Britain at the London School of Theology. The aim was to take a snapshot of the impact of the arrival of around 200,000 Hong Kongers with British passports on the life of the Christian communities already present in the UK.

Summarising the data collected, Huang speaks of an average annual growth rate of 28.8%: in the three years under review, as many as 32 new Chinese churches, congregations and Christian organisations were established. And the most important growth has obviously occurred within the communities where people pray in Cantonese, the language spoken in Hong Kong.

The arrival of immigrants with British passports has also led to the birth of what he calls ‘two unique forms of churches’. The first is made up of 10 churches founded by Christian leaders who have come from Hong Kong. ‘These are communities,’ Huang explains, ‘that often have distinct political and social positions, creating an obvious contrast with the existing Chinese churches in the UK. The second category includes what could be described as ‘nested’ groups. These are small Chinese communities within non-Chinese Churches, largely the result of a special reception programme designed specifically for immigrant Christians from Hong Kong.

Overall, the majority of Chinese in the UK claim to have no religious affiliation (62.4%). About 18% of those surveyed said they were Christians, 8.5% more than the second largest religious group, Buddhists. But the study by the British and Foreign Bible Society points out that this 18% figure is far higher than the percentage of Christians in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It defines the Chinese Christian community in the UK as ‘a typical immigrant-majority transnational church’, predominantly composed of first-generation immigrants (only 12.3% of its members were born in the UK).

In another article devoted to the same research, Yinxuan Huang then dwells on some interesting data concerning the 62% of Chinese immigrants in the UK who say they are not attached to any religious group. ‘When the survey asked this group of 410 respondents whether they believe in heaven, hell, God or other deities and reincarnation,’ he writes, ‘in all four items those who answered “yes” were more than those who answered “no”. In addition, a considerable number of respondents show agnostic views, especially with regard to hell and reincarnation. It is evident that although the Chinese (especially those in mainland China) are often associated with atheism, in reality true atheists are a relatively small minority even among those who claim to have no religious affiliation’.

When asked what aspects of Christianity they would be interested in learning more about, 46% of respondents said they would like to ‘learn about the Christian point of view on important social and political issues today’. In addition, 44% expressed interest in ‘exploring the Christian heritage in British culture’ and 40% said they were interested in the topic of the relationship between science and faith.

‘The aspect that non-Christian Chinese find most interesting about Christianity,’ comments Huang, ‘is its ability to provide alternative answers and explanations to key issues and challenges of the age in which they live. For example, in another focus group involving new converts in Chinese churches (many of them from Hong Kong), several participants said that the biblical teachings helped them overcome the impact and even the trauma caused by the drastic social and political changes that took place in Hong Kong prior to their settlement in the UK, because the concept of reconciliation offered something they could not find in their Chinese culture-influenced upbringing.

Overall, what emerges is therefore a picture of an interesting missionary workshop. ‘The British Chinese Christian community,’ Yinxuan Huang concludes, ‘continues to grow and evolve, particularly with the influx of Hong Kong immigrants, and stands as a dynamic field of potential interaction and mutual enrichment between faith and culture, challenging and expanding the traditional boundaries of faith and religious affiliation.


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