1 July: Celebrating what?

I was in Hong Kong on 1 July 1997 when the city officially was reunited with the mainland government.  It was a joyous occasions.

At the time of the handover there was a promise that the Beijing Government would not interfere directly in Hong Kong affairs for 50 years but on the 23rd anniversary of that promise, on 1 July 2020, the same government imposed a new security law on the city.

Now anyone who organises, plans, commits or participates in independence movements, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign countries can be imprisoned for life.

One of the reasons for this drastic measure was the demonstrations over the past two years for greater civic freedoms and accountability. Though the vast majority of the demonstrators were peaceful, a violent minority did cause unnecessary disruption and damage. Now anyone, peaceful or violent, who gets involved in such protests can be jailed for life.  370 were arrested on the first day for protesting against the law.

Hong Kong is part of China but its people are unhappy that, despite modern prosperity, decisions that affects them are decided by a distant government that does not listen to them.

I liked the photo of the Hong Kong leaders celebrating the handover and new security laws on 1 July. Were they wearing masks to show they would be silent from now on?

An Ireland-India-China Connection

I discovered a connection between the twenty Indian soldiers killed in the recent border dispute with China and a distant relative of mine.

The link was Sir Henry McMahon ((1862-1949) who helped negotiate the McMahon Line between India and Tibet/China in 1914. India and China are still fighting over the boundary as last week’s events show. 

Sir Henry was the great-grandson of Arthur McMahon, a McMahon of Oriel, in mid-Ulster, to which our MacMahons belong. Unusual for a MacMahon, he became a Presbyterian minister.  The family had settled in Downpatrick but moved to Kilrea in Co Derry when Arthur was assigned to the church there.

The red-headed Arthur was called ‘a most daring and pugnacious man’ and became a member of the National Directorate of the United Irishmen.  He was a colonel in Ulster during the 1798 uprising and fought in a number of battles in Ulster. Afterwards he had to flee to France. There he joined Napoleon’s Irish legion and died fighting, probably at Waterloo, in 1815.  

His son, Captain Alexander McMahon, was born in Kilrea in 1791 and became an officer in the East India Company.

His son (Sir Henry’s father), Lt-General Charles Alexander McMahon (1830-1904), was a notable officer in the East India Company and became a distinguished geologist. As could be expected, Henry ended up in India too. As Foreign Secretary of British India he signed the 1914 Simla Convention which fixed the McMahon Line along the crest of the Himalayas as the boundary between India and Tibet and, now, China.  

I now know where the McMahon Line is and that not all MacMahons stayed at home in Monaghan and neighbouring counties.  I note that Arthur’s family spelt their name with a ‘Mc’. There are no Henrys, Alexanders or Charles’ in our branch of the family, though there was a Columban McMahon from Monaghan named Arthur (no relation).

Photo: Sir Henry.

Good bye, Audrey

Just eleven months ago I wrote a blog on an autobiography written by ‘An overseas Brit and a Sichuan country girl’. She was Audrey Donnithorne who died in Hong Kong,  9 June, aged 98.

Audrey was born in China, studied in England, taught in Australia, researched economics in Hong Kong and travelled in and out of China for 40 years before being banned.

She was one of the founders of AITECE, the organisation with which I worked in Hong Kong, sending volunteer teachers to China to work with Chinese students and improve cross-cultural relationships.

Audrey had a deep interest in the progress of the Church in China, especially in recent years.

Like most people familiar with the situation in China she was pessimistic about the outcome of the agreement between the Vatican and Beijing in 2018.

In a recent article she said, “The full resumption of diplomatic relations between China and the Holy See will probably come eventually, but in God’s time, in this millennium or the next. But we must bear in mind that, perhaps, the greatest long-term danger to the Church in China may come not from government oppression but from government patronage and that, as in the fourth century West, the switch from one to the other might arrive with surprising speed.“

She will be missed by many, in many countries.


It will be worth watching out for what happens on 4 June.

It is the anniversary of the Tian An Men Incident (or Massacre) in 1989 when Beijing‘s month-long demonstrations for greater democracy ended in many deaths.

The biggest celebration is always Hong Kong’s. When I lived there I often joined hundreds of thousands of people in Victoria Park for the start of the march. Cardinal Joseph Zen, then bishop of Hong Kong, was usually there and led the pre-march inter-faith prayer meeting.

Many police were there too and they impressed me by their low-key, helpful role. They kept the traffic moving, made sure the parade was unhampered and that the event ended accident-free.  

On Thursday the atmosphere is likely to be different.

With a new leadership in Beijing the peaceful and gradual integration of Hong Kong into the Chinese national system has been speeded up. A new security law has just been passed in Beijing which means anyone who is seen to be critical of the Beijing government can be arrested.

Until the virus threat stopped them, there had been regular demonstrations in the city against such a law. Some were violent and while the majority of people are strongly against violence they still supported the demonstrations.

Now the virus threat is ending and June 4 approaches. How will the people of Hong Kong celebrate Tian An Men and what will be Beijing’s reaction?

Whatever happens, Beijing’s new law will be implemented and many foreign businesses will begin to leave. It’s not just that people will no longer be able to say what they want but there will be doubts as to whether the courts and business oversight bodies will still be independent.

The richer citizens, and the foreigners, will gradually move out and the ordinary people, the workers, will be left behind in a city gradually losing its advantages and attractiveness.

Beijing will have shown a new impatience with those who disagree and the world will have got a taste of what that might mean. 

Getting together in Beijing

On Thursday, 21 May, China’s Peoples Political Consultative Congress will meet in Beijing and on the following day the National People’s Congress begins.

In all about 5,000 delegates will assemble and the only uncertain question is how they can observe social distancing when they come together in the Great Hall of the People.

All the economic and political issues on the agenda have already been decided so the main role of the delegates will be to clap their hands in approval.

The Chinese government has taken the Corona virus pandemic very seriously and has done a good job in managing it. As President Xi said, it is ‘A great victory and model for the world.’

An example of how thorough it has been, is the procedure for citizens returning from abroad.

Two weeks before they depart they have to fill out a long questionnaire detailing who they are, what flight they will be on, where they have been recently and what they have eaten. For the next 14 days, before they depart, they have to send in daily updates on their temperature and general state of health.

On arrival in China they will have to go into a two-week quarantine, at their own expense, in a government approved building. What they do while they are isolated is up to themselves but they can watch the 10-day Congress in the Great Hall on TV and join in by clapping their hands.   

Why Religion Survives in China

Talking recently with some Chinese in their late-thirties, I should not have been surprised to hear that they had no record of their baptism, first communion or confirmation.

When they were young they were baptised by a priest but no record was kept because it could be used against them later by the government. It was illegal for young people to attend church so preparations for first Communion and Confirmation were done at home by parents.

Many Catholic families put down ‘no religion’ on their official family register because being labelled as a religious believer would be a disadvantage when it came to schools and jobs.

Yet they survived, to be discriminated against again today.

Why is the Communist Party still so anti-religion? 

They say they ‘want to stamp out superstition’ but Christians had being trying to stamp out superstition for centuries. Maybe too zealously in what was known as ‘mission lands’.

Leninists saw religion as ‘oppressive’, but not half as oppressive as the communist parties turned out to be.

The Christian message is feared because it offers an alternative to regimes which have no solid reason to respect human rights. The Marxist goal was good – social and economic equality. That is not surprising as it echoes a biblical message that was familiar to Marx, grandson of a Rabbi and son of a Lutheran convert. However, Christian respect for others comes is based on a belief they are ‘children of God’ and not as nameless social units in an economic process.  

If you want to know more of the elements by which Christianity enriched the world,  read Tom Holland’s best-seller, ‘Dominion’. The anti-virus shut-down enabled me to finish that very readable book  and to understand better why Catholics in China persevere in opposing Communism and why the Communist Party fear the humane message of Christianity.

Learning from Wuhan?

Covid-19 has halted many activities around the world but in China it is an opportunity to further clamp down on religions.

Early on religious bodies were encouraged to collect donations for epidemic relief but warned that in the process ‘religion could not be promoted or evangelical activities allowed.’

However, by 20 February, in Wuhan (home of the virus) people were being accused of ‘handing out face masks as part of missionary work’.

Oven in Hanyang, one of the three cities that make up Wuhan and once was home for the Irish Columban Missionaries, local officials were ‘immediately assigned to all sub-districts and communities to cooperate with the Public Security Bureau police stations to make arrests and curb any likelihood of such occurrences.’

No religious symbols are allowed on disaster relief materials.

Meanwhile shops and restaurants are allowed to reopen in many Chinese provinces but churches and mosques must remain shut.  If any religious ceremonies are held, those responsible are to be arrested. Church buildings continue to be demolished.

In Ireland the distancing of disaster relief efforts from religious motivation would seem unlikely. However even here some large charitable organisations find it is easier to get funding if they do not dwell on their Christian credentials.  In China, it is fear of religion getting a good name that has led to downplaying its charitable efforts. In Ireland there must be some other reason and I’m sure the Chinese authorities are wondering how they can learn from it.

Another type of virus…

With the corona virus monopolising the news, last Saturday Beijing used the opportunity to arrest 19 highly-respected civil rights defenders in Hong Kong.

It presents a dilemma for those with a positive attitude towards the Chinese people. Should they express their dismay at the gradual elimination of democracy in China or should they keep quiet in the hope things improve?

Among the 19, those labelled the Hong Kong ‘Gang of Four’ (because they are seen as the most influential among those arrested) are aged between 72 and 80. They are household names because of their lifetime stand for democracy, they are distinguished professionals in law, the media and politics and they are all Catholics.

Some in Ireland will be happy to ignore what is happening in Hong Kong and on the mainland: business with China is important and you know what you can expect if you say anything negative about the Chinese government.

Others will say it has nothing to do with us. Even if the world’s second largest economy is run by a government that exerts its influence with an anti-democratic agenda, it’s not much different from having our social needs determined by multinational corporations (as we do at present).

However the 19 people arrested in Hong Kong do not agree with that attitude and they have more to lose than anyone here.  

Maybe we should wonder why they show so little self-interest and should we be giving them more support?

Photos; Marin Lee and Anson Chan, two of the ‘Gang of Four’

The Day for Sweeping Tombs

China seeks a greener Qing Ming Festival - TODAYonline

Today is a major festival in China and if you can’t go outside to celebrate it as usual (because of the virus) you can perform your duties online.

It is Qing Ming or Tomb Sweeping Day, the occasion people visit their ancestors’ graves to tidy the tomb, offer them their favourite food and drink, and burn incense.

Rising temperatures and increasing rain signal the start of the busy season for farmers so the first step for families is to make sure their ancestors will bless their efforts. They visit the family graves (usually on mountain sides) and respectfully request the ancestors’ cooperation.

But what do you do when there is a pandemic shutdown?

Today you can make your offerings online and do ‘cloud tomb sweeping’.

Some sites provide your own family ’mourning hall’ where family can log on and join in expressing concern. They can even light a candle.

Other sites provide on-line cleaning services which, I presume, means someone will go and clean the tomb for you and not just the webpage.  In Shanghai, 87,000 signed up in the first week on one site.

In Wuhan there have been over 2,500 deaths since the epidemic began so the Day will have added poignancy.

One man posted, ‘Old traditions are deeply rooted, but it is quite understandable that we cannot visit the cemeteries because we are in a special period. I will pay virtual respect and visit the tomb once the epidemic ends.‘  

We do live in unusual times.

At present priests, Sisters and lay people in China are contributing to an on-line collection for anti-viral masks to be sent to the Columban priests living in Dalgan Park and the Columban Sisters in Magheramore.

So far they have collected E5,000.

Those contributing have been sponsored by the Columbans in recent years to study a variety of subjects in Ireland, Rome and the USA.

Now they are all back in China serving Catholics there.

One hundred years ago, when the Maynooth Mission to China (now known as the Columban Fathers) was founded, the Irish people contributed their pennies and shillings to help the people in China suffering from famine, disease and the devastation of wars.

The Irish at that time were not rich, just as the majority of Chinese are not rich today.  However as China begins to recover from the Corona virus those who have come to know Ireland are quick to show their concern and offer what they see as most urgent at this time.

In the early 1950s China broke off contact with the rest of the world, the Columbans were expelled and there was no news of what happened to the friends they had left behind. From the 1980s the country began to open up again and contacts were renewed.

One of the services the Columbans offered the Church in the New China was to help in the further education of Church leaders. The fruits of this are to be seen in the gift of masks at a time of need from their friends in China.