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Persistence and Hope in a Chilly and Harsh Winter

Christmas season is a time of celebrations and gatherings among family members and friends. However, in the past year, all over the world, because of the pandemic and social unrest, many families experienced separation, suffering and sudden change without enough psychological preparation and time to say goodbye.

The coronavirus pandemic has plunged the world into a difficult period. The governments of many countries are incapable of fighting against the spread of the coronavirus. And in some cases, people are unwilling to sacrifice their freedom and follow the anti-covid-19 measures, such as social-distancing and mask-wearing policies.

In Hong Kong, in the past year, we have gone through ups and downs, enduring four waves of the pandemic. The economy has gone down, and medical staff as well as the public have been exhausted physically and mentally. In fact, we are facing an epidemic of unknown origin and human-made disasters. Undoubtedly, the virus is horrible, but the trauma caused by the loss of freedom and the collapse of the socio-political system due to the political crisis is even more unbearable. The pandemic may fade if the vaccines are effective but the authoritarian regime has shown no signs of abatement of oppressions.

In the past few months, bad news regarding the democratic movement in Hong Kong occurred one after the other. Three young social activists, aged 23-26 and former core members of a disbanded political group, were severely sentenced and imprisoned from 7 to 13 months, for illegal assembly in June 2019 outside the police headquarters. The event was a display of both the public’s mounting anger at the police and also the ineffectiveness of the authorities’ attempts to quell the protests with tear gas and pepper spray. The convicts may face more prison terms on additional charges. Moreover, the 73-year-old media tycoon Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s biggest pro-democracy newspaper, was arrested in the name of fraud and colluding with foreign powers to endanger national security, and was refused to be on bail before trial and now detained in a maximum-security prison. Their sentencing or prosecutions point to the wide-ranging nature of the regime’s increasingly aggressive crackdown on political opposition. The police have arrested activists, journalists, politicians, and even social workers, especially after the recent imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong by the Beijing government that grants the authorities sweeping powers to suppress dissent. The National Security Law came into effect on July 1, 2020, criminalizing the four acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign and external forces to jeopardize national security.

After the enactment of the national security law in Hong Kong, a few former pro-democratic legislators and some young activists have fled to other places, such as Britain, the US and Taiwan, in order to continue the advocacy work for democracy in Hong Kong from abroad. Some of them even declared “a severance of all ties” with their own families in Hong Kong, so as to avoid their families being implicated. Adding even more sadness, twelve Hongkongers, aged 16 to 30, involved in alleged cases of rioting, arson, assaulting the police, and possessing offensive weapons during the anti-government protests, were arrested and detained in Shenzhen, mainland China when attempting to flee to Taiwan by boat. Eight members of the group were charged with illegal border crossing, while two were charged with organizing illegal border crossings. The remaining two, both minors, will be subject to a closed-door hearing. Those convicted of organizing illegal border crossing can face two to seven years in jail, and in severe cases, life imprisonment. Treatment towards them during their custody in China is unknown. Their families’ requests to visit them and hire lawyers to represent them were rejected. The detainees are only given legal representatives commissioned by the Chinese government. In addition, China also moved to force the ouster of four directly-elected lawmakers in Hong Kong in November, prompting the mass resignation of the pro-democracy camp from the local legislature. Hong Kong is experiencing a severe cold winter.

Courage, Persistence, and Hope

In the chilly winter of 2020, no matter how harsh it is, the people of Hong Kong need to remain optimistic, affirming the virtues of courage, persistence, and hope. Without hope, fear can spread quickly.

In his recent apostolic letter Patris Corde (With a Father’s Heart), for the Year of Saint Joseph (Dec 8, 2020-2021), Pope Francis praises St. Joseph as a humble parent with the qualities of being “creatively courageous and firmly proactive” (no.4), among other qualities, because, being filled with Holy Spirit’s gift of fortitude and hope, he was able to accept life as it was, with all its contradictions, frustrations and disappointments. The Holy Family had to face concrete problems like every other family but St. Joseph did not look for shortcuts. Instead he confronted the reality with open eyes and accepted personal responsibility for it.

Pope Francis calls St. Joseph the special patron of all those forced to leave their native lands because of war, hatred, persecution and poverty. People in Hong Kong and other parts of the world who experienced displacement must resonate a lot with the Holy Family’s experiences. With the stories of sufferings and diaspora in the Gospel and in our lives, it might seem the world is at the mercy of the strong and mighty, but the good news of the Gospel shows us that, in the midst of all the arrogance and violence of worldly powers, God always finds a way to carry out his saving plan, provided we show the same creative courage as the carpenter of Nazareth, who was able to turn a problem into a possibility by trusting always in divine providence. When we are in difficulty, it does not mean that we are abandoned, but instead we are being trusted to plan, to be creative and to find solutions ourselves (no.5).

In Hong Kong, the rapid deterioration of freedoms is far beyond our imagination. When the regime ignores its own responsibilities, does not respect legitimate rights and interests of citizens, and treats all laws as tools to suppress dissent, the open and diverse Hong Kong that we were familiar with has also ceased to exist. Every day, little by little, we witness the loss of civil liberties. However, at the same time, as political scientist Kin-man Yep points out, many people are persistently resisting and holding firm to the truth and the core values. In fact, they are challenging injustices and affirming their professional ethics with virtues of perseverance and creative courage.

Perseverance is the will to see things through until the end in spite of fear, obstacles, discouragement, and opposition. With perseverance, we can accomplish great things. As St. Paul the Apostle said, “And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:9-10). St. Paul also encouraged the members of the early Church that there was a cloud of witnesses who “lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely,” and that they should “run with perseverance the race that is set before [them], looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2). We are told that a successful life is within reach as long as we remain firm and endure the times of difficulty (2 Timothy 3:14-4:2; Luke 18:1-8).

Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of the virtue of perseverance (ST II-II.137) also helps to shed light on our understanding. First, a virtue of persistence must be directed toward a good; it is not simply about keeping constant over time. When one only pursues one’s success it is not a virtue. Second, Aquinas discusses two vices opposed to perseverance — being head-strong and self-opinionated (ST II-II.138). The danger is making a show of one’s persistence and being more committed to obstinacy than to the good itself. Thus, the imperative to “be persistent” comes in the context of remaining faithful to God and proclaiming the Good News. Third, perseverance, as a part of the virtue of fortitude, regards our passions. In particular, it moderates the fear of weariness or failure. In order to moderate the fear of weariness, we must recognize the community and the relationships that are by our side for support. And, of course, we must never fear to lean upon God’s loving grace. Thus, the virtue of persistence is not a strategy for personal accomplishment. It is a virtue that demands whether our persistence is truly directed toward a good. It is also a disposition that draws us to lean on God and others in overcoming our fear of tiring along the journey.

In Hong Kong, we can find the virtues of perseverance and courage exist among different walks of life in this cold winter. Many local and foreign journalists are working hard to pursue the truth unremittingly, not hesitating to offend the rich and powerful, though sometimes like David challenging the giant Goliath. Many local district councilors are working hard to serve the community despite the government’s unreasonable blockade. Teachers of various levels try to nurture students’ knowledge and the ability for critical thinking despite the pressure of promoting patriotic or national education. In academia, many scholars, based on their conscience, try their best to promote democratic values and tell the truth through teaching, conducting opinion polls and research, sharing viewpoints in mass media, writing opinion essays and publishing Chinese books for mass readers. All of them try to sustain hope and work for peace and justice through actions.

Many ordinary citizens, like the humble St. Joseph, are trying to do some simple works of support, including showing concern to their neighbors and colleagues, especially those lost or being separated from their beloved ones, writing letters to those who are in jail, sharing resources with the needy, or buying goods from the small shops dedicated to the democratic movement, instead of big chain stores. They know no matter how small the action is, everyone can contribute something to  the society. Moreover, to cultivate creative courage and maintain hope, we need a community to support each other, both a small faith community and a larger ecclesial community. Legal scholar Benny Tai also encourages local citizens to set up small groups called “civic power points” in order to consolidate the democratic will of resistance and maintain hope and solidarity for now and for the future.

When this essay was written, it is still in the time of Advent, and just a few days from Christmas. Advent is a time of waiting, but not passive waiting. We have to prepare ourselves and make ourselves ready to welcome the coming of Jesus Christ and the incarnation of the Word in this world, the One who brings real hope to all of us. During this Christmas season, let’s light a candle for those behind bars or who had lost their lives!