Hong Kong II: There's More to Life than $

In the beginning, Communist leaders tried to crush all belief in a power higher than the state.

That didn't work, so these regimes changed strategies. While brute force remains an option, the goal today is to let religious groups live and even grow - in tiny plots groomed by atheistic gardeners. The bottom line: Martyrs are more dangerous than apostates.

If there is anything that people understand in Hong Kong, it is the bottom line. Thus, it's highly unlikely that China will strangle the goose that has proven it can lay golden eggs, said Hong Kong Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee. He was speaking to a circle of journalists and Christian scholars days before the July 1 rites that tossed his party out of power.

Instead, China will build a cage of rules and regulations. China wants Hong Kong to remain an economic success. America wants Hong Kong to remain an economic success. "But there is more to life than rising economic statistics," said Lee, an active Roman Catholic. The question that journalists, human-rights activists and religious leaders must keep asking is, "Why can't I do today what I was able to do yesterday?", he said.

At first glance, Hong Kong's new laws on religion appear to maintain the status quo. But the laws are terribly vague.

Article 32 in the Special Administrative Region's Basic Law states: "Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of religious belief and freedom to preach and to conduct and participate in religious activities in public." Article 141 uses similar language, but adds that the government pledges not to interfere in religious groups' internal affairs, except when such activities "contravene the laws of the Region." At the moment, these laws are controlled by politicians and tycoons appointed by Beijing. Also, China has ruled that the standing committee of the National People's Congress - not Hong Kong's court of final appeals -- will ultimately decide disputes about the Basic Law.

However, it is Article 23 that causes the most concern. It states that Hong Kong's new leadership "shall enact laws ... to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition (or) subversion against the Central People's Government, ... to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies."

The standing committee on the mainland already has annulled or altered dozens of Hong Kong laws that affect political parties and dissidents -- but may also apply to religious groups. Three of these changes could be crucial.

It will, for example, be harder to form "voluntary" or "non- governmental" associations and such groups now face tighter controls. Religious leaders of all kinds are watching for any signs that China may open a Hong Kong branch of its Religious Affairs Bureau.

Hong Kong's rulers will keep a closer eye on those with ties to overseas "political" groups. Obviously, if it's hard to separate politics and religion in the United States, it will be hard to do so in China. What happens to Hong Kong Baptists if the Southern Baptist Convention in America continues to fight China's compulsory abortion policies? Is that "political"? What if the Vatican continues to resist efforts to throttle papal loyalists in China? What if Hong Kong Buddhists retain ties with those who plead for Tibet? Finally, anyone who opposes these changes will find it much harder to protest in public.

Meanwhile, debates rage on in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Some argue that economic freedom will protect political rights, which will lead to religious liberty. Others insist that religious liberty must come first -- the bare minimum of what it means to be free.

Truth is, said Lee, these civil liberties are woven together. "Nothing terrible is going to happen on the first of July," he said. "China's leaders are not fools. ... The key word is 'control.' China does not want to kill the goose -- only keep it from flying free."