A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 16 January 2011 by John Kamm. The scripture reading that day was Matthew 25:31-40.
Have you ever been at a loss for words?
In May 1990, I attended a banquet in Hong Kong hosted by a senior Chinese official. I was on the way to Washington to testify on China’s trade privileges in the United States. China was close to losing its access to the American market. I told the official that I thought the Chinese government should do more to improve its image with the American people after the tragic events of June 4, 1989. After some back and forth, he asked me “What would you have us do?”
I was at a loss for words. I hadn’t given a thought to what I wanted China to do. The other businessmen there must have thought I’d ask for China to buy more American products. After all, I was the President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.
In Matthew 10:18, Jesus says to his disciples, “For my sake you will be brought before rulers and kings, to tell the Good News to them and to the Gentiles. When they bring you to trial, do not worry about what you are going to say or how you will say it; when the time comes, you will be given what you will say. For the words you will speak will not be yours; they will come from the Spirit of your Father.”
I asked the official to release a young June 4th protester. After I returned from testifying in Washington, he was released.
After this I began working on behalf of prisoners in China. I was motivated by two things. 1) The knowledge that I could work within the system as a friend of the Chinese government to effect better treatment and early release of people in prison, especially those imprisoned for their beliefs and 2) Christ’s clear message that personal salvation lies in treating the very least among us as we would treat Jesus.
Matthew paints a picture of judgment day in a passage that resonates in the hearts of those who seek social justice for the persecuted and the dispossessed.
“When the Son of Man comes as King and all the angels with him, he will sit on his royal throne,
and the people of all nations will be gathered before him. Then he will divide them into two groups, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the righteous people at his right and the others at his left. Then the King will say to the people on his right, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for you ever since the creation of the world. I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you received me in your homes,
naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me, in prison and you visited me. . . I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of my followers you did it for me.”
Christ tells us that prisoners are the least of the least, the lowest of the low, the last on the list. Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus tells us “Those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). Scripture clearly tells us to put a high priority on caring for and visiting prisoners.
References to prisoners in the Bible are numerous. In Psalm 68:6 we are told that “He . . . leads prisoners out into happy freedom” and in Psalm 69:33 we hear that “The Lord . . . does not forget his people in prison.” (Psalm 69:33). Fulfilling Isaiah’s prophesy, Jesus announces in Luke 4:18
“He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed.”
Many prophets and apostles suffered periods of imprisonment, including Joseph, Samson, Jeremiah, Daniel, John the Baptist, Peter, James, Paul and even Jesus himself, who was held in custody between his arrest and execution. Paul is proud of his time in prison, boasting of his credentials in 2 Corinthians 11:23. “I have worked much harder, I have been in prison more times, I have been whipped much more, and I have been near death more often.”
Hong Kong is a caring society. I learned this when I served on the Board of The Community Chest. It is a generous society. It spends millions supporting the livelihoods of thousands of asylum seekers. This Church has distinguished itself in helping asylum seekers.
There is a strong system of Justices of the Peace who regularly visit our prisons, and there are local charities and missions that minister to the 12,000 inmates here, like that of the Rev. Tobias Brandner, but little is being done to assist Hong Kong people who find themselves in prisons overseas, other than the conclusion of Prisoner Transfer Agreements (or PTAs) that have allowed a relatively small number of Hong Kong prisoners to serve their sentences in Hong Kong prisons.
How many Hong Kong people are in prison outside of Hong Kong? No one seems to know. The Hong Kong government does not publish numbers. They are in the best position to have the information, but it is very possible that the SAR government itself does not know the exact number.
Consider Hong Kong people in prison in the United States. Based on our extensive research, my foundation estimates that there are about 400 Chinese citizens in federal and state prisons in the United States. Since Hong Kong is a part of China, no figures are provided for Hong Kong people in and of themselves. Under the Consular Agreement between the United States and China, American authorities must inform the Chinese embassy of Chinese citizens who have been arrested. Whether and how this information, insofar as it concerns Hong Kong people, is provided to the SAR government is not clear.
The Chinese government exercises its consular right to visit Chinese prisoners, including Hong Kong prisoners in the United States. Such visits, while welcome, are still relatively rare.
The largest number of Hong Kong people in prison outside Hong Kong are in prisons on the Mainland, and since Hong Kong is a part of China, visits to them by Chinese diplomats are out of the question. Prisoners in China are permitted one visit by a close family relative every month (but as Liu Xiaobo and his family have discovered, this right can be taken away). Provincial prison bureaus can consider requests for more frequent visits, and for visits by people other than immediate relatives, but they are under no obligation to grant them.
A few years ago I visited a large prison about 50 miles north of Lo Wu. After listening to a short concert by the prison band – the conductor was a Hong Kong prisoner serving a life sentence for drug smuggling – I was taken to the cell block for Hong Kong prisoners. There were 400 prisoners there. I was told that all Hong Kong prisoners convicted in Guangdong were in that cell block. Then I went to a prison in Fujian Province. I was accompanied by officials of the provincial prison bureau. They told me that there were about 200 Hong Kong prisoners in Fujian prisons.
Based on these and other conversations, I believe there are at least 1,000 Hong Kong people serving sentences in Chinese prisons. There are more than 3,500 Mainlanders serving sentences in Hong Kong prisons. Given the traffic between Hong Kong and the Mainland, these numbers should not surprise us.
What is being done for Hong Kong prisoners on the Mainland by the government and people of Hong Kong?
The approach taken by the SAR government to helping Hong Kong prisoners abroad has been to negotiate Prisoner Transfer Agreements (or PTAs) so that the Hong Kong prisoners can serve their sentences in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has several PTAs with countries like the US, the UK and France. There is a regional PTA with Macau. China has concluded three PTAs with foreign countries.
Negotiations on a PTA between Hong Kong and the Central Government commenced in March 2000, but it does not appear that much progress has been made. A big problem is that acts considered a crime in one jurisdiction – e.g. Bible smuggling, for which Hong Kong person Li Guangqiang was sentenced to two years in a Chinese prison in 2002 – are not considered crimes in the other. Observers like HKU Law Research fellow Choy Dick Wan are skeptical that an agreement can be reached and propose instead that Hong Kong and the Mainland should adopt an ad hoc transfer system.
In fact, China does from time to time transfer prisoners to countries with which it doesn’t have a PTA, and the 2009 release on parole of the journalist Ching Cheong, followed by his return to Hong Kong, tells us that the Central Government will recognize Hong Kong’s special status from time to time and allow a prisoner to return to the SAR before completing his or her original sentence, though to date no prisoner sentenced by a Mainland court has been sent to Hong Kong to actually serve part of his or her sentence. Short of concluding a PTA, and negotiating the occasional ad hoc transfer, what else can be done to help our forgotten prisoners?
In the short run the focus should be on visiting them. The SAR government certainly has the resources to carry out a program of visits at the Guangdong prison where 400 Hong Kong prisoners are housed. China’s prison regulations allow government personnel from other provinces to visit prisoners from their locale, though in fact few local governments exercise this right with any frequency. Here is an opportunity for Hong Kong to contribute to penal reform in China while assisting some of its most vulnerable citizens. For starters the SAR government should negotiate a program of prison visits with the government of Guangdong, a program that should benefit both Hong Kong prisoners in Guangdong and Guangdong prisoners in Hong Kong.
Greater government involvement isn’t enough. Hong Kong society must show greater concern for Hong Kong prisoners overseas and on the Mainland. LegCo should press the SAR government to regularly give progress reports on the PTA with the Mainland (the last update was given in April 2008), and as part of this, to release basic information on the number and location of Hong Kong prisoners in Mainland prisons.
In the United Kingdom there is an organization called Prisoners Abroad. It assists the more than 1,000 citizens of the United Kingdom in prison overseas, and their families at home. It works to ensure that they are treated humanely, that they are free from torture. It supports local British consuls and organizes local expatriates to visit British prisoners. It makes grants to prisoners so they can buy food, bedding and clothing. It sends them books and magazines, and runs a volunteer pen-pal service. I look to the day when Hong Kong has an organization Like Prisoners Abroad.
On this day 92 years ago the Reverend Martin Luther King – that famous American prisoner of conscience – was born.
Dr. King spoke of those “weary souls with chains of fear and manacles of death,” words that describe so well our lost and abandoned brothers and sisters in the prisons of Mainland China.
“How long will justice be crucified,” Dr. King asked, “and truth bear it?”
That is the question I leave you with, brothers and sisters in Christ, on this Stewardship Sunday.