By Mark Michael
The Rev. Canon Peter Koon Ho-Ming, a senior leader of Hong Kong’s Anglican Church, has resigned his church position after being chosen as a member of Hong Kong’s legislature in a controversial “patriots only” election in late December.
He told reporters at the swearing in ceremony for the new legislature on January 3 that he would resign from his church leadership responsibilities “to better fulfill his role” in the legislature. Koon, who was sworn to his new post wearing clerical dress, remains a priest in good standing.
Koon, 55, is the third religious leader to serve on Hong Kong’s 90-member Legislative Council. Active on the fringes of Chinese Communist Party politics for the last several years, he also played a significant role in the criminal case that touched off a series of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019. The legislature in which he will serve is seen by many as part of Beijing’s efforts to sideline the popular movement.
The scion of a once-prominent Shanghai banking family, Koon has served since 2007 as secretary-general of the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui, a three-diocese province uniting Anglicans in Hong Kong and Macau. He was elevated to the post just two years after his ordination, following a career in commercial real estate with a Shanghai-based firm.
As provincial secretary, Koon has been overseeing the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui’s extensive work in education and social welfare provision, including chairing the governing council of its retirement home and directly supervising several of its prestigious schools. He was the publisher of The Echo, the official provincial newsletter, and appears to be remaining on the staff of St. John’s Cathedral, a Victorian-era monument in Hong Kong’s historic core, which mentions his legislative role on its website.
Friends say that Koon consistently describes himself as “not a politician, always a priest,” and political involvement is a recent career development. In 2014 he became an advisor to the Our Hong Kong Foundation, a public policy think tank established by Hong Kong’s former chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa. Chee-hwa, the first to serve in the role after the transfer of sovereignty from Britain in 1997, was known for his pro-Beijing tendencies, and became vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) upon his abrupt resignation in 2005.
The CPPCC, a Beijing-based body with more than 6,000 members, advises the Chinese Communist Party on policy priorities. It includes senior leaders from the country’s eight legally permitted parties as well as prominent business, academic, military, and civil society leaders. Koon has himself served on the CPPCC since 2018, as a member of its Beijing Municipal Committee, “striving to promote communication and mutual understanding between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland,” according to his biography on the Our Hong Kong Foundation website.
In a 2017 interview with South China Morning Post, Koon bristled at the suggestion that he views the Chinese Communist Party through rose-colored glasses, noting that his uncles were among the millions of Chinese elites who were purged during China’s 1960’s Cultural Revolution. His cooperative stance instead, he implied, is rooted in his faith. “As a religious leader, we don’t want to see turmoil in our country,” he said. “We ought to do our utmost in negotiating with authorities to achieve fairness, justice and harmony.”
Koon played a high-profile role in the crisis provoked by the flight from Taiwan of Hong Kong native Tony Chan Tong-kai, who admitted to killing his pregnant girlfriend Amber Poon Hiu-wing while on vacation in Taipei in February 2018.
Chan fled back to Hong Kong the day after the murder, and admitted to it when questioned by Hong Kong police a few days late. He could not, however, be charged with the crime in Hong Kong or extradited back to Taiwan, because of the lack of an extradition treaty between the two governments.
Koon began visiting Chan while he was in police custody, eventually preparing him for baptism. He served as Chan’s spokesman for a time, and after Chan expressed his willingness to surrender himself to Taiwanese authorities, Koon helped him secure a visa and a purchased a flight to Taipei for him. Tension between Hong Kong and Taiwan ultimately made the plan impossible, but Chan did publicly apologize for his deeds in October 2019, asking for forgiveness from Poon’s parents.
In the meantime, the Hong Kong government used the Chan case as the pretext for a February 2019 bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be extradited for trial both to Taiwan and to mainland China. Protests against the bill began in June 2019, and escalated quickly, with of tens thousands of mostly young Hong Kong residents closing down the city center at points, and clashing at times with police and counter-protesters.
The protests plunged the city into a recession and led to deep social divisions over the role of the police and the city’s relationship with the mainland Chinese government. The November 2019 Hong Kong District Council election, the first to be held since the protests began, resulted in record-high turnout of 71.2% of voters, and was a landslide for pro-democracy forces, who saw their share in seats on the council increase from 30% to 80%.
The Beijing government’s response came in June 2020, when the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed a national security law for Hong Kong. The law establishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign organizations, and criminalizes the promotion of Hong Kong’s secession from China. It gives expanded powers to the police and establishes an office outside Hong Kong jurisdiction to administer and enforce the law.
In May 2021, the National People’s Congress also began an overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system, aiming to ensure, in the words of Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, that “patriots governing Hong Kong” would become the new “legal norm.”
The new laws expanded the size of Hong Kong’s Election Committee (which chooses the chief executive) as well as its Legislative Council, with more seats directly appointed by the Beijing government and party-controlled entities. Prior to the reforms, half of the Legislative Council’s 70 seats were directly elected; in the new 90-seat body, only 22% are, while twice as many are chosen directly by the Election Committee. The reforms also require that all candidates be vetted by the Committee for Safeguarding National Security, a body established by the national security law.
Koon’s foray into Hong Kong politics comes in the midst of this major shift. He was first chosen as part of the Election Committee in April 2021, and then ran for one of the forty seats elected by the members of the Elections Committee in December. The December Legislative Council elections had historically low turnout, with only 30.2% of eligible voters participating. Only one of the 20 popularly elected seats will belong to a member not from the pro-Beijing bloc.
It’s certainly unusual for a priest to serve as an elected official in China. China’s Communist Party remains officially atheist, and the party’s constitution bans its members from belonging to religious organizations. Since 1979, however, the state has officially protected religious freedom, though many have expressed concern about sporadic government crackdowns on unauthorized religious groups and proselytism. In late December, for example, the government announced a ban on the dissemination of religious information on the Internet by unauthorized groups.
At the same time, two of the elected bodies charged with advising the party to which Koon belongs, the CCPPCC and Hong Kong’s Election Committee, set aside a certain number of seats for religious leaders (65 of 6512 members of the CCPPC and 40 seats of 1500 on the Election Committee). The Hong Kong Christian Council, of which the HKSKH is a prominent member, is one of six bodies that has long been charged with selecting members for the Election Committee to represent the region’s religious groups.