What it takes to hand over a nation

Stephen Lam negotiated how Hong Kong would return to Chinese rule

Stephen Lam directed the Handover Ceremony when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule from the British in 1997. A landmark negotiation on the world stage, the handover was shaped by the private beliefs of Lam, who is in Australia to share leadership insights.

“The Handover Ceremony was a very difficult job,” says Lam, with some understatement. The former deputy head of the Hong Kong government retired from politics in 2012.

With about a year to go, British and Chinese governments still could not agree on the venue for the ceremony. Lam remembers the “tremendous pressure” of trying to negotiate tensions between East and West before the “absolute deadline” of 30 June/1 July, 1997. The British government wanted an “open door ceremony” like an outside military parade. The Chinese government was more used to indoor celebrations, as in the National People’s Congress in Beijing.

“My Christian faith and biblical teachings helped me go past all these difficult hurdles.”- Stephen Lam

Lam has been a been a Christian since 1976 and he credits his faith with being the “central part of my life.” So he prayed for wisdom about the high-stakes handover – and a solution came to mind. Lam suggested what eventually came to pass, a ceremony of two parts that involved a farewell to British rule and joint, indoor handover.

“The lesson I take away from this is what we learn from the letter of James: ‘To him who lacks wisdom, he should approach the Lord, who gives generously to all,’” says Lam, quoting James 1:5. “I have had quite a few such experiences and my Christian faith and biblical teachings helped me go past all these difficult hurdles.”

Lam is speaking this month in Australia at workplace events organised by City Bible Forum, a non-denominational Christian network that encourages discussion about life and beliefs. Lam is headlining its “Crossing the Cultural Divide” event in Sydney on October 18.

For the past five years, Lam has been a speaker with Ravi Zacharias Ministries, as well as an itinerant preacher, and has worked with para-church organisations. But his background in the corridors of power (he was a government minister for 10 years) equips him to speak about political engagement as a Christian.

He is inspired by leaders and kings in the Old Testament.

Along with seeking God’s wisdom, Lam also endorses prayer and respect for government authority. After a pastor inspired him to form a prayer group in 2004 with parliamentary colleagues, Lam found it “strengthened my faith and taught me how individually and collectively we should bring before the Lord all the problems that we have to face.”

Put simply, Lam believes prayer is “invaluable” for Christians in public office or in public sector leadership. He is inspired by leaders and kings in the Old Testament who were faithful to God, and is convinced prayerful leadership can provide benefit to the country and its people.

Lam acknowledges an ongoing tension for leaders in Hong Kong is to maintain the island as a “free and open society” while also respecting its “position under Chinese sovereignty.” This tension brings out Lam’s other key approach to Christian leadership – trusting that God is in control, even of international governments. Such a faith in God’s authority comes from the Bible (Romans 13:1-2; 1 Peter 2:13; Daniel 2:21) but can be hard for some to reconcile with real-world situations.

“We must remember that the Christian faith has thrived in all sorts of situations.”- Stephen Lam

Recently, the Vatican announced closer ties with the Chinese government for appointing Catholic bishops in China. In light of such a significant development, how would Lam suggest Christians around the world relate to China?

“I think first and foremost, Christian believers – wherever we are, in an Asian city like Hong Kong or a Western democratic country – we must remember that the Christian faith has thrived in all sorts of situations,” says Lam, who was educated by Irish Jesuits.

“The Christian faith started in Roman times, in Palestine, and very often it has faced persecution and unfavourable circumstances. But the Christian faith, by the blessings of the Lord, continues to thrive despite these difficulties.

“Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in free and open societies, we should treasure what we have. At the same time, have confidence in the faith that Christians believe will continue to grow.”

“Authority is bestowed by the Lord, the God we believe in, on individual leaders and regimes.” – Stephen Lam

One strand of Christianity believes capitalism or Western democracy is an in-built part of it, and Christians should not engage with forms of government not supporting those things. Lam doesn’t support this view and turns attention upward, not across political lines.

“In whatever communities or jurisdictions, authority is bestowed by the Lord, the God we believe in, on individual leaders and regimes,” says Lam.

“It is for the Lord to decide how human history should evolve. He will have his plans for different regions and countries, but I would say that while we can share our beliefs and thoughts with a different country, we should respect that each country should have its own right and authority of self-determination.”

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