Independent Hong Kong a dangerous flutter

Independence for Hong Kong seems a harmless, fanciful whimsy. But it may pose real threats to developing a productive HK-China relationship.

Photo credit: VOA


 

The eruption of a row on Monday over an alleged Hong Kong government ban for an artist to publish the full name of her Taiwan alma mater that contains the word “national” (國立) could not be more timely.

Coming in the midst of a heated debate about Hong Kong independence fuelled by an article in a HKU student publication, it has laid bare the enormity of the political sensitivity of issues that hinge upon mainland-Hong Kong relations.

If even a mere statement of the fact of an artist’s education background has prompted apparent self-censorship by a government official, it is unbelievable that Beijing will tolerate calls for Hong Kong independence.

 

Pure nonsense

The alleged censorship came to light on Monday after a local drama group The Nonsensemakers said on their Facebook page that Leisure and Cultural Services Department staff had asked an artist, Law Suk-yin (羅淑燕) to remove her alma mater, Taipei National University of the Arts, from a programme pamphlet. After failing to negotiate with the department, the group dropped the name of the university from Lo’s biography but carried a picture of her with a certificate that shows the name.

Both the department and Secretary for Home Affairs Lau Kong-wah, whose portfolio includes arts and culture, did not categorically deny having exerted pressure for a change of the pamphlet. Lau sidestepped the issue, saying they would enhance communication with arts groups in the future.

It remains unclear whether there is a government policy, or any unspoken rules, banning the use of such terms as “national” when mentioning the names of institutions in Hong Kong and Taiwan in official documents and publicity.

 

Us and them, we are them

It is abundantly clear, however, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is highly vigilant to the sensitivity of the complexities of the “one country, two systems” policy. For example, he has taken issue with the use of the term “China-Hong Kong relations”, saying it is incorrect as Hong Kong is part of China. Cross-border ties, he said, should be described as “mainland-Hong Kong” relations.

There is more substance, not just semantics, on the policy front. Since taking power, he has fostered closer ties between the mainland and Hong Kong. Cases are aplenty.

Last week, the Government announced a scheme that allows sub-degree holders in Hong Kong to take top-up undergraduate courses in a university in coastal Fujian province. Schools have been given more money to take students to the mainland for exchanges. Despite a curb on the visits of Shenzhen residents to the city last year, the number of mainland visitors has leapt in the past few years.

On the economic front, the Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect has kicked off, to be followed by another one that connects the city with the Shenzhen bourse this year. Hong Kong people have been persistently told not to miss the “China opportunity” in rising China.

Against the backdrop of increased ties across the border, the flourishing of the ideas of localism in the past few years and, more recently, calls for independence after 2047 is intriguing.

 

Sovereign by 2047

In its March issue, the University of Hong Kong student magazine Undergrad said Hong Kong should become a sovereign state recognised by the United Nations in 2047. The controversial idea was floated in an article entitled “Our 2047” in the edition headed “Declaration of Hong Kong Youth.” They also demand the setting up of a democratic government after 2047 and the drawing up of the city’s constitution by all people.

The call drew an immediate rebuttal from top officials, leading pro-Beijing figures, tycoons and people from different walks of life. It was rubbished as “unrealistic”, “crazy,” “impossible” and the like. Pan-democratic political parties have refrained from echoing the call. The Democratic Party is more explicit, saying they opposed the idea. Some pro-establishment media described the idea as a political time bomb. They called on the authorities to take early moves to curb the spread of the pro-independence thinking among the youth to avoid a confrontation with the central government.

Beijing has reacted to the article calmly, which is in line with the moderate remarks by central government officials during and after the closing of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference plenums.

This moderation should not be interpreted as a change of Beijing’s harden line stance regarding Hong Kong. It seems to be a tactical move aimed to cool down the political atmosphere for Beijing to take a deeper look at the causes of the Mong Kok unrest and the rise of localism and pro-independence thinking in the society, particularly among students.

In view of the array of geopolitical, economic and social factors, the possibility of Hong Kong becoming an independent sovereign state is zero even in the distant future. There are no signs of the rise of any political forces capable of mobilising a sizeable fleet of followers in mounting an independence movement.

That does not mean, however, Beijing and the city’s power-that-be have or should take the clamour for independence and self-determination of the city’s future, after 2047, lightly.

The feeling of resistance and reluctance against closer ties with the mainland prevalent in the society has fuelled the growth of pro-independence sentiments. Worse, it has impeded the development of a healthy, normal and mutually-beneficial mainland-Hong Kong relationship as enshrined in the “one country, two systems” policy.

Unlike other countries that are troubled by separatist movements, Hong Kong does not suffer from serious ethnic and racial strife and deep-rooted political conflicts. The prevailing pro-independence sentiments stem largely from failures in managing conflicts in mainland-Hong Kong relations on specific issues such as mainland tourism, the case of the missing booksellers and universal suffrage, all aggravated by general grievances over deficiencies in governance and leadership.

Compared to other places, the problem of a rise of pro-independence sentiments in Hong Kong is arguably easier to be resolved.

 

Northern paranoia

The danger is that the Hong Kong issue is needlessly entwined with the domestic and external threats the Communist Party leadership believes they are facing. Obsessed with the conspiracy theory, Beijing may view the advocates for independence as political enemies they must eliminate at all costs. A tougher hand against pro-independence thinking will be greeted by stronger resistance in action, hearts and minds, worsening a vicious cycle of political extremism.

Chris Yeung

Chris Yeung

Chris Yeung is a respected senior veteran journalist and editor in Hong Kong.His storied career includes having served as the Editor-at-Large at the South China Morning Post and more recently as the Deputy Chief Editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

He writes on Greater China issues.

Chris Yeung

Latest posts by Chris Yeung (see all)