To Zhang Dejiang on Independence: Love HK forever, don’t chain us to the past

Arguing “history” to fight independence is doomed to fail. Hong Kongers have to feel loved and have hope for the future.


Zhang Dejiang – welcome to Hong Kong!

We’re happy you’re here – can’t you tell from all the attention we’re paying you? From glue on our paving stones to the finest in watery barricades, we’re putting on our best. Even our provocative pan-dems are happy to see you and have a chance to talk.

We just wish you would come by more often. As the point man for the Politburo on Hong Kong (and Macao – but we’re not jealous like that), we would love to have you come by a little more often. To be honest, we can feel a little neglected. Sure, with nine people to run a nation of 1.4 billion, our 7 million souls can be quite demanding, but free speech means we are the loudest baby bird in the nest.

And some have been using that free speech to advocate independence. When we do get attention, it’s from your proxies – editors of state-approved media, professor ‘experts’ and, most importantly, appointees from the Liaison Office to the Chief Executive and down the chain of command. If we could feel your love coming through those channels, maybe we wouldn’t be so desperate for it when you visit.

Love honour and cherish forever

But Hongkongers haven’t been feeling the love. They haven’t felt a commitment to a shared future as partners. The debate regarding independence has brought this into sharp relief, indicating why things are going so wrong.

For the people of Hong Kong who choose to stay – and many of our best are leaving – they want to see a commitment to a shared future. Past efforts have been focused on the pocket book. China showed its consideration when Hong Kong was in the depths of economic despair post-SARS by allowing more tourists to come. “Stock connect” programmes that benefit our already well-heeled finance community and CEPA that slowly helps business over time are fine, but do not go to the heart of the dissociation people feel from China.

The promise of money, success under mainland bosses, and a better material lifestyle will not quell demands for autonomy or independence.

The worst argument for staying together: History

At a recent speech at the FCC, Regina Ip was asked why Hong Kong should stay in China. Her one word answer: History. Of course she went on to elaborate, but that mindset is used by many older people who see the future with their eyes firmly on the past.

“Because it has always been part of China!” is a terrible, terrible argument. Beyond terrible. Worse, it is a reason to push hard for separation, according to separatists. To them, it is a history of warfare, corruption and oppression of human rights – with no reasonable expectation of that changing in the 21st Century. Citing marvellous inventions from thousands of years ago means nothing to someone looking to a future where they can express their identity and have a shot at their dreams. China’s economic ascendancy of recent years is frightening to those who see themselves as the servants of those profiting by it.

Young Hongkongers will form the future leadership – or emigres – of Hong Kong. To stay in a Hong Kong happily in China, they don’t need dry history and its corollary prediction of a scary future. They don’t need money. They don’t need to be scolded by Beijing ‘experts’.

To bring Hong Kongers back into the China fold they need two things.

Love.

And respect.

Win our hearts

In Canada’s second largest province at the heart of the country, Quebec, the separatist movement was a mighty force for decades. Three referendums on autonomy and independence related questions sometimes even came close to passing. What stopped them and what finally rendered separatism an impotent force was love and respect from the rest of the country.

Yes, there was some tough love, like a demand that referendums had to stop faffing about with vague autonomy questions and as a straight “In or Out?” question, leaving those wanting the best of all fantasy worlds to realise it wasn’t going to happen.

It works

But what really worked was an outpouring of “Please stay” from the rest of the country who spent their own time and money (mostly) to come to Quebec to let people there know that they were loved, wanted and even needed as part of the Canadian identity. Canada wouldn’t be Canada without Quebec. The sentiment wasn’t universal, but it was that of the majority and widespread. As Quebecers became better educated and traveled more widely, they discovered a new generation of young Canadians who loved and respected them and wanted to be friends – and partners.

Canada showed respect by institutionalising national bilingualism. This was more controversial and the finer points were negotiated for decades and relaxed as Quebec became more relaxed in Canada. And Quebec was shown respect for its priorities through devolution of powers, such as granting control over immigration. Over time, independence became a dead letter in the province. The main party advocating independence still exists, but only as a slightly more socialist alternative to the other main party political party when it is ‘time to throw the bums out.’

None of these specific policy solutions apply in Hong Kong – except, perhaps, control over immigration – but the winning formula to killing an independence movement is by showing love, through display, and respect via real change. Love and respect will keep Scotland in the United Kingdom and it is what keeps Belgians and Swiss together.

One must resist the temptation to revert to money as love, a common stereotype of how Chinese parents show their love to children (not without some merit). While older Hong Kongers may appreciate the analogy, younger Hong Kongers emphatically do not see themselves as subservient children, but rather adults with their own identity, aims and ambitions. When the money runs out due to a downturn in the economy (in China or Hong Kong), it will be the love that keeps us together. Real change cemented in legislation and maintained through rule of law will be the respect that endures the occasional crisis in faith.

Mr Zhang, love us and we’ll love you back

Mr Zhang, when your proxies berate us for bad behaviour or ingratitude, they remind us that our concerns are not respected. When your comrades violate our rule of law and dominate our institutions, we do not feel the love. When they cry ‘history!’, young Hongkongers can see no future for their city in China.

When Wen Jiabao visited a family bereft of a mother by SARS, in Amoy Gardens, Hongkong felt the love. The best way to show respect is to trust us with independence of our institutions and a genuine choice of Chief Executive.

Then the independence movement will have no hope. But no hope for a future full of love and respect is what drives the movement now.

Mr Zhang, welcome to Hong Kong. Love and respect will see us through together.

Andrew Work

Andrew Work

Andrew Work is the CEO of New Work Media, publisher of Harbour Times.
He has run The Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, founded The Lion Rock Institute and has over 25 years engagement in media, politics, policy and community engagement.
Andrew Work