Hong Kong's vanishing mojo
Regina Ip traces the reasons for some Hong Kong people's longing for 'idyllic' colonial times, which have little to do with separatist sentiments but much to do with lost confidence
The 18th Communist Party congress this month had observers around the world parsing the make-up of the Politburo and the speeches of the Chinese leaders for clues to any change in direction for this powerful nation.
In the case of Hong Kong, Beijing's policy on the special administrative region's governance is normally expressed in dull, formulaic statements reiterating that "the central government supports governing Hong Kong in accordance with the Basic Law". Thus, any departure from this standard line, or omission of the pivotal reference to the Basic Law, cannot but trigger speculation that there may be a change in policy.
And this is precisely what happened at the opening of the congress. In his work report, not only did outgoing party chairman Hu Jintao stress "insistence on the 'one country' principle", while respecting the differences between the two systems, the written version of his report also spelled out the importance of "safeguarding the central authority and the high degree of autonomy of the special administrative regions" and "preventing and keeping in check interference in the affairs of Hong Kong and Macau by external forces". The latter two statements were, however, omitted when Hu read out his report.
Was the latest variation in the formulation of the policy on Hong Kong a shot across the bows to warn off the "Hong Kong separatists" who unfurled the colonial Hong Kong flag in recent protest marches, and who yelled "Chinese, go back to China"? Or was it a harbinger of the resurrection of the much dreaded "evil law", namely, the aborted 2003 bill to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law to protect national security, as some local critics suggested? If Article 23 were indeed on the minds of the Chinese leaders as a cure for Hong Kong separatist sentiments, nothing would be more misguided and futile.
The national security bill that the authorities tried to muscle through the legislature in 2003, commonly referred to by the Western media as an "anti-sedition law", was intended to prohibit offences which threaten national security. In fact , seven such offences are listed in Article 23, of which sedition is only one.
The last time the sedition charge was used against those accused of inciting discontent was in 1967, in connection with the Cultural Revolution-inspired riots in Hong Kong. Several pro-China newspapers were charged with arousing the discontent of police officers and violating the Control of Publication Consolidation Ordinance. Sedition or other national security charges are not known to have been laid against any person since then.
Today, the development of the law on sedition in many common law jurisdictions is such that a charge can only be laid if a person is engaged in overt conduct directed at inciting violence against the authorities. Given the tight remit of this and other national security offences in other common law jurisdictions, it is unlikely that any future national security legislation would be of any use in prohibiting anti-China slogans or flags - acts that do not involve incitement of violence.
In the past 15 years, hundreds of million of dollars have been expended on programmes, both in and outside the classroom, to cultivate greater understanding and hopefully greater love of the motherland among Hong Kong youth.
The efforts appear to have backfired, provoking greater antipathy and nostalgia for the colonial era instead.
But despite the "sporadic expression of nostalgic feelings for colonial rule or even slogans like 'we are not Chinese'", it would be "an exaggeration to suggest that there is a rising pro-independence movement in Hong Kong". So said a pro-democracy scholar, Professor Ray Yep Kin-man. Hong Kong people know too well they are part of China, historically, geographically, culturally and constitutionally. Whether during or after the colonial era, Hong Kong has depended on China for its water and daily beef, among other necessities.
Hong Kong people are too pragmatic to be serious about pursuing "independence". But try asking them a question similar to that asked by former US president Ronald Reagan at the conclusion of the presidential debate between him and Jimmy Carter in 1980: "Ask yourself, are you better off now than you were 15 years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was 15 years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the city than there was 15 years ago?" No doubt many would give the same answer as the American public did - "No, we don't feel better off now."
Not only do we not feel better off in material terms, there is also a feeling that Hong Kong is less respected within the nation and in the region. Hong Kong's pre-eminence, except in the area of finance, has been overshadowed by the rise of scores of gleaming cities on China's coast. There is much less to be proud of, or look forward to, and less cause for respect. This feeling is strongest among our young people. Hence the nostalgia for the seemingly idyllic colonial past.
There is no way the authorities can instil greater identification with the nation unless they can fix this sense of faded glory and give our people a new sense of purpose, hope and confidence in ourselves.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party