Hong Kong's young democracy fighters should rethink the wisdom of their strategy

Gary Cheung says the act of burning a copy of the Basic Law sends out confusing messages about their intent, and is neither wise nor effective

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 June, 2015, 1:35pm
UPDATED : Monday, 15 June, 2015, 1:35pm

The government's proposed reform for the 2017 chief executive election, which will be tabled at the Legislative Council on Wednesday, appears to be dead on arrival. Barring any miracle, the blueprint is bound to be voted down. So, what comes next?

Anti-mainland sentiment and the sense of alienation from the mainland are set to rise among some young people in Hong Kong. Signs are evident in the growth of groups championing so-called "localism", which took part in protests against mainland shoppers, parallel traders and the acceptance of a mainland-born boy who had been illegally living in Hong Kong.

What is more worrying is the burning of a copy of the Basic Law by representatives of four university student unions during the annual candlelight vigil at Victoria Park to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

The students said they were dissatisfied with certain clauses in the Basic Law, such as Article 23, which stipulates that Hong Kong shall enact laws to safeguard national security, and Article 158, which empowers the National People's Congress Standing Committee to interpret the mini-constitution.

They also want to amend some provisions, including Article 45, which permits a nominating committee to name the chief executive candidates who will stand for election on the introduction of universal suffrage.

It is understandable that the students intended to express their anger and frustration with Beijing's restrictive framework for Hong Kong's political reform. They opted for an eyebrow-raising gesture to register their discontent as they believe the milder approach taken by veteran pro-democracy activists over the years has failed to reap fruit.

But the move sent confusing messages: Do those student leaders repudiate "one country, two systems"? Does it mean they couldn't care less about forsaking the high degree of autonomy promised by the central government under the Basic Law? Does it mean they don't care about the fundamental rights guaranteed by law?

A more politically sensitive question is whether they accept that Hong Kong is part of China. These questions remain to be answered. I don't believe the students, who are unhappy with certain provisions of the Basic Law, which they see as impediments to achieving genuine autonomy, intend to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Article 159 provides a mechanism for amending the Basic Law. But what would be the basis for students advocating amending it after burning a copy of the law? Obviously, students did not give serious thought to the political implications of this symbolic act.

It is not the first time local activists have burned copies of the Basic Law or portions of it. In February 1990, Martin Lee Chu-ming, Szeto Wah and other leaders of the pro-democracy groups burned a section of the draft of the Basic Law at a rally to protest against the conservative post-handover political structure. The draft of the Basic Law was endorsed by the Standing Committee two months later.

It was a considered move by Lee and Szeto, who resigned from the Basic Law Drafting Committee after the mainland authorities' suppression of the 1989 pro-democracy protests, as they believed it was inappropriate to burn the whole draft, which contains clauses protecting the freedom of Hong Kong people.

In such a politically charged atmosphere today, realism and caution are needed in dealing with Beijing. The wisdom of veteran pro-democracy activists can serve as food for thought for young people fighting for democracy in the years ahead.

Gary Cheung is the Post's political editor