Why talk of an independent Hong Kong fails the test of reality
Regina Ip says Hong Kong’s history shows clearly that it never had the kind of autonomy advocates of independence seek, and while the students can be naive, the adults should really know better
The idea of Hong Kong independence was first mooted on a website, Hong Konger Front, in 2004. It advocated building an independent Hong Kong “nation” by referendum. As the relationship between mainland China and Hong Kong was stable at that time, the website drew little public attention.
In 2011, the relationship began to deteriorate, following the influx of mainland women coming here to give birth and the spike in parallel trade in powdered milk and other daily necessities. The resultant disruption and tension spawned a slew of radical localist groups, which staged anti-mainland protests under the banner of protecting local interests. Some even challenged China’s sovereignty by unfurling the British colonial flag and demonstrating outside the People’s Liberation Army’s barracks in Central.
The Hong Kong independence movement gained traction in the wake of the debate on universal suffrage for the chief executive election. In 2014, the University of Hong Kong student union published a series of articles urging self-determination by the “Hong Kong race”. In recent months, advocates of independence have stepped up their ideological push by publishing further statements.
In March, the HKU student union published a “youth declaration” urging the establishment of Hong Kong as a democratic, independent state recognised by the UN, and the drawing up of a new constitution by referendum. At roughly the same time, the Civic Party released a statement urging “localism, self-determination and diversity”. A month later, a group of self-proclaimed “middle-aged and young representatives” of the democratic camp published a statement supporting “internal self-determination” and negotiation with Beijing on Hong Kong’s political status. The question of Hong Kong’s future, self-determination and even independence are likely to be issues in September’s Legislative Council election.
Irrespective of whether the term “autonomy”, “self-determination” or “independence” is used, the thrust of the arguments is the same. The objective is to shake free the shackles of the Basic Law to redefine who qualifies as Hong Kong permanent residents, who has the authority to control the movement of Chinese people into Hong Kong, and to seek a new political status that will enable Hong Kong to “determine its own destiny”. All of this shows clear signs of influence of political thinkers who advocate defining nationhood on the basis of the common cultural and social identity of the people.
The students show great dissatisfaction with the status quo, and many of their complaints against the social and economic inequities are understandable and justified. They are naturally the boldest in urging negotiation with Beijing to achieve a freer, more independent status. Yet, their vision fails miserably against the test of reality.
The reality is that Hong Kong had never been “autonomous” or “free” before the Chinese takeover, as imagined by independence advocates. Hong Kong people’s status and right of abode were defined by British nationality legislation. It was the British authorities which decided, by an act of Parliament in 1981 and an Order in Council in 1986, to take away from British nationals in Hong Kong the right of abode in the UK, and confer on them the residual status of British National (Overseas).
It was also the British Hong Kong government which initiated discussions with the Chinese authorities to control immigration by way of daily quotas, and sought an increase of the quota from 75 a day to 150 in stages, to facilitate family reunions.
All those who have been involved in immigration control would know that, given the vast asymmetry in size, the Hong Kong authorities would not have been able to control the border without Chinese cooperation.
Older Hong Kong permanent residents would know that the British succeeded admirably in governing Hong Kong according to Confucian values. The emphasis on human rights, freedom, democracy, equal opportunity, privacy and access to information were latter-day additions to Hong Kong’s gamut of “core values” in the last 10 years of British rule.
As for the argument that Hong Kong’s culture is defined by the centrality of Cantonese and traditional Chinese characters in everyday life, such an emphasis clearly goes against Hong Kong’s long-standing commitment to promoting a “biliterate and trilingual” policy, and the importance of a good command of English to sustaining Hong Kong’s position as a premier international financial and business hub.
The various elements of Hong Kong’s “high level of autonomy” enshrined in the Basic Law – our status as a separate customs territory, our ability to keep our own currency, shipping register and negotiate civil aviation rights, and so on – have been made possible only through the support of the two sovereign powers which controlled our destiny.
The reality is, like or not, China will always control our destiny. Our economic fortunes ebb and flow with those of China. Political separation is not just a matter for the 7.2 million Hongkongers, but also for the 1.4 billion mainland Chinese. Hong Kong could lose all its daily necessities, business and protection if it jumps ship. The students may be naive, but the grown-ups ought to wake up.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People’s Party