After Brexit, Hong Kong voters should take a careful look at what our own localist parties are really selling
Jason Ng says Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has sent shock waves around the world, but our city is mired in the same populist anger that fuelled the Leave campaign in the United Kingdom
Asia was the first to be hit by the Brexit global shock wave that put the world under a dark cloud of fright and disbelief.
The BBC declared victory for the Leave vote at roughly 11.45am Hong Kong time – hours before London opened – and sent regional stock markets into a tailspin. Shares of HSBC and Standard Chartered, both listed on the Hong Kong exchange, fell 6.5 per cent and 9.5 per cent respectively. People in this part of the world might not know much about the geopolitics involved (most can’t explain the difference between the United Kingdom, Great Britain and England), but they do know one thing: Brexit is bad for business.
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Still, the implications and lessons of the history-making referendum for Hongkongers extend far beyond the financial markets. For years, the city has been mired in the same populist anger that fuelled the Leave campaign in Britain.
A backlash against immigration, a yawning wealth gap and a growing unease towards economic and political integration with the mainland – the same stew of frustrations and fears that has spawned a resurgent nationalism in much of Europe – have given birth to the localist movement in Hong Kong.
The fallout of the Occupy protests in 2014 stoked that populist fury further. The post-movement emotional void has left the political field wide open for the likes of Wong Yeung-tat and Edward Leung Tin-kei – our own Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson – to preach their right-wing gospel, especially to the disenfranchised youth.
While Hongkongers can safely assume that they will never be given the right to hold a referendum to “exit” China, localist political parties continue to build a separatist platform on public anxieties and Sinophobia. That they have yet to come up with a single idea, let alone detailed plans, to secede from China has not stopped them from waving the colonial flag and touting an independent Hong Kong state.
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In the meantime, populist sentiments have found other ways to manifest themselves in civil society. Like their counterparts in Britain, localist parties in Hong Kong have made easy scapegoats of immigrants and visitors for every social ill. Cross-border traders and Putonghua-speaking shoppers continue to be heckled and harassed. Proposals to extend basic welfare to newcomers from the mainland are met with protests and verbal assaults. Racial slurs such as “locust” and zhinaren (a derogatory term for Chinese people coined by Japanese invaders more than a century ago) are used liberally on social media to refer to the stereotypical mainlander who squats, spits, litters, urinates and even defecates in public.
That brings us back to Friday’s referendum. The day after what felt like Armageddon, liberal media in Britain reported some voters on the Leave side expressing regret and confusion. Some complained that they had been misled by fearmongering politicians, while others claimed they did not know their vote would count. Google Trends recorded a significant spike in the number of people asking “What happens if we leave the EU?” – after the polls had closed, suggesting that many did not know why they voted to stay in or exit the world’s biggest single market.
While it may be too late for Britain, it is not for the rest of the world. Across the Atlantic, left-leaning pundits are urging Americans to learn a lesson from Brexit and not succumb to Donald Trump’s hate-filled “Put America First” campaign. At the same time, there is just as much for Hongkongers to learn from the fallout in Britain.
Voters in the upcoming Legislative Council election would be wise to take a closer look at what localist parties like Civic Passion and Hong Kong Indigenous are really selling.
Before they cast their votes in September, they would be well served to look beyond those catchy slogans and lofty promises and demand concrete answers on policies and issues. Above all, citizens should recognise that blaming mainlanders for social injustices and Beijing’s political intervention is not only irrational but also morally indefensible.
The economic ramifications of Brexit will not be felt for some time – the divorce settlement will take years to negotiate. Politically, it remains anyone’s guess whether and how soon the Leave vote will trigger an independence referendum in Scotland and Northern Ireland, or how much momentum right-wing parties in other member states can gather to leave the EU.
The social impact, on the other hand, is more immediate. If humble Hong Kong can offer Britain a lesson, it would be that far from settling a longstanding existential debate, Brexit has only torn, and will continue to tear, the very fabric of British society. Indeed, the rapid polarisation and radicalisation witnessed in post-Occupy Hong Kong were furiously under way in Britain as soon as the votes were tallied. Just as Occupy left us deeply divided into the yellow and blue ribbons, the young and the old, the fearless and the fearful, last week’s referendum has spawned increasingly nasty debate on social media, and in pubs and across dining tables up and down the country. Remain voters are now called sore losers and Leave supporters are branded as racist xenophobes.
These wounds will fester long before they scab over. They will take years to heal, if they ever do. Hong Kong is living proof of that.
Jason Ng is a lawyer, freelance writer and author of Umbrellas in Bloom. Follow him on Twitter @jasonyng