How not to handle calls for Hong Kong independence
Mike Rowse says directing city’s youth not to agitate for political reform and trying to sideline Legislative Council election candidates opposing central rule is backfiring on Beijing
Looking back over the last year and a half or so, it seems incredible that the idea of Hong Kong independence has gone from being a silly jape floated by a handful of students to a powerful political force capturing the imagination of a significant proportion of our youth.
And I think most of the credit for this must be shared by our chief executive Leung Chun-ying and the head of the central government’s liaison office, Zhang Xiaoming ( 張曉明 ). Others may have tried to share the glory: Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngor, Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung and – most recently and most improbably – head of the Electoral Affairs Commission Mr Justice Barnabas Fung Wah all spring to mind. But I think we must be fair, dismiss them as minor actors and let the main recognition fall to our dynamic duo.
Rising support for independence a wake-up call to enhance confidence in the ‘one country, two systems’ principle
Let us go back to the beginning. Hong Kong has been part of China since historic times. In every way imaginable – ethnically, culturally, historically, geographically – this fact is indisputable. Most independent observers saw the return by Britain of Hong Kong to China in 1997 as an entirely reasonable act. The Joint Declaration between the sovereign governments concerned, and the Basic Law which flowed from it, left no one in any doubt about our city’s status as a special administrative region of China.
The first prominent mention of the idea of independence for Hong Kong came in early 2015 when the chief executive used the platform of his annual policy address to lambast an obscure magazine called Undergrad, published by the University of Hong Kong student union. He also referred to a book called Hong Kong Nationalism, which had been published two years previously, in 2013, without attracting any public attention whatsoever. And the issue of the magazine that provoked the high-profile criticism was published in February 2014, again without generating much discernible interest. Left alone, then, the concept was clearly dead on arrival. If a poll had been taken in January 2015, it most likely would have found that well over 99.9 per cent of the population had never heard of or considered the possibility of independence for Hong Kong. Yet here it was, suddenly front-page news.
In the months that followed, the idea seemed on the verge of dying out several times but on each occasion, it was revived by another high-profile speaker coming out to attack it. The most prominent of these was Zhang Dejiang (張德江), the third-ranked member of the Politburo and the most senior state leader dealing with Hong Kong affairs, when he visited in May. But at least his reference to the subject was milder than some of the earlier responses.
There matters might have rested but for two recent interventions. One was the creation by Mr Justice Fung’s commission of a new form that he invited candidates in the upcoming election to the Legislative Council elections to sign. Candidates are already required to complete a form expressing support for the Basic Law and loyalty to Hong Kong. The new form singled out some of the clauses in the Basic Law, in particular those specifying Chinese sovereignty, and sought to require specific acceptance of them. Some potential candidates naturally expressed objections: the Basic Law is either valid as a whole or it is not valid at all. They sought a judicial review of the new procedure. Interestingly, our independent judiciary thought so little of the new form that they declined to grant an urgent hearing of the case on the grounds that “completion of it was not a requirement”.
Meanwhile, Mr Zhang Xiaoming, not wishing to be left out of the circus, said in a high-profile statement that none of the pro-independence candidates should be elected. Which should just about ensure that at least two of them are returned with thumping majorities.
The latest poll suggests that up to 40 per cent of our young people are sympathetic to the idea of independence. The situation is getting out of hand. My advice to Beijing? Forget this iron-fist stuff, it’s not working; on the contrary, it’s achieving the opposite effect. Every Hong Kong parent knows what to do. Just send an official used to dealing with stroppy teenagers.
Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. firstname.lastname@example.org