Hong Kong democracy stalwarts should stop calling on foreigners to intervene in local affairs
Tian Feilong says Hongkongers ought to rethink the direction of their fight for democracy, and focus efforts now on developing a national vision and identity based on the Basic Law
Recently, four people associated with the Hong Kong democracy movement testified at a US government hearing on Hong Kong, at the invitation of the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China. They are: Martin Lee Chu-ming, the founding chairman of the Democratic Party; Chris Patten, the last governor of British Hong Kong; Joshua Wong Chi-fung, an icon of the city’s young localists; and Lam Wing-kee, a bookseller better known as a target of the mainland government’s cross-border law enforcement effort.
In their statements, the four generally agreed that Beijing has damaged Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” framework; that democratisation has come to a standstill in the city; and that the US government should intervene. The results of the hearing will help the US Congress revise its US-Hong Kong Policy Act and consider proposed legislation on human rights and democracy in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong pan-democrats have two salient traits: they reject legitimate state intervention on the one hand, and yearn for illegal foreign intervention on the other. At the same time, Lee is trying to remake young Joshua in his own image, in the hope that the activist can inherit his leadership mantle to further the cause of democracy in Hong Kong. This is unlikely.
The Basic Law and “one country, two systems” have been implemented here for two decades with considerable stability. As China continues to develop and cross-border integration continues apace, the Martin Lee style of democratisation cannot be sustained, particularly with other countries becoming less inclined to intervene.
On top of some skewed views, there are complex historical reasons why many Hong Kong democrats today suffer from the “international intervention dependence syndrome”. This has limited their thinking about democracy and hampered their efforts to promote it.
First, Hong Kong democrats have long had political reservations about Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty. In their minds, the reunification must be premised on the introduction of democracy in Hong Kong. Thus, they oppose any mainland intervention or integration with the nation, and demand that universal suffrage be introduced for both the chief executive and legislative elections, in line with international standards. The quashing of the Occupy Central protests in 2014 and the failure of political reform in 2015 were major setbacks.
Second, Hong Kong democrats harbour structural misunderstandings about law and order in Hong Kong, and are unclear about the constitutional nature of the Sino-British Joint Declaration. They exaggerate the constitutional status of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance, while playing down the Basic Law – which is a state law – and its supremacy. They also overly rely on Hong Kong’s common law traditions, foreign judges and local jurisprudence. Such thinking has come under pressure, as Britain today is no longer strong enough to intervene, while the National People’s Congress has become more proactive in interpreting the Basic Law.
Third, young localists have, at the Occupy sit-ins and Mong Kok riots respectively, broken the rules of lawful protest and non-violence – the bedrock of Hong Kong governance. Critical of the traditional democrats’ stance of pushing for democracy, they take a more radical approach based on Hong Kong independence and separatism. By actively advocating their ideas on the international stage, they have compelled traditional democrats to follow their lead.
Fourth, in a reversal of its initial, more lackadaisical “well water not interfering with river water” attitude towards Hong Kong, the central government has in recent years been much more proactive in fostering integration between both sides. The Belt and Road Initiative and plans for a Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Bay Area are strategies for economic integration that herald the start of a process to remould “two systems” in line with “one country”. This trend has made Hong Kong democrats question the validity of their own approach, and pushed them to call for more foreign intervention.
Hong Kong democrats’ aspirations for democracy and their first attempts to achieve this were proper and legal, in line with what were promised under the Basic Law. However, their reckless misunderstanding of the Basic Law, blind appeals for foreign governments to intervene, and tangled relations with independence advocates have not only gone against the intentions of the “one country, two systems” principle and the Basic Law, but also done critical damage to the cause of Hong Kong democracy. The more the central government intervenes, the fiercer the independence movement; and vice versa. This can only dash any hope for Hong Kong democracy.
Moreover, the US Congress has no prerogative to set laws for a foreign country or politically represent its people. Neither the US-Hong Kong Policy Act nor the proposed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act can be considered lawful under international law. Imagine if the Chinese legislature were to enact a “California Democracy and Self-determination Act” to champion self-determination for the people of California, how would Congress and Americans react? As the saying goes, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The US calls itself a defender of international law but seems increasingly ignorant of the law.
What is more, the longed-for US intervention into Hong Kong affairs is unlikely to happen. Some US congressmen may voice their concerns or issue statements which have no legal effect, but none of it would lead to any change in Sino-US ties. US President Donald Trump’s recent change of heart about a phone chat with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen should have clued in Hong Kong democrats to the realities of international politics.
In short, Hong Kong people should rethink the direction of their fight for democracy, and focus efforts on understanding anew the country and the world, so they can better understand themselves. For much of its recent history, Hong Kong has largely seen itself as either a colony with an international outlook, or a city fighting to preserve its identity and autonomy. It now needs to develop a national vision and identity based on the Basic Law and “one country, two systems”. Hong Kong people must understand and accept the imperative of national sovereignty, national security and national development interests embedded in the Basic Law. This provides the context for its democratic pathway. In this way, stalled political reform and democratisation can proceed.
Hong Kong democrats should consider how their push for democracy can benefit the nation, rather than seeing it as a way to oppose it. In this way, they can become a loyal opposition camp under the “one country, two systems” framework.
Otherwise, repeated outbreaks of their “international intervention dependence syndrome” will only set them further apart from the rest of the country and do no one any good.
Tian Feilong is an associate professor at Beihang University’s Law School in Beijing, and a director of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies