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Hong Kong localism and independence

Calls for independence only weaken Hong Kong’s unique identity

Chi Wang says independence activists’ tactics will result in division while angering Beijing. Instead, they should focus on maintaining the distinct character that survived British and Japanese rule

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 September, 2017, 12:34pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 September, 2017, 7:16pm

Reading through the newspaper last week, I came across a photo of the Chinese University of Hong Kong library. In front of the library was a large banner calling for Hong Kong independence. I paused immediately, saddened. While I do not question students’ right to free speech, seeing the banner there was like a punch to the gut. It did not fit with my memories of Hong Kong, which I consider a second home, or memories of the university where I used to work.

Dissatisfaction with China’s government is understandable, but angrily calling for independence is not an actual solution. Hong Kong does not have the same legal structure that allowed Scotland, for example, to vote on independence. The most this movement can do is to grab media attention, anger Beijing and incite division.

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I moved to Hong Kong in 1939, while it was still a British colony. Only a boy, I didn’t understand what a colony was, not truly realising I was no longer in China. All I knew was that I was awed by the city around me. I was also in Hong Kong when the Japanese occupied the city during the second world war, and again after the war ended. Seeing the city I loved handle the changes was inspiring. It didn’t matter who ran their city; the people of Hong Kong remained Hongkongers.

After moving to the US, Hong Kong was still in my thoughts. In the early 1970s, I moved back to help CUHK build up their new Sha Tin campus and university library, the same library that would later become the location for Hong Kong independence banners. CUHK was a place of knowledge and education, and continued its academic focus and mission after Hong Kong was returned to China.

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I witnessed the transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997. The people were hopeful, feeling a sense of brotherhood with mainland China. While there were some concerns about the city’s governance, the people maintained their resilience and identity, not letting the ruling administration define them. Instead of allowing their city to be changed, Hong Kong serves as a role model for the rest of China.

I am not suggesting that the people of Hong Kong blindly accept the decisions from Beijing. Hong Kong has maintained its unique identity even while the world around them changed. Calling for independence, however, does not fit this theme. It suggests Hong Kong is not its own self if it remains part of China. Instead of hanging signs and chanting empty slogans, the youth of Hong Kong should be learning from their city’s past. They should find ways to keep their city and identity strong and unique, regardless of what flag flies from their government buildings.

Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress and former university librarian at CUHK, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation