Renowned British political philosopher Isaiah Berlin noted in 1958, in the essay “Two Concepts of Liberty”, that “concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilisation”. History demonstrates that we underestimate the transformative power of seemingly wacky ideas – and the individuals who promulgate them – at our peril.
For instance, Adolf Hitler’s autobiographical Mein Kampf was routinely dismissed as far-out ravings when first published, in two volumes, in 1925 and 1927. Yet within a decade, its chillingly coherent message had brought Europe to the brink of destruction.
All it takes for evil to flourish – the old truism proclaims – is for the good to do nothing. And so it is with nonsense in academic life. Once superficially plausible drivel breaks the species barrier and crosses over from university seminar room to infect the general public, dangerous contagion begins. Interested parties – and Hong Kong has no shortage of those, right across the political spectrum – help feed the contamination, which begins its hard-to-stop advance into wider society.
And so it is with woolly minded “scholars” and their advocacy of Hong Kong independence. Dr Horace Chin Wan-kan – employed by that world-renowned centre for intellectual excellence, Lingnan University, in Tuen Mun – and his seminal work “On The Hong Kong City-State”, along with the exponential growth of “localism”, “nativism” and whatever else this work helped spawn, offers a prime home-grown example.
That something so patently impossible – on so many levels – as Hong Kong independence has prompted such unified criticism from across a spectrum of political opinion is unremarkable, however much it may be reported to the contrary.
While local identity politics have come to the fore in recent years, Hong Kong independence thinking has no serious historical precedent. Plans for constitutional reform in Hong Kong along the lines of those intended – and subsequently developed – for political independence in Singapore and the Federation of Malaya were abruptly halted in 1952. The reasons were clear. Behind the scenes, China’s leadership made it plain that they would tolerate the continued existence of British and Portuguese colonies on their southern coast for their own political and economic reasons.
What they were not prepared to countenance, however, was any manifestation of independent – or even seriously independent-minded – separate territories anywhere in China.
Over the following decades, everyone involved in Hong Kong’s preparations for return to Chinese rule implicitly recognised this unshakeable fact. Even the 1970s political and social activists who formed the Hong Kong Observers (which included, for a time, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying) did not advocate Hong Kong independence. A high degree of autonomy from China, as a firewall against aspects of Communist rule that many in their own families had decamped to Hong Kong to avoid, was the limit of their ambitions.
The root causes of Hong Kong independence thinking are easy enough to track. Exponentially accelerated “mainlandisation” in recent years has rendered the idea of “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong”, and all those other reassuring 1980s phrases, very hollow indeed. An entire generation has watched from the sidelines as their hometown has lost its way in the course of their short lifetimes.
Eventually, many concluded – rightly or wrongly – that as the local puppet administration is ultimately selected and appointed by Beijing (regardless of polite media flannel about “election races” and “candidates”) Hong Kong’s manifold contemporary ills were all the fault of China.
For these young activists, China had 19 years to win Hong Kong over – and blew it. In the absence of any alternative, many have concluded that the best option for their increasingly beleaguered city is to shout, “Go away!” to the sovereign power.