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SCMP Debate: What do the appearances of colonial-era flags at recent protests indicate?
The appearance of colonial-era flags at recent demonstrations in the city has infuriated mainland commentators and former top officials. Even President Hu Jintao, in his speech to the party congress last week, was prompted to call on Hongkongers to "share the dignity and pride of being Chinese". We asked experts, political figures and concerned Hongkongers whether this use of colonial-era symbols was a genuine sign of a pro-independence sentiment or merely reflected growing frustration with the local and national governments.
Q1 Is the presence of the British-era flag during demonstrations in Hong Kong an indication of the emergence of a pro-independence force in the city? Does it underline a growing anti-mainland sentiment among some Hongkongers?
Q2 What actions should the central and Hong Kong governments take to address the apparently growing anti-mainland sentiment?
Q3 Are you worried that the exchanges between Hong Kong people and mainlanders, as well as economic ties, will be affected by a growing anti-mainland sentiment?
Founder of the 'We're Hongkongian, not Chinese' Facebook page
A1 First of all, there is no British flag being waved. That's a Hong Kong flag. One reason for these flags is - simply - because some think the past was better than the present. Hongkongers emphasise a "social-contract" spirit. That is, the absence of mainland influence in local affairs, or, as the Basic Law puts it, a high degree of autonomy. However, this has never been the case in the 15 years since the handover. One must accept that anti-mainland sentiment has been deep-rooted in many Hongkongers since the brutal June 4, 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has constantly kowtowed to the central authorities, contrary to Hongkongers' wishes that their lifestyle remains uninterrupted. Should people advocate Hong Kong independence - as some are doing online - I'd be happy with it. This is my freedom to choose what to believe in, and I'm not involving myself in any military rebellions against the government. Hongkongers have tolerated enough. Hongkongers are unlike mainland Chinese, who could bear every adversity. I, like many Hongkongers, have a bottom line and principles others can't breach.
A2 First off, Beijing must give Hong Kong the right to universal suffrage for the chief executive and the Legislative Council. As a matter of fact, the Basic Law provided that Hong Kong people could cast votes in 2007 and 2008. That's gone. And then, it was supposed to be 2012. Gone again. And 2017? No one can say for sure. That's why Hongkongers don't believe the Beijing government - whatever it says. Take Li Wangyang . The autopsy report saying the Tiananmen activist committed suicide was trusted by basically no one in Hong Kong. It's unlikely trust will be in place after the 18th party congress. We once trusted Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji. We once trusted Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao . They've made no difference. China must undergo thorough political reform before doing anything else. Only if one-party rule ceases and the military is handed back from the party to the government can more trust be gained. But, of course, that's not a foreseeable thing in the short run. And can the Hong Kong government do anything? No, because it's useless. Why did education minister Eddie Ng Hak-kim have to travel to Beijing to seek advice on national education? Was the curriculum part of any diplomatic or national defence issues that render mainland help justifiable? Before anyone asks why there's anti-mainland sentiment, one should understand one underlying logic: that there's no uncalled-for love, and there's no uncalled-for hatred.
A3 My belief is that all kinds of exchanges between Hong Kong people and mainlanders should be cut off. Lu Ping keeps telling us that Dongjiang water is a precious gift to Hongkongers - but we actually pay cash for it while much of the water is wasted. Plus, the water is so polluted. It's totally absurd and unacceptable. Can one name any single item of mainland food that's uncontaminated and safe? Chinese tourists should be banned from the city, as they have disturbed much of our order and price levels, if not the whole culture. Hong Kong's economy won't suffer, because it is a city that faces the whole world, not the so-called motherland.
Dr Horace Chin Wan-kan
Assistant professor, Department of Chinese, Lingnan University
A1 There are two types of colonial flags being used in the demonstrations. The Hong Kong Autonomy Movement uses the former coat of arms of Hong Kong, without the Union Jack, as a historical symbol signifying the more than 170 years of the trading port and city-state of Hong Kong, since 1842. It's a symbol of local identity, just like those states, city-states and dependencies that still keep their historical coat of arms after joining a republic. The Hong Kong coat of arms is culturally rich and symbolic of Hong Kong, with the Chinese dragon, English lion and Hong Kong lion, boats, crown and sea. The autonomy movement fosters autonomy under the Basic Law and prohibits the special administrative region government from giving up local interests in Hong Kong-mainland deals. Other groups raise the former colonial flag with the Union Jack as a way of protesting against the People's Republic of China's encroachment in Hong Kong. A few activists share sentiments towards independence because there are enough British National (Overseas) and other passport holders in Hong Kong.
A2 They must withdraw their hands from interfering in Hong Kong's local affairs and stop encroaching on Hong Kong when it comes to emigrants and cross-border land planning, which is paving the way for the merger of Hong Kong with Shenzhen. Any cross-border arrangement must take Hongkongers' interest into serious consideration. Hong Kong must exercise a higher degree of protectionism as Hong Kong is freer and richer than the mainland, and small Hong Kong is much more overcrowded than the mainland. Exchanges between the two places are, by nature, unbalanced. Hongkongers "swarming" across the vast mainland are invisible, while mainlanders "swarming" to small and congested Hong Kong are felt with pain.
A3 No. It will only make the relationship fair and reasonable. Anti-mainland sentiment was caused by the SAR government, which favours mainlanders and doesn't feel the need for tighter protectionist measures in cross-border relations. Stopping pregnant mainland women giving birth in Hong Kong, restricting mainland smugglers using the MTR trains and the buyers' stamp duty/special stamp duty levy on mainland flat buyers are good signs that the government will do something under pressure from activists, including those who raise the colonial-era symbols.
Alan Hoo SC
Chairman, the Basic Law Institute
A1 Recently, there has been significant dissatisfaction with the governance of the special administrative region government and the perception of "Beijing interference" in Hong Kong affairs. There have been demonstrations where British emblems from the colonial regime were openly displayed. I believe this does not reflect an emergence of pro-independence forces in Hong Kong but rather emphasises a desire by some to return to a society insulated from the mainland as it was during colonial days. However, this is precisely the agreement struck in the Joint Declaration and the guarantees given by Beijing ensuring that the way of life in Hong Kong remain unchanged for at least 50 years. If the demonstrators wish to harp back to the way of life during colonial days, what they should hold up is copies of the Joint Declaration rather than colonial emblems [such as the colonial-era flag].
A2 There should be more civic education and public information about the precise role of the central government and the special administrative region government in respect of Hong Kong affairs. Besides defence and foreign affairs, matters "which are the responsibility of the Central People's Government" and matters "concerning the relationship between the Central Authorities and the Region" (i.e. matters outside of Hong Kong's autonomy under Article 158 of the Basic Law) should be clearly spelt out and explained. I believe these matters mainly pertain to the Basic Policies elaborated under Annex I of the Joint Declaration. Once this is made clear, there should be no unfounded suspicions or fears that the central government is interfering in the governance of Hong Kong in breach of the Basic Law. In particular, the work of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office under the State Council should be more transparent to and accessible by the people of Hong Kong, and its precise role and relationship in the SAR fully explained.
A3 There has never been any problem arising purely from "the exchange of Hong Kong people and mainlanders", whether these exchanges are economic, professional or social. However, it is the settlement of mainland people in Hong Kong together with the size of mainland investments (particularly in Hong Kong's real estate market) and the uneasy relationship developing in the cross-border areas that create either a burden on Hongkongers or upset the economic and social equilibrium in Hong Kong. The crux of the problem is the complete lack of strategic planning - by any of the SAR governments since the handover - of the role that Hong Kong should play in the sphere of national economic development. Hong Kong should realise it has a strategic role as the regional hub of the Pearl River Delta region. By making sure that closer economic ties with the mainland are premised upon a proper regional division of labour and functions, the relationship can then truly generate social and economic benefits to Hong Kong society. Only then will we be able to dispel the impression of a one-way invasion by mainlanders in Hong Kong.
City University student, from Anhui province
A1 Purely waving British, or dragon-lion Hong Kong flags, doesn't mean Hongkongers want independence. Having been in the city for little more than two months, I can feel Hongkongers' resentment against mainlanders. I once saw a 17-year-old Hong Kong student write: "When I was small, I thought Hong Kong's handover was like a final return home ... But when time moved on, following a gradual redefinition from word-of-mouth, TV and the internet, I could see the mainland's behind-the-scene 'control' of Hong Kong's politics." Born in 1995, he didn't have too much of an image of the pre-handover era, but he still wished to be back to the time of British rule. Maybe not all Hongkongers share this 17-year-old's view, but does this mentality only reflect Hongkongers' disappointment at the status quo? Actually, Hongkongers might still be disappointed if they returned to British rule or became independent. With freedom of thought and speech, [Hongkongers] can express their disappointments. Flag waving or claiming independence - I think they are just one form of expression, and one with which most Hongkongers do not agree. Pro-independence voices, I'd say, should not be ignored; they may really deepen Hongkongers' disappointment at mainlanders. Whatever the motives of pro-independence campaigners, I think no one should be happy to see more and more people converting their dissatisfaction with the mainland into support for independence.
A2 I think the fact that many Hongkongers are disappointed at the status quo is largely due to the Hong Kong government's failings. The local government should undertake some measures to positively respond to the situation. I can see the government has taken some measures, including the abolition of national education, and Hong Kong properties for Hong Kong people. These policies reflect the government's passive compromise, being unilateral against mainlanders. On the Hong Kong government's policy requiring mainlanders to pay buyer stamp duty, did the government overlook mainlanders who choose to work in Hong Kong and get paid on the same level as Hongkongers? Did it consider the people saddened by both the ever-increasing rent and the stamp duty?
A3 I believe that the exchanges between the two sides cannot be stopped by any anti-mainland feelings. Rather, in addition to economic exchanges, there should be interactions on more levels between the two places. Hong Kong's sovereignty is indisputable and unshakable. The fact that Hongkongers were actively involved in justifying Chinese sovereignty in the Diaoyu Islands illustrates that Hongkongers, by and large, recognise China. At City University I've seen some departments organising student visits to places on the mainland, like the agricultural villages of Hunan province, as well as book donations. I think this shows that voluntary interactions from society have never stopped. I've known a Christian group based in Hong Kong offering help to the poor people in Qingyuan , Guangdong province every year. There are also Hong Kong-based mainlanders in this team. There is no so-called anti-mainland sentiment here, and the mainlanders work harmoniously with Hongkongers. Isn't it the best example of interaction?
Kennedy Wong Ying-ho
Hong Kong delegate to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference
A1 In the modern world, a majority of people, including those from Western societies, view the colonial era as a matter of history. Some intellectuals have reflected upon how places and people under colonial rule were looted and exploited by colonial rulers. Hence, against the backdrop of these beliefs, those who miss the British colonial reign in Hong Kong and those who even openly display the British flag should account for a very small part of the population. They are certainly not part of the mainstream of the Hong Kong community. Of course, we must acknowledge that a small number of people might harbour negative views about the return of Hong Kong to China, despite the fact that sovereignty was returned 15 years ago. However, it is downright impossible for Hong Kong to go independent. Supporters of the idea are merely using freedom of expression to vent a nostalgic sentiment. It is unnecessary to make a fuss about it. We should also take it easy when locals call themselves "Hong Kong people" rather than "Chinese". Hong Kong is a pluralistic society. Besides Chinese nationals, there are also permanent residents who are of foreign nationality. It should be entirely up to residents of Hong Kong to freely choose who they want to be.
A2 My observation is that the central government has attached considerable importance to the phenomenon that not all the people have returned to the motherland in their hearts. However, under the principles of "one country, two systems", "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong" and a high degree of autonomy, the central government will neither directly voice its concern nor strongly suppress such anti-mainland sentiment. I envisage that the central government will adopt a strategy of indirect persuasion. The majority people in Hong Kong who love the country and Hong Kong will appeal to the people to get to know the truth about the colonial era, to enable Hongkongers to understand the significant historical meaning of the return of sovereignty to China, and the central government's concern about and support for Hong Kong. As for the Hong Kong government, it should certainly devote more efforts in this regard. I believe the Hong Kong government will adopt more pro-active and constructive measures with a view to achieving a win-win situation, strengthening exchanges and communication between Hong Kong and the mainland, eradicating bias and boosting co-operation.
A3 I am a bit worried, as I hear some mainland officials complaining that the central government has offered Hong Kong many favourable policies that may have hurt the mainland's interests. For instance, allowing residents from major cities to freely visit Hong Kong means substantial funds which would otherwise be spent on the mainland flood into Hong Kong instead. If anti-mainland sentiment were to breed further in Hong Kong, it would certainly affect the number of mainlanders visiting, or even directly damage the relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland. In the long run, it will inevitably affect economic ties.
Professor Ray Yep Kin-man
Assistant head, department of public and social administration, City University
A1 Notwithstanding the sporadic expression of nostalgic feelings for colonial rule or even slogans like "we are not Chinese", it is certainly an exaggeration to suggest that there is a rising pro-independence movement in Hong Kong. Social movements usually entail sustained efforts in engaging with the authority in the promotion of a common cause by protesters who are linked up by dense formal or informal networks and a distinctive, collective identity. None of these attributes are on the horizon. The call for independence has remained an outlandish idea confined to a very small number of disconnected extremists. These isolated episodes, however, do attest to rising anti-mainland sentiment. Central to the problem is the growing sense of anxiety prompted by intensified competition inherent in the integration process. The frustration is fuelled by the contrast in values and social etiquette, and the indefensible human rights records of the mainland authorities.
A2 Mainland officials should be more sensitive to the growing anxiety of the Hong Kong population. Provocative comments like, "Leave the country if you don't consider yourself Chinese" exacerbate the tension. It is, of course, easier said than done to urge Chinese officials to hold their tongues given their general uncompromising position on issues like national dignity and sovereignty. To defuse the tension, [our chief executive] must strive to convince local society that he is determined to defend the interests of Hong Kong, even under pressure from the mainland. The quick response to disruption caused by smugglers in Sheung Shui is a good sign. And his success in convincing the mainland authorities to halt the multi-entry scheme for non-local residents in mainland cities is even more spectacular. The pragmatic majority who reckon integration is irreversible simply want the right balance between the interests on both sides of the border. [Having] a local administration that is seen to be prepared to defend their cause certainly helps.
A3 Despite all the mainland officials' rhetoric of supporting their Hong Kong compatriots, exchanges across the border are primarily utilitarian in nature. Both sides benefit, and entrenched interests across the border sustain the trend. The economic benefits for Hong Kong are evident. Hong Kong has consolidated itself as an integral part of socioeconomic operations for mainlanders. Hong Kong is a conduit for quality services and goods, information, business opportunities and networks, and has remained a convenient window to the larger world. Given the strong presence of [mainland] enterprises in the economy of Hong Kong, any disruption in exchange and collaboration that may exert a negative impact on growth is simply unwarranted. The extended networks between economic and political elites in Hong Kong and the mainland would certainly make sure that is not going to happen. The occasional shouting war may create uneasiness or uncivilised responses from both societies. Yet, as usual, economic considerations prevail.