From ‘national’ to ‘independence’: why everyday words matter in protecting Hong Kong values

Peter Kammerer says whether it is political censorship or simply officials following their own instincts, incidents like the dropping of the word ‘national’ in an art brochure will only hurt the city

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 March, 2016, 3:09pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 March, 2016, 3:09pm

There are words that Beijing likes to hear and others it doesn’t. If a hostile response is what you’re looking for from a mainland official, using “independence” in the same breath as “Hong Kong” is the latest buzzword guaranteed to get mouths frothing. It’s right up there with those old perennials: “democracy” in the Western sense, “Dalai Lama” and “Falun Gong”. If an approving nod is what you’re looking for, “belt and road” is an excellent place to start.

Anyone who has to deal with officialdom knows this. Civil servants of a sufficiently high rank in Hong Kong presumably have been given directives from superiors as to what they can and can’t say in public. The dropping by an unidentified Leisure and Cultural Services Department officer of “national” from the name of a Taiwan-educated artist’s alma mater in a promotional brochure therefore comes across as political censorship. Closer scrutiny causes doubts, though.

Taiwan is a touchy issue. To Beijing, it’s a Chinese province; to many Taiwanese and outsiders, the island is self-governing. Artist Suie Lo Shuk-yin’s alma mater is Taipei National University of the Arts, a name likely to grab the attention of any Hong Kong official eager to show off how politically aware he is to his boss. Given that government premises were being used for the display, an order was given to drop the “national” part. The request was refused and a compromise was made: instead of the university being mentioned in the blurb, it was prominently on display in a photo of Lo holding it up in front of her.

Dropping word ‘national has been official practice for years, serving and former Hong Kong officials confirm

In a city that makes so much of being one of the few places in China where freedom of speech is protected, such an order is jarring. Censorship immediately comes to mind, quickly followed by concern about artistic freedom. It’s not the first time this has happened – among examples was a row about an exhibition from the National Palace Museum in Taipei. But there are many cases of the term making it through the system without criticism or concern. Either there has been a toughening of policy of late, or the official concerned was following his own instinct.

Whatever the case, it’s not a good way to sell Hong Kong, the self-proclaimed international city, to the world.

Lessons must be learned from the delicate issue of Hong Kong-Taiwan ties

But look back to earlier this month and the official concerned could perhaps be given a modicum of sympathy. Zhang Dejiang (張德江), the third most important leader of the Communist Party, told Hongkongers, through representatives to the party’s consultative conference, to stop “politicising everything” and get on with the business of improving China’s economy.

Right now, ‘independence’ is the dirtiest of words

Zhang’s warning came amid the government’s continuing tussle with students and others who know how easy it is to get an instant response from officials by suggesting independence wouldn’t be so bad for Hong Kong. Right now, that’s the dirtiest of words. With the Basic Law protecting freedom of expression, though, there should be nothing wrong with talking about the merits of such a concept.

Nor, for that matter, should anyone worry about having a Hong Kong British colonial flag in their possession or a penchant for collecting coins, stamps and other memorabilia of that era. Street names that recall former governors or buildings that refer to places in the British isles are part of our history, identity and culture. They are what set Hong Kong apart from other Chinese cities.

“One country, two systems” will in little more than a generation give way to “one country”. But that does not mean giving up our values. The words we use every day are a vital part of that.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post