When the prize of Hong Kong independence brings out the worst in zealots
Alice Wu says the Brexit vote highlights how localist parties run the risk of spreading sinophobic hatred in their push to sever ties with Beijing
With all the cries for “independence” lately, perhaps it is time to ponder what it actually means in today’s world. Is it even possible not to be influenced or controlled by others, and to think and act solely for oneself? Having zero regard for others when it comes to decisions and actions is possible, but it doesn’t mean these actions don’t have an impact beyond ourselves.
The notion of being truly independent holds true for those who don’t give a damn about others. And, in this sense, the “hermit kingdom” North Korea and Kim Jong-un are very “independent minded”. Self-imposed isolation, even in the case of North Korea, doesn’t exactly mean true independence. North Korea is not self-reliant or self-sufficient, though, of course, Kim would be the last to admit that.
Since the second world war, the world has only become more interdependent. Brexit reminded us of that. One nation’s referendum to be independent from the European Union is having a global impact. The shock waves will reverberate for a long time – becoming another tide pushing back the efforts of governments to resuscitate their economies.
The bigger price to pay, of course, is how the Leave campaign has unleashed the Donald Trump in many more people. “Independence” has freed xenophobia and racism. We’ve been sipping this sort of poison, too. Beijing officials may see a minority of people pushing for independence “in the name of localism”, but what we have seen is a minority of people spreading hate in the name of independence.
It’s remarkable that it has only taken a few years for waving the colonial flag to become a fully fledged independence movement. We now have the Hong Kong National Party and the Alliance to Resume British Sovereignty over Hong Kong and Independence – both said to be fielding candidates in the September Legislative Council election. One major difference between them is that the latter rejects the National Party’s recognition of “those outsiders who flee to Hong Kong” as Hong Kong nationals. Basically, they disagree over degrees of xenophobia.
Having watched the campaign of the now presumptive Republican nominee for the US presidency Donald Trump, and Brexit, it would be silly to say that our pro-independence parties have little chance. They will be sure to use the election to further their calls for sinophobia and xenophobia. As Michael Keith, at Oxford University’s migration research centre, has said about the Brexit campaign process, “The unspeakable becomes not only speakable, but commonplace”. It will happen here, too.
Undercurrents of hate and exclusionism have always been present, so it will be easy to open the floodgates. Trump and the Brexit Leave proponents have already shown how it’s done.
“Independence” has changed so much since its more honourable days, like in 1776, when the 13 British colonies of the new world gave King George III their collective finger. They did this after being continually abused by the British Parliament and failed attempts at reconciliation. They did so with beautifully crafted words that founded a nation – the Declaration of Independence.
On July 4, 240 years ago, John Hancock put his iconic signature on it. He wanted to make sure his name could be clearly read. Contrast that with the Hong Kong National Party’s call for protesters to wear black clothing and masks to conceal their identities to avoid prosecution for their July 1 “black bloc protest”. That is, in fact, a “Declaration of Cowardice”.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA