Hong Kong independence calls will die down once confidence in Beijing rises

Gary Cheung believes the central government should restart the political reform process for the city to restore trust in ‘one country, two systems’

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 August, 2016, 2:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 08 August, 2016, 5:31pm

Nineteen years after the handover, why do so many Hong Kong people back the idea of independence?

This was the question a Beijing official asked outgoing Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing recently. I, too, have been asked similar questions by mainland officials and academics since the Mong Kok riot in February.

The results of a recent survey by the Chinese University’s journalism school, in which 17.4 per cent of Hongkongers said they believe the city should go independent after 2047, have sent shock waves across the community. What should we make of the findings?

More young Hongkongers back independence and are less supportive of peaceful protest, poll shows

Support for independence isn’t new. In a comparative survey on national identification held between 2005 and 2007, in collaboration with universities in Taiwan and Okinawa, Japan, the University of Hong Kong found that 25 per cent of Hongkongers polled backed independence.

What’s different today is the sentiment among young people. While only 26.4 per cent of those between 18 and 24 supported independence in the earlier poll, in the recent survey by Chinese University, nearly 40 per cent of respondents aged 15 to 24 supported independence.

It is a given that a considerable proportion of people in Hong Kong favour an identity distinct from mainland China, no matter what Beijing does. By contrast, the proportion of those who back independence goes up and down, depending on their confidence in Beijing’s handling of the city’s affairs.

Rising support for independence a wake-up call to enhance confidence in the ‘one country, two systems’ principle

Beijing was once sure that it would be able to win the hearts and minds of Hongkongers within 10 years of the handover. That’s the rationale behind setting 2007 in the Basic Law as the earliest possible date for implementing universal suffrage in the city. Obviously, the 500,000-strong July 1 march in 2003 against national security legislation proved Beijing’s original assessment was overly optimistic.

In order to stem the calls for full democracy, Beijing tightened its grip on Hong Kong and ruled out the introduction of “one man, one vote” for electing the chief executive in 2007. The central government’s stringent framework for electing the chief executive in 2017, under which only two or three candidates may run for the post, dealt another blow to Hong Kong people’s confidence in Beijing’s sincerity in implementing universal suffrage in the city. The storm over the mysterious disappearance of Hong Kong booksellers sparked concerns on whether “one country, two systems” has been compromised.

Almost three quarters of Hong Kong’s young people dream of starting a business, but say the obstacles are too great

The best way to stem the proliferation of calls for Hong Kong independence is to boost Hongkongers’ confidence in “one country, two systems”. According to a tracking poll of the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion programme, 44.5 per cent of 1,007 Hongkongers surveyed in June said they had confidence in “one country, two systems”, a far lower percentage than the 77.5 per cent reported in April 2008, the all-time high since the poll was started in 1993. In particular, in June, only 17 per cent of respondents aged 18 to 29 said they had any confidence.

The growing appeal of the idea of independence among young people is attributable to the tension between the haves and the have-nots in the past decade. Many young people feel they are denied opportunities on all fronts under the existing political system, which mainly caters to the interests of the business and professional sectors.

Restarting the political reform process with the aim of introducing a fairer electoral system is the recipe for restoring Hongkongers’ confidence in “one country, two systems” and weakening calls for Hong Kong independence.

Gary Cheung is the Post’s political editor