Hong Kong must strive for democracy, not go down the independence dead end
Gary Wong says challenging the government does not mean violating the Basic Law and Hong Kong must make a clear distinction between pushing for democracy and advocating independence
This year, I resigned from my full-time job and stood in the Legislative Council election. Amid the chaos of Hong Kong politics, I had hoped to offer citizens an alternative, rational and moderate voice. I aspired to be a legislator who was willing to bridge divides, resume political reform and preserve order and dignity in the legislature.
Regrettably, I failed to win enough support for the path of constructive democracy, a third option other than the traditional pro-establishment and pan-democratic camps. Given the political fragmentation in Legco, it was clear that the future would be difficult. Yet it had never crossed my mind that newly elected legislators would stage protests even before they were sworn in. The consequences, as we now know, were an interpretation of the Basic Law by Beijing and a series of judicial reviews.
Less than three months after the Legco election, two lawmakers-elect have been disqualified and more are likely to lose their seats. This will result in by-elections – and a huge expenditure of manpower, money and time. Yet what has all this yielded for society except deeper hatred, conflict and exhaustion? Between democracy, independence and self-determination, have we considered which is the most worthwhile to pursue?
Across the globe, are there any countries that would tolerate an oath being taken insincerely and inaccurately? Freedom of speech never implies speaking without restraint on any occasion. In some countries, lawmakers would be immediately disqualified if they did not swear their oath of office accordingly, or if they touched on sensitive ideas such as independence and secessionism.
Once elected, legislators are bound by legislative laws and regulations. This applies as well to those who aim to take their argument from the street into the chamber. If they oppose certain legislation or even the system, they can seek to amend those laws. But it must be done within the bounds of the law.
There is nothing wrong with discussing independence for Hong Kong, just as Californians are free to discuss independence of their state. Yet we can neither suppose nor demand that all regimes possess the same capacity of allowing separatist ideologies to be turned into political movements, or even admitting pro-independence activists to administrative, legislative and judicial bodies.
We should be clear that opposing the government and striving for democracy does not equate to violating the Basic Law and promoting independence. The two are completely different. Tackling mainland-Hong Kong relations requires both parties to identify and acknowledge each other’s “bottom line”. What is non-negotiable for Beijing is the sovereignty of “one country”; for Hong Kong, it is the “two systems” – a high degree of autonomy and democracy, as promised in the Basic Law. If only the two parties could work together, with mutual respect, while strictly following the Basic Law, Hong Kong would be well on the way towards universal suffrage. Instead, the road map has been put on hold indefinitely.
Watch: Hong Kong police disperse crowds protesting against Beijing’s interpretation of the Basic Law
However different the terms “self-determination” and “independence” may seem, neither complies with the Basic Law.
“Democratic self-determination” advocates Hong Kong people determining our political future through a referendum, where independence is one option. In the first place, there is no referendum law in Hong Kong. For a referendum to be held, amendments would need to be made to clauses in Article 159 of the Basic Law. But the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress would never accept such a move.
Furthermore, the binding power of the Basic Law comes from the constitution of the People’s Republic of China, not international covenants that are not legally binding. For people who know the logic of constitutional law, it is not difficult to understand why Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, harshly criticised “Hong Kong independence” and “self-determination” recently, dismissing the ideas as an aberration, self-deceiving and doomed to fail.
Hong Kong courts are the proper place to hear government’s case against lawmakers, whatever the pan-democrats think
Hong Kong citizens should keep faith with the judicial system.
Some people argue that disqualifying elected Legco members implies that the government is disrespecting the electorate. This is incorrect. In any society adhering to the rule of law, citizens’ mandate should be respected. But this does not mean a popular candidate is free to follow his or her personal moral judgment and arbitrary preferences by breaking the law and attempting to justify the unlawful acts afterwards. Whether it is the government, the legislative body or an individual, all must abide by the law. Otherwise, we are no different from a totalitarian society.
To break the stalemate, political wisdom is needed now. If we really want universal suffrage within the shortest period of time, we must bring political reform back into focus. All political camps should maintain dialogue with one another, and with Beijing, and work, under the framework of the Basic Law, to achieve a reform proposal that is more democratic and advanced than the framework outlined in the NPC Standing Committee decision on August 31, 2014. Rejecting dialogue and blindly going down the path of advocating independence can only lead Hong Kong to a dead end.
Gary Wong Chi-him is governor of the think tank Path of Democracy