Hong Kong localism and independence

It’s up to Carrie Lam to assuage Beijing’s fear over Hong Kong independence

Alice Wu says Hong Kong’s chief executive must succeed where her predecessor failed. She must convince central leaders not to overreact to the independence banners on university campuses, which are the work of a minority

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 September, 2017, 9:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 September, 2017, 5:00pm

By now, we should be very used to our inability to focus on the issues of the day. The pro-independence banners that have appeared on several Hong Kong university campuses are a case in point. Suddenly, the pressing issues confronting society are all but forgotten as those agitators hijack our attention.

Of course, Hong Kong is not alone in giving in to the politics of distraction; societies elsewhere have the same challenge. We seem to be suffering from attention deficit disorder in almost every realm in our lives.

Whoever put up the banners has (or have) finely tuned political instincts. The effort of writing a few characters and hanging it up is nothing compared to, say, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor putting together her 30-member task force on land supply. But in terms of political efficiency, a few strokes of a brush and tying a few knots managed to not only get ink on broadsheets, airtime on television and radio, but also to get a whole lot of people worked up; it wins, hands down.

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The issue has even been catapulted to the lofty realm of “academic freedom”, and is being used by a student union to threaten “escalating action” if its demands are not met. Blown out of all proportion, the banner row has derailed actual work attempting to tackle real problems.

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I get it. It is far easier to be outraged by a banner or by the removal of such a banner than to be outraged by, say, children living in appalling conditions. Besides, a false sense of accomplishment can be momentarily rewarding, and shrill and sanctimonious politics is cheap.

With the ‘right’ kind of distraction, things can get real bad, real fast, when it comes to Beijing

For the government, it is this sort of political distraction, which seem unending, that will prove to be the most challenging to fight. These distractions demand an immediate response and rob the administration of the focus it needs to keep things on track. If the Occupy movement teaches any lesson, it is that with the “right” kind of distraction, things can get real bad, real fast, when it comes to Beijing.

In the run-up to Occupy, the previous administration in Hong Kong was so preoccupied with fighting fires that it completely failed to allay Beijing’s concerns. Since then, the Beijing-taunting politics of distraction has only become more frequent.

It may be a thankless job but it has to be done. Some in political circles suspect that our last chief executive stoked Beijing’s anger and pro-independence fears for his own benefit. Lam must use every channel available to her to assure Beijing that there is no need to overreact to an eyesore. She must convince those in charge of Hong Kong affairs that reacting to it would be counterproductive, and empowering to the few who are getting cheap thrills out of getting under Beijing’s skin.

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Lam must also start resolving some of the politically sensitive problems she inherited. The reopening of Civic Square may take time, but she must press on with it. And the government should lose no time to arrange by-elections for the Legislative Council seats left empty after six lawmakers were ousted over their oath-taking. Dragging this out any longer would make life more difficult for the Lam administration, with more distractions certain to be on the way. And, by extension, the longer discussions for electoral reform are put on hold, the greater people’s sense of fatalism.

Lastly, it needs to be said that “congratulating” a mother hours after she had lost her son to depression and suicide falls nowhere near the vicinity of free speech. It is despicable and a blatant abuse of the freedom of expression. Placed on the “wall of democracy”, those vicious words are really an insult to decency, and have no place in civil society.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA