Hong Kong localism and independence

Provocative gestures fuel tension, distrust

Pro-independence slogans and banners found on the Chinese University campus are to some people just peaceful expression of opinion. But to the central government and others, they may well have crossed the “red line” against advocating independence

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 September, 2017, 1:09am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 September, 2017, 1:09am

Hong Kong students have increasingly made use of school openings, graduation ceremonies and the like to make political statements. The pro-independence slogans and banners found on the Chinese University campus are the latest examples. They are, to some people, just peaceful expression of opinion, but to the central government and others, they may well have crossed the “red line” against advocating independence.

The incident is not the first of its kind. Pro-independence banners appeared across the city’s higher education institutes on the National Day last year. Provocative and unwise as they are, the gestures are unsurprising, though. They stem from the negative sentiments arising from what some see as an erosion of the city’s high degree of autonomy, the setback over political reform and the unlawful Occupy protests in 2014. The sentiments became even stronger after a court ruled in favour of the government’s bid to throw three former student activists behind bars. In a separate stunt, the university’s student union wrapped a Goddess of Democracy statue with a banner supporting what it called “political prisoners”, referring to the three activists and 13 others jailed for their roles in protests.

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There are those who believe there is no need to overreact, saying the banners were just acts of venting anger and frustration over the prevailing political situation. But the university’s response has inevitably fuelled more tension. The management may think that it is only right to act tough on issues related to independence, saying the materials were inconsistent with the university’s position and had breached the law. But if experience is any guide, the bigger the suppression, the stronger the reaction. How to handle future similar incidents must be considered by university leaders.

Beijing is known for being resolute when it comes to issues of sovereignty. In a keynote speech marking the city’s 20th anniversary of reunification with the mainland, President Xi Jinping warned against crossing the red line and undermining “one country”.

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That Hong Kong is an inalienable part of the China has been made abundantly clear in the Basic Law. Independence is hardly an option. Whether it will gain wider appeal remains to be seen. The saga was condemned by Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Friday, who said academic freedom and university autonomy were no justification for the advocacy of fallacies.

So far there is no official comment from Beijing. But it says something when there is strong support on the mainland for a student who confronted the student union over the posters. The pro-independence banners are by no means representative of Hongkongers, but provocative gestures by a few individuals may well fuel tension and distrust between the city and the mainland.