Independence banners at Hong Kong universities one more sign China is losing the battle to win over city’s youth
Regina Ip says neither subsidies nor outright suppression of radical speech appears an effective tactic to turn the tide of young Hongkongers’ drift away from connecting with mainland China. Pro-independence posters on campuses are only the most radical expression of widespread disaffection
Since taking over as chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has made a studious effort to avoid political controversies and focus on livelihood issues. Many in the community regard her approach with hope and optimism. Yet, the fragile “peace” was shattered last month after the Court of Appeal jailed three student leaders who stormed government headquarters in September 2014.
In retaliation, on the commencement of the new academic year on September 4, banners advocating “Hong Kong independence” were put up in the campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Soon, similar banners and posters were seen posted at other universities in support. Pro-China legislators and sundry organisations quickly launched a chorus of condemnation. The chief executive was compelled to make a strong statement condemning the slogans on September 8.
To date, the student unions have refused to take down the offending materials posted in the public space they manage. Pro-China legislators have stepped up their anti-independence campaign, but the government’s hands are tied. Senior counsel and Executive Council member Ronny Tong Ka-wah has warned that such publication, if seen to be made with “seditious intent”, risked breaking Hong Kong law. But if the government were to prosecute, it would risk provoking a violent backlash.
Even as Lam fires on all cylinders to prepare for her first policy address, she faces the first real challenge of her fledgling administration – submit to the pro-China camp or protect Hong Kong’s freedoms?
The truth is, the government has at present few weapons in its armoury for effective action against such pro-independence posters. Prosecution for sedition has not been attempted since the 1960s. With development in common law jurisprudence, it is by no means certain that prosecution of individuals expressing support for Hong Kong independence, but without incitement to violence or violence itself, would succeed.
Such challenging moments are a wake-up call to the government that its generous handouts to young people – a HK$30,000 subsidy for students of private universities and the promise of heavily subsidised homes for first-time buyers – have zero impact on the minds of young people ensnared in the anti-China camp. Even for those who are politically neutral, such largesse is futile in engendering a greater sense of national identity. It helps shore up Lam’s approval ratings, but does little to transform people’s feelings towards China.
It would be wrong, however, to view student radicalism on campus as representative of the entire student body. Both the student unions of Chinese University and the University of Hong Kong, which have been vocal in the current row, were elected in February with fewer than 20 per cent of the vote of the entire student body of about 15,000 in each of the universities.
Outside the student unions, most students carry on with their busy lives studying, training, dating, and looking for job opportunities. Despite efforts of universities to “internationalise” their student bodies, students from outside Hong Kong are mainly from mainland China. Integration of students of different cultural backgrounds on campus is a myth. Most local students make scant effort to make friends with foreign or mainland Chinese students. It is well known, though not well acknowledged by education authorities, that a great wall of culture stands between local and mainland students. They speak different dialects, live in different halls of residence and move in different circles. Mainland students are also feared, if not loathed, for being too competitive in scoring high grades and grabbing good scholarships and jobs.
Anti-China students include those who were born on the mainland and moved to Hong Kong at a young age. Among those of grass-roots background, their anti-rich and anti-establishment mindset is understandable, but their anti-China stance has puzzled many. The mainland linkages of their parents have clearly not helped to foster a stronger attachment to the motherland.
Perhaps the reason is that, as the saying goes, “all politics is personal”. Hongkongers’ perceptions and feelings towards China, other than those in the pro-China camp for historical or pecuniary reasons, have changed radically in the past 20 years.
When China was much poorer, Hongkongers regularly hauled bags of food, medical supplies and other daily necessities across the border to succour needy relatives, out of sympathy for their plight. Ordinary people donated generously to help their compatriots when natural disasters befell.
An epochal change occurred in 2001, when China acceded to the World Trade Organisation. The subsequent explosion of Chinese productivity turned China into an unstoppable trading, investing and consuming juggernaut. While large numbers of Hongkongers have benefited from the job opportunities created by the hordes of tourists, consumers and investors, their perception of China has changed from that of a needy neighbour to that of an overbearing force, threatening disruption to Hong Kong’s cherished values and way of life.
While only a minority of our youth are radicals, Beijing and the Hong Kong government have much work to do to win over young people’s hearts.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a lawmaker and chairwoman of the New People’s Party