Full democracy in Hong Kong would open Pandora’s box

Those wanting such a system would be far from content once it was established and they would soon be calling for the city to separate from China

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 1:59am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 1:59am

A favourite argument of localists and the opposition is to blame the lack of democracy for the independence movement. Many draw a straight line from the failure of the Occupy movement for democratic reforms to rising demands for separatism. They cannot be more wrong or misleading.

What puzzles me is why they assume full democracy, however they define it, would not spur even more militant calls for independence. Contemporary history is full of such movements for secession.

Catalan leaders are now being hounded and jailed for their rebellion. But Catalonia is hardly democratic Spain’s only province fighting for independence. Spain’s Basque regions have long fought a violent campaign for independence, represented by the separatist group ETA since the late 1950s, though the conflict ultimately dates from the 19th century. Former Czechoslovakia emerged as one of the most liberal and democratic central European states from the end of the cold war. Barely four years after its Velvet Revolution, Slovakia broke away as an independent state.

The first full-fledged secessionist movement in Canada, a model Western liberal democracy, was in Nova Scotia. But today, it’s usually associated with Quebec separatism from the 1960s, which for a time, turned violent. The United Kingdom carried the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. But with Brexit, there is even more incentive for Scotland to go its own way to stay within the European Union.

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In all these countries, democracy allows these independence movements to develop and grow.

In Hong Kong, the lack of democracy has little to do with the rise of the independence movement. It has more to do with the identity politics of the millennials who have come of age since the 1997 handover with little to no identification with the mainland or its people. This is coupled with the growing mistrust of Beijing fuelled by the opposition.

If Hong Kong were to become a liberal democracy tomorrow, could you imagine such people being content? Their next goal would far more likely be calling for a referendum to separate the city from China. A fringe movement would become a mainstream party under such circumstances.

It’s fashionable to blame former chief executive Leung Chun-ying and Beijing for the rise of the independence movement. But it’s actually the city’s freedom and high degree of autonomy that allow it to rise up. Full Western-style democracy would only open Pandora’s box.