Why historical optical trick has me scared

Localists often make angry assertions about their positions,but arguments offered by intellectuals are by no means unintelligent and not easily dismissed

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 January, 2018, 12:25am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 January, 2018, 12:30am

The rise of radical localism is both fascinating and repugnant to me because it subverts basic historical and political categories that make up the mental universe of many, if not most, people of my generation.

As a Chinese and Hongkonger, I consider the movement a cancer in the body politic of the city. However, at its most sophisticated, it has become a full-fledged revisionist version of Hong Kong that needs to be confronted.

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Among such beliefs are: Hong Kong people are not Chinese, but have their own cultural and ethnic identity; China has no legitimate rule over Hong Kong, so the city remains effectively a colony; and it has no future under the “one country two systems” principle, so independence is the only option.

Localists argue such positions with varying degrees of sophistication. Sometimes, they are just angry assertions, accompanied by obscenities. But in the hands of intellectuals like Tsui Sing-Yun and Lian Yi-zheng, such arguments are by no means unintelligent, and are not so easily dismantled.

Localist websites have been circulating a talk given by Lian, an economist and commentator, at a Chinese University forum last month in which he argues against at least two sacred historical cows.

First, most Chinese would agree that over 2,000 years, the central authorities often had trouble extending effective control over the south. But writers like Lian argue that’s because the southern regions were never fully part of the northern Han country.

Second, many self-styled anti-communists consider the Chinese communist state as separate from the nation. But Lian argues you can’t conveniently distinguish one from the other because the central government is at least as representative of China as the previous dynastic rule of the Qing, the Ming, or the Tang was.

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That’s why localists don’t just oppose Beijing, but the whole country into which Hong Kong is being absorbed. Guess who are undermining the Joint Declaration and Basic Law!

Writers such as Lian are not disputing basic historical facts, but offering a completely different interpretation. It’s like that famous optical trick of a picture which, depending on how you look at it, is either a beautiful lady or an old woman.

That’s what scares me. Because such localism is not easily dismissed and will not go away any time soon.

The threat of independence goes far deeper than mere democracy. But so many young people don’t know they are stroking the dragon’s tail.