Hong Kong’s Nobel nominees should aim for the bigger prize: democracy, not ‘self-determination’ from China
Vijay Verghese says the nomination of three student leaders of the Occupy pro-democracy protests for the Nobel Peace Prize has caused a stir, and shines a light on the aims and methods of the city’s young activists
The nomination of three Hong Kong activists for the Nobel Peace Prize by a group of US congressmen has put the cat among the pigeons. The trio – Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law and Alex Chow – in the news for having served time in jail for the storming of the government offices and notable for their role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, were cited as “champions of peace and freedom and Hong Kong’s entire pro-democracy movement”. This first nomination for a Hong Kong candidate immediately sets the Nobel committee on a potential collision course with China, which takes a less sanguine view of the movement.
The letter goes on to highlight the “peaceful efforts to bring political reform and self-determination to Hong Kong and protect the autonomy and freedom” enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law that has seen several reinterpretations by China’s top legislative body, most recently in the November 2016 decision by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, which paved the way for the disqualification of elected “localist” lawmakers who made a travesty of their oath-taking ceremony.
While Chinese spokespeople have rubbished the Sino-British deal as a “historical document that no longer has any realistic meaning”, senior officials in charge of Hong Kong’s affairs have been equally quick to assert that this simply means times and contexts have changed. They reaffirm the treaty is legally binding but add that any future “one country, two systems” tweaks would be purely a domestic matter. This has been China’s line throughout; any hint of foreign interference is anathema.
A high level of autonomy was conferred on the territory but independence was never on the table. No one suggested this when Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping sat down to tease out the contentious outlines of accord.
The last Hong Kong governor, Chris Patten, famously expanded some trappings of democracy by broadening direct elections in the Legislative Council as a bargaining handle, to be denounced by China as a “sinner for the ages”. Interestingly, this British “devil”, while addressing students at the University of Hong Kong in 2016, stated clearly that “Hong Kong is not a would-be nation state” and independence is “never going to happen”. This echoes Beijing’s thinking that “self-determination” is the thin end of the independence wedge. And if Hong Kong moves in this direction, what is there to stop Taiwan from doing the same?
Demosisto, the student movement from which two of the nominees have been drawn, remains a fringe group that, while genuinely passionate about its beliefs, has adopted an emotive and entirely untenable line of argument 20 years too late and out of touch with history. Hong Kong is very much a part of China, albeit with a 50-year guarantee on its cherished freedoms and way of life.
Watch: Two Occupy student leaders released on bail in October 2017
This young group is imbued with courage and persistence yet lacks a clear focus, managing to alienate many people in its pursuit of “democratic self-determination”. On its website, the party states, “we push for the city’s political and economic autonomy from the oppression of the Communist Party of China and capitalist hegemony”. This is running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, the rhetoric at once revolutionary Red Guard as well as Imperialist Running Dog. It has made an enemy of both mainland party apparatchiks and Hong Kong’s property tycoons.
These bright-eyed and passionate youngsters must have a great say in the development of Hong Kong. After all, they are the true inheritors of the future. But simply taking up cudgels against all manner of oppression smacks more of teen angst and growing pains than mature leadership.
Rebellion is not in itself worthy of a Nobel citation without the vision and forbearance of a structured, sensible, and sustained approach to strengthening democracy in Hong Kong that focuses on economic growth, opportunities and housing for the young and marginalised, quality education, and true emancipation from the city’s inward-looking approach to make the special administrative region a regional, if not global, leader.
The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded thus far to 131 laureates (individuals and organisations), not always without controversy and political fallout. Their ranks have included the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (2017), Pakistani child activist and Taliban assassination target Malala Yousafzai (2014), the European Union (2012), Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (2010), and former US president Barack Obama (2009).
Nobel choices have sparked robust debate, none more so than Bob Dylan who received the award for literature in 2017. Obama, with his soaring oratory, was almost a reflex choice. He had barely stepped into the office of the president when his name was announced. As events of the later Arab spring showed, American indecision, timidity and missteps dashed any promise of lasting change, or peace.
Against this backdrop of world-changing events stand three proud individuals who have certainly fought tirelessly for Hong Kong. The question is, what are they fighting for?
Watch: How Hong Kong’s Occupy protests started
In hindsight, the Occupy ruckus, which began as a call for universal suffrage, was all steam and no electricity. The movement quickly lost focus and leadership as endless grievances – not least against the tin-eared former chief executive Leung Chun-ying – poured in and created an emotional stew. The city was held to ransom for almost three months. Nothing was achieved and many people alienated.
It would be wise for Demosisto, and the US congressmen, to sit down and reread history. Perhaps this unusual spotlight will finally enable the city’s students to examine their “struggle” and channel their energies into securing democracy as well as protecting Hong Kong’s institutions – the rule of law, a free press, and personal freedoms unavailable in many cities around Asia. This would be applauded by all and constitute a far bigger prize. Independence fell through the trapdoors of history, never to return. This is as true now as it was in 1997.
Vijay Verghese is a Hong Kong-based journalist and editor of the online magazines AsianConversations.com and SmartTravelAsia.com