China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong is non-negotiable
Freedom of speech is a good thing but it is not absolute; calling for independence really does cross the ‘red line’
Freedom of speech is not an absolute. It is subject to limits in practically all human societies. Sometimes such limits are justified; other times, not.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, in rendering free speech almost an absolute right, is an outlier. Many people admire it from afar. Then again, it’s much easier to deal in absolutes than having to acknowledge nuances and conditions.
It seems to me a far greater achievement for societies that have managed to balance free speech with the need for public order and social consensus. Hong Kong is trying to do just that – a free society, yet with clear obligations towards a much greater and bigger authoritarian state of which it is a part. For both moral and material reasons, those obligations must weigh more heavily on us than any other obligations.
Outsiders may try to help or hinder, but we must address, on our own terms, the city’s unique positions and challenges. One clear obligation of ours to the mainland is to maintain, without conditions, that Hong Kong is an integral part of China. It is codified in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution. Both foundational documents also guarantee freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and other such rights protected in most liberal-democratic countries.
But each society, however free, has its own limits and challenges. Beijing’s red line for Hong Kong is not shifting all the time, as has been claimed by critics. It’s simply this: Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China.
In that sense, both Hong Kong and Beijing are caught in a dilemma, though differently. As a communist authoritarian state, the central government must offer greater tolerance for Hong Kong, even when its red line is being challenged.
Hong Kong, however, cannot ape other societies that allow advocacy of secession or independence. We have to discourage, contain, even ban such talks and groupings in extreme cases, such as the Hong Kong National Party. But are its party leaders facing punishment like jail or fines? Not at all. New penalties being proposed against wayward taxi drivers are tougher, and do include jail, fines and licence suspensions.
Maybe some countries allow secession. Who are we to judge them? But also, who are they to judge us? A unified country is the overriding priority of the Chinese state, its raison d’être; it is non-negotiable.