Hong Kong is different from the rest of China, but that’s no justification for advocating separatism
Anson Au says separatist movements have historically exacted a high price and there are far less drastic ways to ensure that Hong Kong preserves its identity and culture
Hong Kong National Party leader Andy Chan Ho-tin’s speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club last week, calling for Hong Kong independence, has ignited a firestorm of controversy and mudslinging across the political spectrum. Former chief executive Leung Chun-ying has attacked the FCC for betraying the government’s faith, the club has issued statements on the importance of free speech and others have seized the opportunity to reiterate their call for democracy.
Now, Chan could face potential prosecution, which should not happen – if not for the sake of press freedom, then to show that childish absurdities such as his beliefs should be shrugged off. Chan claims we cannot be part of the same nation if we have cultural or political differences and anything to the contrary is imperialist propaganda, so we need to rid ourselves of China altogether – as if the only response to difference is to renounce all ties with it.
His rationale is typical of separatist movements, suggesting that because our society’s problems have remained unresolved under the current government, they can’t be fixed, so we should start a revolution and voilà – our problems will disappear along with the current government. But buying a new house just because we dislike the wallpaper in the old one is irresponsible, as is using the entire political system as a scapegoat, for popular appeal.
It’s important to keep sight of the big picture. Evidence from countries around the world teaches us about the long-term, widespread consequences that separatist forces threaten to unleash. Separatist movements spurred by ideological pride only hurt the separating society, especially if they win.
Watch: Activist Andy Chan delivers FCC talk despite protests
First, separatist movements, radical to begin with, risk having parts of their support base take up arms in political frustration. In the 1960s and 1970s in Canada, a Quebec sovereignty movement emerged which proposed to separate the province from Canada, riding on the same fears of cultural assimilation that Hong Kong localists are raising. The Quebec sovereignty movement gave rise to a militant organisation called the Front de Libération du Québec.
Members grew zealous enough to plant bombs in government offices, the stock exchange and even postboxes – attacking anything seen as benefiting the government and anyone who they felt opposed their revolutionary separatist vision. Although the separatist political parties denounced the violence, a political platform with only a radical vision and ideological fervour is dangerously unpredictable and has the inherent potential to branch out into an armed movement.
The Hong Kong independence movement that Chan represents has already made gestures in this direction: writing an open letter to US President Donald Trump calling for China and Hong Kong’s removal from the WTO, and for the US to impose what are essentially tariffs on Hong Kong in self-claimed bids to disrupt the economy just to get their message across. But this won't cripple the current regime, as Chan hopes, as much as the entirety of Hong Kong. If our entire economy is what their vision of sovereignty is worth, how much more are they willing to make us give up?
Second, division breeds division. The rationale used by radical Hong Kong localists to justify separatism doesn’t stop at splitting Hong Kong from China, but technically includes dividing Hong Kong itself.
If we justify the right to secession based on cultural differences and sense of belonging, then we will find ourselves on a slippery slope whereby we must offer the same right to Filipinos, Indians, expats, those against independence or any group that doesn’t feel part of the independence activists’ vision of Hong Kong.
The fact is that political or cultural differences are hardly grounds for secession. Otherwise, the US would have been pulled apart by its “red” Republican-voter dominated and “blue” Democrat-supporter states.
Finally, the economic costs of a successful separation are enormous. Brexit offers a recent example. The money saved from the dues of membership to the European Union must now be repaid – in full and more – to access those very same markets. And Britain’s existing trade deals must be made anew with a now disgruntled European Union. The lesson is to not let populist movements without a calculated plan decide society’s future based on a sensationalist vision of independence dreamed up by a few.
The biggest risk isn’t how other countries would treat Hong Kong after independence, but how China would. If China chose to boycott Hong Kong exports, impose heavy trade tariffs on the city or even sanction Hong Kong altogether, which would be its right if it were a foreign country, our economy would buckle and we would have to bear the burden for a long time.
Every country in modern Asia has realised they need China more than any other nation – a fact admitted even by those with disputes with Beijing, such as Malaysia. Despite Malaysia’s South China Sea stand-off, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad realises China’s large market means that ultimately he can’t risk upsetting Beijing.
For an independent Hong Kong, the opportunity that the largest market in Asia now represents could easily turn into the nightmare of competition.
There are far less drastic ways to ensure Hong Kong preserves its culture and identity without jeopardising its entire future. But, like Quebec, this requires negotiation with the central authorities and moderation from local radicals. We must abandon ideology for pragmatism, part of which means being willing to make concessions.
Hong Kong doesn’t need independence or a radical movement – there’s nothing to suggest either would resolve our existing problems. We need policies that serve the real needs of the many, on housing, social services and immigration, not the sensationalist power grabs of a few.
Anson Au is a scholar and writer whose work covers culture, health and politics. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Seoul National University Asia Centre and at Yonsei University, as well as a PhD student in sociology at the University of Toronto