For the city’s sake, just steer clear of that red line on independence
Beijing has made it clear there will be no compromise on sovereignty, and student leaders are merely sowing further distrust with their comments
The controversy involving student leaders at universities making separatist remarks during inauguration ceremonies is a case of déjà vu. What sets it apart from previous incidents are the prevailing circumstances in Hong Kong society and, increasingly, the public realises that such remarks will only provoke Beijing and lead to nowhere. Both the government and universities have also become more vocal in condemning such discussions, and the strong response is to be expected because Beijing has made it abundantly clear that the “red line” of sovereignty cannot be crossed.
This raises questions as to why some people still challenge that red line. The pro-independence expressions by individual students this year may not be as headline-grabbing as the slogans and banners put up across Chinese University and other campuses last year, but they are no less disturbing from the mainland perspective. Beijing has every right to be concerned when national unity is still not seriously respected after more than two decades of reunification.
It has become a trend for local students to make use of school openings, graduation ceremonies and the like to come up with political statements, including calls to make independence an option in the context of discussing the city’s future beyond 2047. While some are adamant that such discussions are just peaceful expressions of opinion, the red line has already been crossed in Beijing’s mind.
The government and universities are therefore in a difficult position. Politically, inaction will be seen as showing tolerance for independence but, without any effective tools to deal with such remarks, the two parties can only resort to verbal pressure. If they go further to limit what can or cannot be said during inaugurations it will provoke a backlash as in the case of Baptist University, where a student leader said some politically sensitive portions of his speech had been censored in a printed programme. The university denied this, saying it all came down to a lack of space in the publication.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has condemned those who use such events to promote “absurd” separatist ideas and urged universities to speak out against them. Although her comments may prompt more students to speak out in defiance, as the leader of Hong Kong she cannot be seen as condoning separatism. Whether there will be further concrete action taken by the government will be closely watched.
What is certain is that Beijing is unlikely to yield on the question of sovereignty. It would do well for everyone to steer clear of the red line because provocative gestures and remarks are hardly in the city’s interest. We will gain nothing but distrust if we continue to talk of breaking away from the country.