In the years before the 1997 handover, a tediously frequent topic of dinner-party conversation revolved around the question: why does Britain have to hand Hong Kong back to China? Surely, the Treaty of Nanking, signed in 1842, had ceded the island of Hong Kong to Britain in perpetuity.
Likewise, the Treaty of Tientsin, signed in 1858, yielded the Kowloon peninsula to Boundary Street, along with Stonecutters Island. Yes, we understand that the New Territories was only leased for 99 years, under the 1898 Convention of Peking, so, naturally, that has to go back in 1997. But why, people plaintively asked, must Hong Kong Island and Kowloon be returned, too?
Depending on an individual’s attachment to Hong Kong, and his feelings of ethnic or national superiority (or inferiority), these discussions could become subjective and emotional.
Counter-arguments ran the gamut from Hong Kong’s dependence on both New Territories and mainland reservoirs for its very existence to the fact that Hong Kong, given its small size, population density, rugged terrain and limited water supplies, was completely indefensible for more than a few weeks at most. The 1941 Japanese invasion had categorically proven this final point.
Most importantly, Chinese national sentiment had made it politically impossible for any government in China to “extend the lease” – either in the early 1980s, when the Sino-British negotiations on the future of Hong Kong were under way, or at some earlier time.
Gradually, though, a consensus would be reached around the broader historical, political and cultural reasons why British rule over all of Hong Kong – and not just the New Territories – must end. After a few such debates, the main points became banal. Nevertheless, these dialogues helped, in a small way, to educate those who wouldn’t otherwise know differently.
Twenty years after the handover, this discussion – when it occasionally resurfaces – remains only of counterfactual historical interest.
And so it is with contemporary arguments about Hong Kong independence. Nothing has changed; everything about the notion remains patently impossible in practical terms.
But, just as with “1997 And All That”, this conversation needs to be had: logically, unemotionally and as frequently as necessary, the various points outlined in wearisome detail, in order for the whole idea to become broadly acknowledged as a non-starter, and go away of its own accord.
Honest official acknowledgement of how and why this conversation has arisen among not insignificant numbers of Hong Kong’s young people over the past five years would be a good beginning. This, however, remains unlikely. The current regime simply doesn’t “do” the public acknowledgement of mistakes, however obvious they might have been.
Shutting down the discussion by force majeure – as senior government figures, desperate to be seen to be doing what they believe their puppet masters want, have recently attempted – does nothing to make it disappear.
The accidentally-on-purpose liberal sloshing of kerosene onto the independence debate embers by certain individuals – oh-so-keen to demonstrate their fealty to China – is both pitifully obvious and profoundly unhelpful.
Former Law Society president Junius “Genius” Ho Kwan-yiu, currently under police investigation for recent rabble-rousing calls to “kill without mercy” local independence advocates, could do worse than take note of that time-proven Hong Kong saying: “Those who live by the shoeshine, perish by the shoeshine.”
And if the Law Society is to claim any broader relevance, beyond being another of Hong Kong’s ubiquitous trade-union-style job-protection confederations, then its members must ask themselves serious questions about just what, ahem, they permit to float to the top of their particular bucket.