Separatism is suicidal – US democracy expert urges Hong Kong activists to act smarter

Advocating independence plays into the hands of the hardest hardliners in China, says Larry Diamond

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 March, 2016, 5:05pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 March, 2016, 10:00pm

Act strategically instead of just venting anger, one of the world’s leading political scientists told activists in Hong Kong as he warned that the rise of separatist sentiments was counterproductive if not suicidal for the city’s democratic future.

Professor Larry Diamond, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University in the United States, said any attempt to advocate independence or regard it as a way out beyond 2047, the expiry date of Beijing’s 50-year promise under the “one country, two systems” formula, would only push the central authorities to crack down on Hong Kong and further marginalise the already weak pro-democracy camp.

READ MORE: Beijing’s reform package for Hong Kong is an insult, US scholar Larry Diamond says

“I think it is suicidal,” Diamond, who was visiting the city, told the South China Morning Post in an interview on Friday. “It is not the way Hong Kong is going to achieve democracy and deeper or more meaningful autonomy. It is just going to play into the hands of the hardest hardliners in China.”

Diamond was commenting on the rise of localism as reflected most recently in the Legislative Council by-election last month, in which young candidate Edward Leung Tin-kei of Hong Kong Indigenous scored a significant 16 per cent vote share despite a short period of campaigning.

The convenor of the student-led group Scholarism, Joshua Wong Chi-fung, who played a significant role in the Occupy protests in 2014 and planned to form a new political party next month, also pledged to hold a referendum in 10 years to let Hongkongers express their desire for self-determination after 2047.

Diamond, founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy who has studied democratisation across continents, pointed to the basic strategic rules of social movement – “to unify your ranks and divide your adversaries”.

READ MORE: Leading democracy scholar Larry Diamond suggests forming parliament in Hong Kong

Noting the strong sentiment of nationalism in mainland China, he said advocating independence would only divide Hongkongers but unify everybody in China, not to mention drive away some moderates across the border who had looked forward to more engagement with the city.

The same theory applied to the relationship between police and pro-democracy activists, which had turned confrontational in the wake of the 79-day Occupy sit-ins. The scholar believed the protesters should be more empathetic and get into the minds of their political adversaries in a bid to neutralise the opposition.

But being mad as hell and resolving that you are not taking it anymore is an emotion but not a strategy
Professor Larry Diamond

Emphasising his empathy towards the young’s frustrations, Diamond stressed he was not asking them to change their aspirations, just to act strategically with an analytical mind.

“When you have been victimised … and been treated unjustly, as the whole Hong Kong population has been, the natural reaction is anger, frustration and resentment,” he said. “But being mad as hell and resolving that you are not taking it anymore is an emotion but not a strategy.”

He added that the democratic camp, which had little power and resources compared to its counterparts, did not “have the luxury of simply venting emotion”, like what the Philippines went through in 1986.

Meanwhile, Diamond believed the mainland could eventually evolve into an asymmetrical federal system, which allowed the two special administrative regions to enjoy more autonomy than the other provinces, and this could be a possible way out for Hong Kong.

READ MORE: Hong Kong is ‘ready for democracy’, says top US scholar

He said the Communist Party should lead a process of gradual political reform like the KMT did in Taiwan and that could “buy themselves a lot of time”.

“I think if the Chinese Communist Party would move to that direction and lead and shape the process of political reform, they would be able to remain in the driver’s seat like the KMT did,” said Diamond.