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Hong Kong localism and independence

Hong Kong’s democrats need to focus on ‘prize’ of universal suffrage rather than independence, leading US academic Larry Diamond says

Stanford University academic says when faced with an increasingly powerful China, activists are obliged to observe a geopolitics rule of thumb of not doing ‘stupid stuff’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 August, 2018, 7:04am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 August, 2018, 9:04pm

Hong Kong’s pan-democrat camp should be more proactive in shifting the political debate back to the fight for universal suffrage, rather than allowing separatists to “suck out” energy on an unrealistic cause.

That was the advice from one of the world’s leading scholars on democracy studies, Professor Larry Diamond, who said the recent proposal to ban the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) was a “deterioration” of liberties.

The Stanford University academic, who stressed the HKNP and party founder Andy Chan Ho-tin should have the right to peacefully advocate independence, said when faced with an increasingly powerful China, activists were “obliged” to observe a geopolitics rule of thumb of not doing “stupid stuff” that hampers the fight for democracy.

“This [independence debate] seems to me to be sucking out a lot of energy, political dialogue and political capital that could be deployed to more achievable objectives,” Diamond said in an interview with the Post, adding it was common for the “most radical voices to define the agenda”.

“Obviously individuals have the right to do what they want, but my hope is the bulk of young people will take a deep breath and say: ‘OK, we have what we have in our heart, but this is the reality. Let’s focus on how we can move the ball forward in terms of political freedom, eventual democratisation and Hong Kong identity.’”

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Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution in the US, said the notion of Hong Kong independence would receive limited support, if any, internationally – even among Americans who were profoundly sympathetic to the city’s democracy movement.

“It is not that we don’t have sympathy,” he said. “Come on, look at the legal instruments that had been internationally agreed to and the power balance – it is just not going to happen.”

The Occupy protests of 2014, sparked by a rigid framework laid down by Beijing for elections, was followed by the city’s legislature voting down the government’s political reform package in 2015. The frustration, particularly among younger activists, was followed by ever lower turnouts at protests and the rise of localism, which triggered the Mong Kok riot in 2016.

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Diamond, founding co-editor of the quarterly Journal of Democracy, said Hong Kong had reached a social and political crossroads, but the opposition lacked a strategic analysis on political leveraging and the vulnerability of the established political order in Hong Kong and mainland China.

Citing the Malaysian opposition camp’s unprecedented win in the country’s recent general election after decades of struggle, Diamond said democrats should focus on universal suffrage “like a laser beam” to gauge local and international support, and wait for a “political window” in Beijing’s power structure that could allow universal suffrage.

“What Martin Luther King said was to ‘keep your eyes on the prize’, and don’t be distracted by a lot of side issues or potential diversions,” Diamond said on Tuesday.

“It’s a fundamental issue. It goes to the core of Beijing’s failure to honour its own explicit obligations [on universal suffrage] under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.”

Diamond said low turnouts at recent protests were not a worry as taking to the streets was only “one of the many possible tactics”. He said there were still a lot of spaces for pushing for democracy.

“Part of a long-term campaign can be just the cultivation of pride in Hong Kong, awareness of Hong Kong, and tradition of pluralism, capitalism and so on,” Diamond said.

“If you distinguish that from pro-independence sentiment and make it clear that’s not what you are after, you may get to do a lot of interesting and creative things.”

In the short term, Diamond said democrats should find some common ground with the pro-establishment camp on policy issues such as housing problems.

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“Pan-democrats need an agenda that’s not universal suffrage or Hong Kong identity. It has got to focus on bread and butter, quality of life and social justice issues.”

He predicted Hong Kong would very likely see deteriorating levels of democracy before a transition to full democracy, but if the city could build strong democratic aspirations before the end of the “one country, two systems” policy in 2047, it would be costly for Beijing to turn down reform.