23 February 2019
A national flag of Scotland, left, flies alongside a Union Jack above a shop on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. Photo: Bloomberg
A national flag of Scotland, left, flies alongside a Union Jack above a shop on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. Photo: Bloomberg

Amid Scottish referendum, some thoughts on HK

The political future of Scotland, which will be determined in a vital referendum by over four million voters this Thursday, has come in for much debate in Europe in recent days.

Hong Kong people have also been following the developments keenly, but the issue has evoked mixed feelings here, as assertions like referendum and independence have become highly sensitive words following years of wrangling between local political groups.

Advocates of Hong Kong independence wish they could have a referendum just like their Scottish counterparts. Online bulletin boards and Facebook groups are filled with related discussions with some proposing an unofficial referendum — just like the one held by the Occupy Central group in June on the chief executive election process — to voice out their aspiration for Hong Kong’s future. 

Yet some scholars argue that it would be inappropriate to draw such a comparison. Having been part of the United Kingdom for over 300 years, Scotland’s political future does not present any relevance to the autonomy and democratic issues of Hong Kong, they say.

Hong Kong Economic Journal, EJ Insight’s parent publication, notes in an editorial that the international consensus is that a country’s territorial and sovereignty integrity should prevail over the autonomy of ethnic groups or their propositions of independence if that country respects human rights and if it deals with issues in conformity to international standards.

Ling Kim Ho, international affairs commentator at the think tank Global Studies Institute, told HKEJ that this is also the key point stated in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, a human rights declaration adopted by United Nations member countries in 1993.

A territory is only warranted to run a poll to decide its future political status after it is ceded or leased to another sovereign country. The UN Special Committee on Decolonization was created in the 1960s to speed up the process to granting independence to colonial countries and peoples (what Hongkongers should be peeved about is that they were deprived of such a poll as the territory was removed from UN’s official list of colonies in 1972 under Beijing’s pressure).

In this sense, the relations between Scotland and the British government is not about that of a colony and its suzerain state; the referendum is like an ultimate devolution plan. Thus, international standards about autonomy and political referendum, which mainly derive from decolonization, are not applicable to the upcoming Scottish poll.

Media reports say recent studies show that pro-independence voters have begun to outnumber those who prefer to continue to stay within the UK.

Observers note that for decades, some pro-independence Scots have believed that they are different both in culture, language and history from the rest of the UK and that they should have more autonomy from London. While some Hongkongers worry that the Chinese mainland may ultimately swallow the territory, the Scots are also concerned that their own identity will perish when England, its much stronger neighbor, dominates UK’s politics and economy. 

Not just in Hong Kong, the prospects of an independent Scotland have also caused ripples in other semi-autonomous regions. The Scots have just opened a Pandora’s box — activists in Catalonia, a northeastern autonomous region in Spain, will have a poll this November to gauge people’s attitude towards possible full independence, and, people in the French- and Dutch-speaking regions in Belgium may also seek to return to their motherlands.

Still, the landmark referendum in Scotland may offer Hong Kong people some food for thought: it is the result of decades of efforts by Scots for greater autonomy and even if the independence proposal is voted down, one thing is sure: there will be more devolution plans for the region as promised by London.

By comparison, since the handover, the majority of Hongkongers would rather opt to succumb to Beijing in exchange for some economic benefits or simply pretend to be well-meaning ostriches in the face of China’s gradual but steady erosion of the territory’s autonomy and core values through its thinly disguised interference in local affairs.

Also, numerous academic, media and non-governmental organizations in Scotland are free to conduct public opinion polls and key figures for the independence campaign can express their views without harsh criticism or unfair muckraking from the patriotic, pro-establishment camp. This is a scenario hard to imagine in Hong Kong.

Whenever some people wave the colonial Hong Kong flag — a gesture aimed at conveying their unhappiness with the current regime — central government loyalists and pro-Beijing media in the city mount an all-out war to denounce the protesters, labeling them as thugs and bandits who seek to oppose China, stir up trouble in Hong Kong and advocate political violence.

Given this, one can only imagine how Beijing and its supporters will react if someone puts forward a formal proposal for Hong Kong independence.

[Go to Facebook] 

– Contact the writer at [email protected]


Twilight in the Scottish capital city of Edinburgh. Will the world wake up this Friday to find an independent Scotland and a United Kingdom that is no longer united? Photo: Frank Chen

Supporters of the pro-independence campaign hold a "yes" banner alongside "no thanks" posters in Scotland as they demonstrate outside an anti-independence group office. Photo: Bloomberg

EJ Insight writer

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe