17 February 2019
Marchers carry the Hong Kong colonial emblem. Discussions about self-determination in Hong Kong are making leaders in Beijing nervous. Photo: HKEJ
Marchers carry the Hong Kong colonial emblem. Discussions about self-determination in Hong Kong are making leaders in Beijing nervous. Photo: HKEJ

How Leung sent chills with things he didn’t say

Leung Chun-ying laced his policy address on Wednesday with politics, devoting 10 of the first 12 paragraphs to “one country”.

He lost no time singling out targets, including a university student publication which he accused of inciting independence for Hong Kong.

The object of his rebuke is an academic discussion of self-determination in Undergrad magazine run by the student union of the University of Hong Kong.

And its biggest impact came not from what he said but from what he didn’t say — a chilling signal of the government’s stance on free speech.

In this time of political sensitivity and social divisions in the aftermath of the recent democracy protests, Leung’s comments amounted to a warning to Hong Kong people to toe the line. It smacked of white terror.

What exactly did he say?

For the benefit of those who missed it, we’re excerpting two lines from the speech: 

“Undergraduates and other students, including student leaders of the Occupy movement, have misstated some facts.” 

“We also ask political figures with close ties to the leaders of the student movement to advise them against putting forward such fallacies.”

Leung went on to urge the public to be alert to any groups advocating for self-determination.

This is the first time a top government official of Hong Kong, let alone its leader, has denounced an academic discussion of the subject in a policy speech.

Not too long ago, when Cable TV interviewed a group of Taiwan independence supporters, it drew criticism from Beijing.

These incidents reflect the new political reality in Hong Kong in which certain freedoms it enjoyed unfettered under British colonial rule are being eroded after its return to Chinese sovereignty.

Freedom of expression has been a bedrock of the Hong Kong way of life. Its people have not been without it for as long as anyone can remember.   

If young Hong Kong people can’t freely talk about the future, what do we make of the government’s assurances that it encourages — and protects — free speech?

The Basic Law does not forbid lawful exchanges of ideas but the government is acting as though these are not allowed.

It’s clear Leung takes his marching orders from Beijing and this sort of discussion about Hong Kong’s future makes it uneasy.

But an academic discussion is just that — it’s a discussion and it’s academic. There is no call to action.

Most of the exchanges were done on paper and online. 

Leung’s comments were quickly picked up by Beijing-owned bookstores which stopped distributing books by HKU student publications. 

The fallout reminds us of the sacking of Liberal Party legislator James Tien from China’s political consultative body after he made negative remarks about Leung.

These developments did not happen overnight. They’re part of the failings of “one country, two systems” and its implementation.

Hong Kong students will not wake up tomorrow and begin fighting for independence but they will not easily give up their right to think and speak.

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EJ Insight writer

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