28 October 2016
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying gives a bottle of throat lozenges to Chief Secretary Carrie Lam at a rally in Mei Foo on Wednesday to promote the package for the 2017 election.  Photo: GovHK
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying gives a bottle of throat lozenges to Chief Secretary Carrie Lam at a rally in Mei Foo on Wednesday to promote the package for the 2017 election. Photo: GovHK

Separatism now spreading like wild fire in Hong Kong

With the government’s unveiling of its consultation report and proposals for the 2017 election on Wednesday, the Hong Kong people’s pursuit of democracy over the past 30 years has been declared a pipe dream.

The election package was concocted after Beijing set the tone, and after a year of pretentious consultations. The government has not offered anything new. Some have called it “genuine” and others insist it has the “essence of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle”. Now I wonder: Is there anything else they haven’t said to twist the facts?

In a normal society, surely an extensive poll is warranted after the authorities rolled out such a retrogressive plan for a vital election so that lawmakers can vote according to the prevailing public opinion. But here in Hong Kong such a poll is labeled as “promoting independence under the guise of public will”. Now we know what kind of civil rights we have.

There has been enough talk about the election reform and I see no need to add more. A straightforward veto. No more comment.

I strongly support Lee Yee’s appeal for the old democrats to step down to make way for the younger generation. I think the “Ko Wen-je” model is worth considering. Just like the Democratic Progressive Party’s full support for a non-party member in Taipei’s mayoral election last year, the pan-democratic bloc as a whole needs to have open nominations for those youngsters who have spearheaded social movements.

Localism, estrangement and pro-Hong Kong independence sentiment will flourish further following the defeat in the fight for a genuine vote in 2017.

No more than three years into his tenure, Leung Chun-ying and his radical stooges have brought about a governance crisis unseen throughout the previous 15 years of the first two chief executives since the handover.

A soft approach of reconciliation to win back people’s hearts when there were noticeable traces of dissension and separatism was how the Chinese empire expanded its territory and survived turmoil without falling apart over the past two thousand years.

Sadly, Leung could just imitate what many tyrants have done as well as Beijing’s hardline against ethnic minorities. His tactics have effectively boomeranged.

Now a sort of anti-independence McCarthyism is taking shape in Hong Kong. What we have seen in the United States back in the 1950s — or the Second Red Scare led by Senator Joseph McCarthy when the government cracked down on institutions and the media and cultural sectors — is happening right now in the city.

Still, localism will gain more momentum: it has not only seeded the pro-secession ideology among youngsters, now more middle-aged and senior citizens are also becoming advocates of similar thoughts.

The majority of the local pro-democracy camp are those who oppose the Chinese Communist Party but at the same time consider themselves as patriots or nationalists. Yet after the disillusionment of Hong Kong’s “democratic reunification” with China, many of them have lost their spiritual sustenance and found their long support of the handover meaningless.

These democrats are all immersed in Chinese history and culture and thus, being steadfast anti-communist activists does not contradict their profound love for a “great China” in the cultural and historical sense.

For some of them, the motivation to oppose the party springs from their common, orthodox love of China and their desire to defend its purity and authenticity.

By the same token, they cannot accept an independent Hong Kong.

But their predicament comes from their polarized mindset – that is, Hong Kong independence runs counter to the preservation and continuity of the “great China” and denying China is the same as advocating Hong Kong secession.

Indeed, I see there is a way in between: a new state for Hong Kong that maintains the territory’s cultural ties with China while at the same time promoting a certain degree of independence politically.

This is entirely a conceptual idea as Hong Kong can hardly become a separate entity, even in the next hundred years. Here we have some precedents, like Quebec in Canada, Scotland in the United Kingdom and Catalonia in Spain. All of these regions have been seeking independence for more than a century.

A separatist sentiment does not necessarily lead to actual movements, and even if there are such campaigns, the chance of success can only be slim. Historically, only a few succeeded.

Donald Horowitz, professor of law and political science at the Duke University who is known for his studies in racial and ethnic conflicts, brings up a universal truth in his paper Patterns of Ethnic Separatism, which is that virtually any separatist sentiment in any country originates from internal disputes but whether the subsequent movements can succeed is subject to external factors. One example in history is Mongolia, which split from the Republic of China in 1946 with strong backing from the Soviet Union.

The nutrition for such sentiment is usually discrimination, ill treatment or failure to honor pledges in politics, economy, language or identity by the central authorities or other regions within the same country. This theory sounds familiar to Hongkongers.

Ethnic minorities in less developed regions (like Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia) or places with a more civilized and advanced society (like Hong Kong and Taiwan) are most likely to see the emergence of separatism.

Then, how should the top leader respond?

Montserrat Guibernau, professor of Politics at the Queen Mary University of London, has done massive studies in this area. Empirical findings in her paper National Identity, Devolution and Secession in Canada, Britain and Spain points to the fact that devolution policies to grant greater powers of autonomy will foster the rise in these regions of another identity on top of their national one, but eventually separatist movements may wane. The best example is Quebec.

Guibernau’s findings offer lessons for Beijing to reflect and draw upon. But that would be against its nature of clinging to all supreme powers.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 23.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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(From left) Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam display copies of the 2017 election proposals. Photo: GovHK

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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