27 October 2016
The suspected abduction of some booksellers by mainland Chinese agents has further increased the mistrust among Hongkongers about Beijing. Photo: Internet
The suspected abduction of some booksellers by mainland Chinese agents has further increased the mistrust among Hongkongers about Beijing. Photo: Internet

Nativist sentiments can crystallize into something else

Hong Kong could get an answer from Beijing on Lee Bo and his associates as mainland officials will, sooner or later, produce trumped up criminal charges against the Hong Kong booksellers. One thing, however, is sure: The incident will have far-reaching implications politically.

In this column I will first talk about Taiwan and then a simple principle of physical chemistry that may offer a new political perspective.

The Kuomintang’s Ma Ying-jeou beat the odds and secured a second term as Taiwan president four years ago. At that time, the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen, who is now the KMT’s rival in this weekend’s presidential election, was a lesser-known figure.

Ma owed his victory to Beijing as the latter marshaled Taiwan investors and businessmen on the mainland into supporting the KMT. Warning of potential instability and military tensions in the event of an opposition win, mainland authorities played on the fears of the island’s public.

Taiwan independence was still something unmentionable back then: the KMT accused DPP of separatism although the latter had already veered from its explicit pro-independence manifesto. As for voters, the fear of exasperating Beijing obviously outweighed their common inclination toward independence.

But within the span of just a few years, Taiwan has seen drastic shifts in the balance between pro and anti-independence camps. In 2012, proposed takeover of a media outlet by a Beijing-friendly business tycoon goaded tens of thousands of youngsters into taking to the streets in Taipei. The protests forced the government to veto the transaction.

Later, in 2014, the same young people held up a cross-strait trade agreement by launching the so-called Sunflower Movement.

As the young dared to defy Beijing with a pro-independence stance, the DPP swiftly modified its stance toward maintaining the status quo, as seen in Tsai’s new manifesto for the coming election. This time the DPP has the ball in its own court, and voters, who earlier dreaded Beijing’s muscle, have decided to vote for Tsai, going by the polls.

Beijing can no longer use fear as a persuasion weapon.

How to explain all these changes? A simple principle of chemistry – supersaturation and crystallization – presents a new angle.

Saturation is the point at which a solution can dissolve no more of a substance. Yet when the temperature of a saturated solution drops suddenly, it may dissolve more solute than under normal circumstances, as the molecules cannot instantly meet up and form the precipitate.

In a state of supersaturation, strong crystallization takes place when more solute, for instance, table sugar, is added: crystallites form on the surface of the sugar particles in a process called nucleation until the concentration drops to the saturation level. The more supersaturated the solution is, the faster the crystallization and the more the crystal nucleus in the liquid.

Taiwan’s nativist sentiment has always been on the rise and its state is just like a supersaturated solution. External stimuli, or some new “solute”, like a trade pact with China, will instantly lead to the widespread “crystallization” of demands to break up with China.

Likewise, the shape of things in Hong Kong can be likened to another fuming, supersaturated liquid thanks to its many shared similarities with Taiwan.

The external stimuli in the context of Hong Kong can be Leung Chun-ying’s rule, Beijing’s regressive election package, crackdown on the Occupy movement, the University of Hong Kong saga and the recent abductions of booksellers.

There has been an emergence of “crystal nucleus”: groups, platforms and forums that advocate a nativist approach forward.

If Beijing remains obstinate and refuses to address Hong Kong people’s concerns, it will only to lead to “crystallization” of independence sentiments.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 11.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


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

EJI Weekly Newsletter