21 October 2016
The failure of the Occupy movement and people's disillusionment with 'one country, two systems' sowed the seeds of separatism. Photo: HKEJ
The failure of the Occupy movement and people's disillusionment with 'one country, two systems' sowed the seeds of separatism. Photo: HKEJ

What is breeding separatism in Hong Kong?

In recent months, our city has seen the birth of several political organizations led by young people.

Their political pledges would probably have been regarded as unimaginable 20 years ago — namely, self-determination or independence for Hong Kong.

Even though these organizations are setting their sights on the period after 2047 and are seeking neither immediate self-determination nor independence, in the eyes of Beijing they have already crossed the line.

The ideas of self-determination and independence are fundamentally different from each other.

Self-determination often refers to a situation in which a particular group of people who share the same cultural or ethnic identity seek their constitutional right to determine their own governmental affairs and to make their own decisions on particular issues.

What they want is autonomy rather than becoming an independent state, as opposed to those who are calling for full independence.

Self-determination is often the result of a referendum, whereas independence may be achieved either by referendum or revolution.

As far as Hong Kong is concerned, people who are in favor of self-determination might not necessarily agree with the pro-independence cause.

Some of them might be against the idea of secession from China, especially more moderate voters, such as many in the middle class.

Still seeing Hong Kong as part of the People’s Republic of China, they are dismayed at Beijing’s continued interference in Hong Kong’s affairs and its violation of the principle of “one country, two systems”, and so they are seeking a way to defend our autonomy, promised under the Basic Law, and trying to put things right.

By contrast, pro-independence organizations are calling for Hong Kong’s secession from the mainland and becoming an independent city state like Singapore.

Here I don’t intend to take a stand on either self-determination or independence, nor am I going to analyze the feasibility of these options.

What I want to do is to find out the root cause for the sudden rise of the pro-self-determination and the pro-independence sentiment in Hong Kong.

In fact, the rapid rise of such sentiment has its roots in the so-called “831 resolution” announced by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on August 31, 2014, regarding the arrangements for the 2017 election for Hong Kong’s chief executive, and the failure of the subsequent Occupy Central movement.

It wasn’t until the NPC declared the “831 resolution” that many people in Hong Kong finally began to realize that Beijing had no intention of allowing us universal suffrage whatsoever.

Worse still, the democratization of our city has ground to an indefinite halt after the government’s election proposal was defeated in the Legislative Council in June last year.

As a result, many people have started to feel disillusioned with “one country, two systems” and stopped believing that the Basic Law would guarantee us real democracy.

It was the bitterness of being betrayed, the disillusionment, indignation, frustration, powerlessness and impatience among the public about the current state of affairs and the future of democratization in our city that finally gave rise to the idea of self-determination and even secession from China: if Beijiing won’t give us what we want, why don’t we just part?

It would have been totally unthinkable to discuss the possibility of Hong Kong determining its own future or even declaring independence against Beijing’s will in the mainstream media 10 years ago.

In other words, it was Beijing’s heavy-handedness and its refusal to budge even an inch over the arrangements for the 2017 election for chief executive that bred separatist sentiment in our city.

I believe that unless Beijing softens its stance on granting Hong Kong universal suffrage, more and more of our fellow citizens will be drawn to the pro-self-determination or even pro-independence themes in the days ahead.

And the more relentlessly Beijing cracks down on them, the more radical and even violent they will become, thereby throwing our city into a vicious circle of unrelenting suppression and resistance.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 18.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong

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