Just who pushed the pro-independence idea into our consciousness and made it the hot-button issue it is today?
If you thought it was the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP), you would be half-right. You would be half-right again if you answered Leung Chun-ying.
With HKNP, we know that independence is in its manifesto and no matter how it chooses to achieve it, there’s no quibble about what the party stands for.
But CY Leung?
He planted the seeds of pro-independence thinking by elevating an obscure article in a student publication to as high a profile as it could get.
Leung used no less a platform than his policy address last year to castigate Undergad magazine, an organ of the University of Hong Kong student union, for an essay on self-determination that neither incited independence nor proposed a means to that end.
What if Leung had only mentioned it in passing or not at all?
The issue would conceivably have remained in the realm of academic discussion or a topic of conversation at the dinner table.
It might have bubbled under the surface for a while and not have taken this fast to evolve into something worrisome to Leung himself and to his bosses in Beijing.
And it’s doubtful it could inspire a political party like HKNP, let alone enable its public debut with a splash.
Leung, of course, is opposed to the idea as he should be, but his recent public statements show a lack of understanding about his role in the whole conundrum.
At an official function earlier this month, he said Hong Kong does not need independence to safeguard its interests because his policies have always put Hongkongers first.
By contrast, Beijing loyalists were quick to point out that independence contravenes the Basic law and is therefore illegal.
They warned against the mere act of talking about the subject. There has been talk about drawing a red line around it.
Ironically, the harsher the loyalists’ rhetoric, the harder the push by pro-independence supporters.
HKNP seems to have struck a nerve in young people who are the most disaffected by Leung’s governance and Beijing’s constant meddling in Hong Kong.
Independence, or the idea of it, has been on their minds.
A survey by Democratic Party vice chairman Lo Kin-hei shows that the phrase “Hong Kong independence” has been gaining popularity in the past two years.
The survey studied its use by Chinese newspapers from 2009 to 2016 using archive services provider Wiser.
The phrase was mentioned fewer than 100 times in 2009 but broke 300 in 2010 in the wake of a mass resignation by lawmakers.
By 2013, the phrase had more than 900 newspaper mentions and hit 1,300 in 2014, the year of the pro-democracy protests.
The words appeared in newspapers more than 700 times in 2012 and 900 times in 2013, surging to more than 1,300 times in 2014.
Last year, “Hong Kong independence” had no less than 4,700 newspaper mentions, driven by Leung’s policy address.
And as of April 25, it had appeared more than 2,500 times.
The survey found that the phrase first became popular during the 2014 protests when young people took to the streets to demand genuine democracy.
Failing that, they regrouped and began pressing Leung to hear them but Hong Kong independence was not on their agenda.
It’s quite clear that the Beijing and Hong Kong governments don’t grasp the issues Hongkongers are fighting for.
These are Hong Kong’s core values such free speech, rule of law and independent judiciary, all underpinned by “one country, two systems”.
Lew Mon-hung, a Beijing loyalist now in jail for his outspoken views, put it plainly by saying Hong Kong’s youths are not to blame for the emergence of the pro-independence mindset.
“If ‘one country, two systems’ worked well, would we even be talking about this?”
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