25 October 2016
Leung Chun-ying has gone to extreme lengths to prevent separatist sentiment from spreading in Hong Kong, critics say. Photo: HKEJ
Leung Chun-ying has gone to extreme lengths to prevent separatist sentiment from spreading in Hong Kong, critics say. Photo: HKEJ

Silencing people by law is like blocking a river with a dam

The ancient Chinese history book “GuoYu (國語)” (or “The National Transcripts”) recounts a story that should serve as a warning to any ruler.

The story goes like this: King Liwang of the Zhou dynasty mounted an all-out crackdown on dissents through mass-execution of dissidents. Dismayed at his king’s cruelty, the duke of Shao sought an audience with the leader. During the meeting, the duke warned the king that trying to silence the people by imposing white terror on them is as dangerous as trying to block a river by building a dam.

It might work for now, he explained, but prohibiting people from expressing their opinions freely would only exacerbate their discontent in the long run, just like blocking a river with a dam would only cause pressure to build up within the river. Once the mounting pressure reaches a tipping point, the dam would collapse and result in catastrophic flooding, and in the case of the people, a massive uprising.

However, King Liwang refused to listen to the advice, and three years later, a nationwide uprising did break out, eventually forcing the king to go into exile.

Now, it is staggeringly ironic that an ancient story written some 2000 years ago can apply to Hong Kong today.

On the orders of Beijing, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has recently gone to extreme lengths to prevent separatist sentiment from spreading in Hong Kong. First he barred pro-independence activists from running for the Legco election, and now he is taking a step further by trying to ban any discussion about Hong Kong independence in our educational institutions.

It remains open to question whether Leung’s attempt to ban separatism discussions in our schools has any legal ground.

Although Article 1 of the Basic Law stipulates that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is an inseparable part of China, it is only written as a constitutional provision in general terms rather than a piece of enforceable legislation. Therefore, technically speaking, it cannot be invoked to ban the pro-independence discourse in our society.

Even if Article 23 of the Basic Law was enacted right now, thereby outlawing any separatist act or rhetoric, it would still be unable to halt the spread of pro-independence sentiment in our city.

Rather, any attempt to ban public discussion of this topic by law will only provoke a public backlash against the violation of the freedom of expression and drive such discussions underground. This will only fuel separatist sentiment in the city further.

As a matter of fact, the pro-independence cause had never been taken seriously by the Hong Kong public before Leung took office as Chief Executive in 2012. But in just four years since then, the cause has been gaining in popularity rapidly among the citizens. This shows that something went seriously wrong with regard to the Leung regime’s governance.

Meanwhile, the so-called “831 resolution” announced by Beijing, which denied the people of Hong Kong true democracy, simply served as a catalyst for the growth of separatist sentiment in our city.

The absence of electoral reforms and Beijing’s unrelenting stance despite the Occupy Movement has made many people in Hong Kong completely disillusioned with the “One Country Two Systems” and the Basic Law. They no longer believe that Beijing will ever grant us universal suffrage as promised. As a result, more and more people have been drawn to the pro-independence theme.

But trying to stop people, by law, from discussing Hong Kong independence will only exacerbate public discontent with the status quo and further alienate the people in the city.

As such, I strongly believe the only way to address the growth of separatist sentiment in our city is to allow public discussion of it, so that the general public can gain full understanding of the pros and cons of secession from China. That will help people make their own informed judgment on the issue.

When the time is ripe, the administration should hold a non-binding referendum to allow people to reveal their mind as to whether they are for or against independence.

In conclusion, the more ferociously the government suppresses the discussion on separatism, the more sympathetic people will become toward the pro-independence cause. 

It will be too late to save “One Country Two Systems” if the pro-independence cause gains overwhelming support among the local public.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 22.

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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