Antidote to Hong Kong independence: Political reform

October 03, 2017 09:40
Pro-independence banners appear at several universities at the start of the new semester last month. Photo: PR Photos

Advocates of Hong Kong independence are intolerable, Zhang Xiaoming said last week on his first day as director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing.

“What is Hong Kong independence?” he asked rhetorically while meeting the press. Answering his own question, he said: “It contravenes the Chinese constitution and Hong Kong’s Basic Law and ordinances, and could be criminal. It is a calamity for Hong Kong ... all Hongkongers should see this clearly and must not tolerate it.”

This outpouring of the dangerous poison of separatism was triggered by the start of a new semester, and the appearance of pro-independence banners and posters at several universities, some of which were removed by campus authorities.

This was followed by a joint statement on Sept. 6 by seven student unions, which condemned the removal as a “serious erosion” of academic freedoms.

“Freedom of speech and thought is a God-given human right,” the joint statement asserted. “People may disagree with views on independence, but [anyone] should enjoy the right to talk about it. The suppression of such ideas by the school not only deprives students of political rights, but is a humiliation to academic freedom.”

The student union statement was followed by a joint statement by 10 university heads on Sept. 15. “We treasure freedom of expression, but we condemn its recent abuses,” it said. “Freedom of expression is not absolute, and like all freedoms it comes with responsibilities. All universities undersigned agree that we do not support Hong Kong independence, which contravenes the Basic Law.”

Students and university administrators, it seems, agree on the sanctity of freedom of expression. Does that mean students can discuss the idea of Hong Kong independence or even argue in favor of it?

This is the tricky part. Some legal experts say that advocating independence could violate the Crimes Ordinance. Alan Hoo, chairman of the Basic Law Institute, has called on the government to take a stand on whether putting up posters constituted behavior that warranted criminal prosecution. “If it is allowed, and it won’t affect national security … then say so,” he was quoted as saying. “At least we should know what the rules of the game are.”

Article 1 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitutional document, says: “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China.”

Ipso facto, some argue, advocacy of Hong Kong independence is a violation of the Basic Law. Others, however, say that students can debate the pros and cons of independence.

After all, many actions -- euthanasia, genocide and torture, for example – are deemed to be criminal and yet are the subject of endless academic discussions.

So far, the government has kept its mouth firmly shut on whether independence can be discussed.

Actually, what is different about discussion of Hong Kong independence versus discussion of other topics is not the Basic Law or the Crimes Ordinance, it is the virulent response of the Chinese government. This attitude has been unambiguously conveyed to top Hong Kong officials, who know that they are expected to expurgate such ideas and ensure that they are not discussed at any level.

In reality, China faces no separatist threat. Hong Kong cannot exist on its own, without water or food from the mainland. The People’s Liberation Army is entrenched in Hong Kong, which has no army of its own. The whole idea is ludicrous. To treat it as a serious threat is similarly ludicrous.

Although a non-starter, some desperate students took solace in the idea because they did not see any future for themselves.

University graduates have few economic opportunities, with many unable even to get married because they have no access to decent housing. The real estate market is tightly controlled by property developers, who have a symbiotic relationship with the Chinese government.

On the political front, students feel impotent because the Chinese government, again backed by entrenched local interests, won’t allow genuine democracy.

Now, steps are afoot to kill the independence movement through legal measures, forbidding even discussion of the concept. But this is utterly the wrong approach. The problem is political, not legal, and hence resolution must be found in the realm of politics, not the law.

If Beijing really wants to kill talk of independence, all it has to do is to hold out hope of meaningful political reform in Hong Kong. Young people, and others, need to feel that they are masters of their own home. Once that happens, the idea of Hong Kong independence will lose attraction.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.