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By Christopher Cheung
Towards the end of the year, it is appropriate to look back and remind ourselves of the important events and emerging trends of the past 12 months. The news this year has taught me that sometimes non-events can be disturbing to people as well. The recent failure of the world to end didn’t come as a surprise. Nevertheless, most people anticipated the day with a hint of dread. Is it a universal fact that people need things to be afraid at? It is interesting to see how the same kind of fear has gripped the establishment back in my native Hong Kong for much of 2012.
Even for travellers, Hong Kong can be a political place to visit. According to Lonely Planet, Hong Kong is one of the top ten cities to visit in 2012 for the following reason: “This will be a particularly exciting year for Hong Kong, as it continues its march towards full democracy.” But who would have thought that more controversy was created because of an imaginary independence movement? Pro-Beijing politicians have been accusing political activists of seeking independence for Hong Kong when such a political force is virtually non-existent. Although the disagreement between the establishment and a substantial sector of the population on the political status of Hong Kong has long been a contentious issue, it has not been put in the spotlight before. Now, Hong-Kongers have to think seriously about the city’s three ways forward, assimilation, autonomy or independence.
The tensions between Hong Kong and China have become increasingly acute over the year, culminating in protests against the implementation of national education, which is perceived as an attempt to impose patriotism, throughout September. The ferocity of the opposition came as a shock to me. In October, hoping to find answers to problems plaguing Hong Kong’s political scene, I attended a lecture here at Oxford given by former Chief Secretary of Hong Kong Stephan Lam. As Lam had just left the government this year, I was expecting an insightful and candid discussion of the difficulties facing Hong Kong and possible solutions to them, but his optimistic platitudes could have come from the mouth of any public relations officer. What caught my attention was the title of the lecture “Hong Kong’s Destiny: China’s Metropolis, Asia’s World City”. The second of these three consecutive possessives was particularly disconcerting. It unremittingly asserts that Hong Kong is under China’s governance. This was a fitting title for Lam’s lecture though, for he adulated Hong Kong’s success and credits China as the benefactor. However, in the last two or three years, there has been growing popular sentiment that calls for setting up clear barriers between Hong Kong and the mainland. The idea is simply that Hong Kong should not become a Chinese metropolis, just another Beijing or another Shanghai. I noted how the title of the lecture seemed to suggest that becoming “China’s Metropolis” is “Hong Kong’s destiny”. The thought crossed my mind, though I didn’t dwell on it, but less than a month later, a movement that resists this “destiny” has come to the forefront of the news. The developments surrounding it have also sparked fears that Hong Kong may really lose precisely what other Chinese cities lack.
Hong Kong has managed to remain distinct from other Chinese cities under the doctrine of “One Country, Two Systems”, which grants a high degree of autonomy to Hong Kong, but recent years have seen Beijing’s tightening grip. Closer economic ties have led some to worry that Hong Kong will soon be culturally and territorially assimilated. Such fears seem to have materialized when the government of Hong Kong revealed plans to co-develop large pieces of land near the Pearl River Estuary with Macau and the mainland in 2010. This would allow mainlanders to live in previously rural areas of Hong Kong, blurring the borders between Hong Kong, Macau and four other cities in the mainland. Wan Chin, a Hong-Kongese author and an assistant professor at Lingnan University, started the Hong Kong Autonomy Movement as a response. He published a book titled Hong Kong: a City-state, which became a sort of manifesto for the movement. He tapped on the prevalent sense of the identity of a Hong-Konger as different from that of a Chinese despite shared ethnicity. What is remarkable about the book’s main thesis is Chin’s appeal to the concept of a city-state, as opposed to that of a country in the modern sense. He maintains that Hong Kong is not a country, but rather a city-state similar to Athens or Venice. Taking the “One Country, Two Systems” doctrine and the Hong Kong Basic Law as a constitutional starting point, he respects China’s territorial sovereignty over Hong Kong but calls for separation from China in almost all other aspects, economical, political and cultural. He launches one visceral attack after another on the Chinese government and the people, concluding from his observations that China is a doomed country. He also came up with a flag to represent the movement. It retained most elements of the British colonial flag. His movement did not receive much attention from the general public initially, but it created discussion in some circles. His book was met with heavy criticisms of naïveté. Some pointed out that the Hong Kong Basic Law was too crude to serve as a constitution. Others find his inveighing against China too dogmatic, accusing him of Fascism on his suggestion of restricting the number of Chinese immigrants and tourists. He has not been taken seriously as a viable political force, but he will soon publish a subsequent book to revise and refine his political thoughts.
When the movement’s flag appeared in various protests, the Autonomy Movement started to emerge from obscurity. A former mainland official Zuo’er Chen commented in September that the movement’s flag should not be publically displayed. It was the beginning of paranoia that there existed a group of activists seeking independence for Hong Kong. Also, some protestors employed slightly provocative slogans such as “Chinese should get the hell out here and go back to China”. Nonetheless, apart from some flag-waving and slogan-shouting, there is precious little action to reclaim autonomy. Yet one of the most outspoken pro-Beijing politicians MengXiong Liu wrote a series of articles in his column denouncing “the Hong Kong Independence Movement”. He went so far as to say that public display of the colonial flag and anti-China slogans should be considered equivalent to treason and made a criminal offence.
Curiously, even without Chen and Liu’s denouncements, in Hong Kong, there can hardly be a more unpopular stance to take than to advocate independence. Any mention of the idea of independence is bound to be met with dismissals on the grounds of unfeasibility. No public figure would even try to convince anyone to pursue independence because to do so would merely attract mockery and scorn.
It is unlikely the pro-Beijing camp is unaware of the lack of popular support for the idea of independence, but the mindset of the Chinese government dictates that any small sign of upheaval is to be extinguished. In the 18th National Congress of the CCP held in mid-November, General Secretary Jintao Hu put “the preservation of China’s sovereignty” as the first principle behind the policies towards Macau and Hong Kong. However, the suggestions proposed by Liu to “preserve sovereignty” seem to aim more than doing just that. The Hong Kong Autonomy Movement may appear to be tantalizingly close to an independence movement, but Wan Chin has denied such allegations outright. Perhaps contrary to their intentions, the pro-Beijing camp’s paranoid reactions made society sympathize with the very concerns that Chin has in mind. For Liu, that a Hong-Konger should say that he/she is a Hong-Konger but not a Chinese is an act of secession from the state. Evoking the Hong Kong Basic Law’s General Principle that Hong Kong “is an inalienable part” of the PRC, Liu calls for the outlawing of such statements. For many, this sounds as if the pro-Beijing camp is interpreting the Autonomy Movement conveniently in order to restrict freedom in Hong Kong, making the cause of the movement look all the more justified and urgent.
Whether Chin’s city-state theory will be successful is still open to question, but it really does begin to sound plausible for many Hong-Kongers who wish to see Beijing’s influence on Hong Kong mitigated. Unfortunately for the pro-Beijing camp, it may turn out that fear will create the object of fear itself.