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The Panda in the Room: Hong Kong’s pro-independence movement

Some Hong Kong activists, faced with diminishing prospects for political liberalization and a government in Beijing that’s taken a marked authoritarian turn, have responded by considering hitherto taboo alternatives — including advocating for full independence. It’s time we talked about what this means for Hong Kong.

Photo: Getty

 

In 1979, the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Murray MacLehose, made an official visit — the first by a British governor in nearly 50 years — to mainland China. MacLehose arrived in Beijing to discuss Britain’s rapidly expiring lease of Hong Kong. During a press conference following talks with Deng Xiaoping, Governor MacLehose was asked: “China has shown an interest in economic cooperation. Has she shown any interest in the administrative side or in any form of elected representation?”

To contemporary ears this question has a tragicomic naivete to it. And yet, it has been asked over and over again. It captures what might be called the liberalization bias: the idea that economic reform would induce China’s democratization. This was President Bill Clinton’s argument in March 2000 when proposing the China Trade Bill: “The more China liberalizes its economy, the more fully it will liberate the potential of its people…they will demand a greater say.” Despite their misgivings about the CCP, the majority of people in Hong Kong also hoped for a more liberal China. This optimism was not simply a vindication of the liberal democratic ideal, as perhaps it has been to many Westerners, but a guarantee that their children could live with the civic and political freedoms promised to them in 1997. Among these is universal suffrage, as enshrined in Article 45 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

The belief that Hong Kong can become democratic in the People’s Republic of China entails its own liberalization bias. It assumes that Beijing, on its own volition in 2047, will uphold Hong Kong’s special status. And so it might. But given the PRC’s marked authoritarian turn, the likelihood of this appears to be declining by the day. Faced with diminishing prospects for political liberalization in Hong Kong itself, activists have responded by considering hitherto taboo alternatives, including advocating for full independence. While this remains a minority position — particularly in the current climate, in which protesters have repeatedly pressed their “five demands” without independence being one of them — its impact and relevance are undeniable. As such, it is high time for independence to be openly discussed, as opposed to avoided as one of the PRC’s many “sensitive topics.”

1. Illiberalization and independence

The 2019 Extradition Bill is the tip of the iceberg for those worried about Hong Kong’s political trajectory. Since 2015, polling by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) indicates perceived decline in the rule of law, fairness of the judicial system, and the impartiality of the courts. Furthermore, every civil liberty monitored, according to those polled, has declined since 2017. By 2019, they had reached their lowest points on record since 1997.

The perceptions that inform this polling data derive from glaring flashpoints of Beijing encroachment in Hong Kong over the last five years, such as the disappearance of five people connected to the publishing house Mighty Current in 2015 and the closure of People’s Bookstore in 2018. This period also saw the sale of the South China Morning Post to Alibaba founder Jack Ma; rightly or wrongly, many interpreted this transaction as further encroachment from Beijing on Hong Kong’s democratic norms. “Jack Ma is acting as a political proxy for the Chinese government and its goal of silencing the last independent media voices in the territory,” said Willy Lam, who worked at SCMP for many years, including as its China editor for a decade, until leaving in 2000 because of editorial interference.

 

Hong Kong identity is increasingly defined in terms of shared values and experiences, not in ethno-racial terms.

 

Perceived and tangible erosions of Hong Kong’s freedoms correlate with some notable attitudinal shifts. Since 2017, there has been an increase in support for both Taiwanese and Tibetan independence. The intellectual adjunct to these perspectives is a greater sense of Hong Kong’s distinctiveness from the mainland, in both political and cultural terms. PORI polling charts a steady decline in Hong Kong residents identifying as citizens of the PRC from 2008 to 2018, and a rapid decline thereafter. More tellingly, there has been a steady decline since 2008 — arguably the height of pro-PRC sentiment in Hong Kong, bolstered by the Beijing Olympics — of Hong Kong residents identifying as “Chinese.” This also illustrates that Hong Kong identity is increasingly defined in terms of shared values and experiences, not in ethno-racial terms; these ideals are more DPP (Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party) than CCP, implicitly rebuking the PRC’s worldview.

Pro-Beijing voices do not deny this attitudinal shift in Hong Kong. A March 2019 China Daily article, written by a researcher at the One Country Two Systems Institute, notes: “The reality is that the sense of national identity is worrying in Hong Kong.” Of course, these trends do not automatically equate to support for Hong Kong’s political independence from China. But amid these wider shifts in popular attitudes, the pro-independence movement continues to gain support, especially among the younger generation in Hong Kong. The PRC government appears keenly aware of this. If pro-independence was such a marginal view, why, in September 2018, would Hong Kong’s Security Bureau have made the unprecedented move of banning the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) and arresting its leaders? This was a tangible admission that the independence movement had veered inwards from the political fringe.

Alongside attitudes and actions, coverage of the protests is another indicator that independence has gained traction. For many years, independence has been a non-starter for many mainstream outlets. Whether deemed irrelevant or dangerous, independence has been the panda in the room. In Sue Lin-Wong’s recent on-the-ground report in the Financial Times, pro-independence is like a pedal point. It is returned to rhythmically and unthinkingly, but remains behind the melody. Wong writes in discrete sections of her thorough piece: “Gloomy prospects are fuelling an embryonic independence movement”; Beijing “faces growing, if nascent, calls for Hong Kong independence”; “Allusions to a budding independence movement are now pervasive.” Wong’s article enacts this very pervasion. Having illuminated the groundswell in pro-independence sentiment, we now must face its consequences.

2. Crackdown and division

The PRC and Hong Kong governments characterize Hong Kong independence as a national security threat. It was on this basis that the Security Bureau could ban the HKNP in September 2018 within the confines of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. Pro-independence is a pretext for the CCP to tighten its grip on Hong Kong. Notably, mainlanders would likely support such a move, as would Hong Kong residents that uphold their city’s “inalienable” Chinese-ness. With families and communities split by opposing views toward the ongoing protests, the city is already demonstrating signs of heightened social and generational polarization. Ominously, respected academics like Andreas Fulda have described Hong Kong as “Northern Ireland 2.0.” In many ways, then, pro-independence is a cause for concern as much for Hong Kong as Beijing.

From Tibet to Xinjiang, the PRC’s recent efforts to safeguard national security have engendered human rights catastrophes. Indeed, for many of Hong Kong’s protesters, the securitization of Xinjiang is a chilling foreshadow of their own fate: “If we lose, Hong Kong will become Xinjiang,” led a Hong Kong Free Press article, quoting an activist last month. The Xinjiang-Hong Kong connection may seem hyperbolic to some — or at least a slippery-slope argument — but the language of the Chinese state on Hong Kong and Xinjiang bears chilling resonance. The China Daily article mentioned above proclaims “the authority’s determination to root out separatism.” A different China Daily article entitled “Xinjiang policy is in the best interests of local ethnicities,” from June 2017, praises the PRC’s allies for understanding the “utmost importance for China to root out separatism” (emphasis ours). The discursive symmetry between Xinjiang and Hong Kong signals the gravity of the PRC’s concern, and suggest the severity of future pushback.

 

While, by its own standards, Beijing has exercised restraint in Hong Kong, a serious threat of independence will elicit the greatest crackdown Hong Kong has ever experienced.

 

Not only does the language chime in these articles regarding Hong Kong and Xinjiang, so too do the solutions proposed. The China Daily article about Hong Kong advocates a “cognitive perspective” because “the biggest threat to national security is not legal loopholes, but ‘loopholes of the mind.’” The “thought transformation” camps in Xinjiang follow this logic: that some kind of corrigible mental problem explains hostility to the PRC. While, by its own standards, Beijing has exercised restraint in Hong Kong, a serious threat of independence will elicit the greatest crackdown Hong Kong has ever experienced. It is perhaps for precisely this reason that the leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement such as Joshua Wong are careful to distinguish between “self-determination” and full independence. Yet at the same time, in a conversation we had with him for this article, Wong described the current protests as an “insurrection.” Activists’ contempt for their governing authorities is not easily repressed, as this linguistic escalation suggests. Despite this display of feeling, Beijing’s narrative of sectarianism and the augur of its repression might be enough to prevent Hong Kongers with deeply held pro-independence inclinations from ever expressing them.

What is more, a crackdown on an independence-minded Hong Kong would likely receive popular support from mainlanders. Yifu Dong’s recent Washington Post report documents how after the storming of LegCo on July 1, Beijing’s communication apparatus switched from silence on the Hong Kong protests to blaring nationalist propaganda. Subsequently, mainlanders — from students to celebrities, such as the Chinese-American actress Liú Yìfēi 刘亦菲, star of Mulan — have shared their disgust at the protesters and voiced their support for the Hong Kong police. Fueled by state media and official commentary, public sentiment in the PRC has gravitated around the narratives that foreign intelligence agencies are responsible for the protests. Even the handful of PRC public figures that have expressed sympathy for the Hong Kong protests — MMA fighter Xú Xiǎodōng 徐晓冬 and human rights lawyer Chén Qiūshí 陈秋实, for instance — draw the line at independence. Furthermore, according to HKUPOP, Hong Kong’s top public polling institution, 25 percent of people in Hong Kong still identity as mainly or wholly Chinese — though this figure has fallen by more than 10 percent since 1997. In addition to this group of Hong Kongers who strongly identify as Chinese, there are also those who reject independence for pragmatic reasons. Whether this pragmatism would welcome or buckle under a crackdown remains to be seen.

What is implicitly clear is that an emboldened independence movement threatens to invite unprecedented repression from Beijing. This would likely appeal to many mainlanders, and further aggravate social tensions within Hong Kong itself. But Hong Kong’s protesters are more aware of the dangers of further escalation than anyone. For them, though, what is more important is maintaining the solidarity of the protest movement — or “insurrection” — as a whole. Pro-independence has a key role to play here, but not in the way you might expect.

3. Solidarity and democracy

The pro-independence movement unites as it divides. Hong Kong’s previous mass campaigns have centered on single issues: Article 23 in 2003, electoral reform in 2014. The current protests are unprecedented in how they have moved away from the original demand of withdrawing the extradition bill (which has already been withdrawn) toward embracing a much wider range of political demands, fueled in no small part by police brutality. That the protests maintain their solidarity and inclusion has much to do with the emergence of a national movement in Hong Kong. Predicated on cultural as well as intellectual iconography, this reduces the bar for entry into these protests, even if the political objective of independence is not widely shared.

Historically, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has campaigned for full universal suffrage. But the lack of political liberalization in Hong Kong since 1997 has driven many activists toward more radical positions — the most radical being pro-independence, which would see Hong Kong its own country. There are fields between these poles, though. Joshua Wong advocates “self-determination,” believing  Hong Kong should have a free choice in a popular referendum on the city’s post-2047 future. Meanwhile, the “localist” movement emphasizes Hong Kong’s cultural distinctiveness in the face of “mainlandizing” pressures. Though self-determinists and localists do not advocate independence from the PRC, they, like the pro-independence movement, are clearly distinct from the pro-democracy movement. All three groups of “radicals” are committed to Hong Kong people’s right to determine their political, socioeconomic, and cultural destiny. Arguably, the pro-independence movement has shifted the Overton window through its suggestive power of Hong Kong-as-nation.

 

Perhaps the biggest change from the Umbrella Movement in 2014 is acceptance on the part of moderate activists that there must be a place for proponents of Hong Kong independence in the city’s political discourse.

 

Calls for Hong Kong independence moved beyond legal documents, catalyzing the emergence of a national movement in Hong Kong, as evidenced by the cultural symbols of the ongoing protests: the ubiquitous slogan “Recover Hong Kong, revolution of our times” (光復香港,時代革命 guāngfù xiānggǎng, shídài gémìng); the viral protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong”; and the “Black Bauhinia” flag. Not everyone who sings “Glory to Hong Kong” or chants “Recover Hong Kong” supports political independence, but these emblems proclaim the primacy of a Hong Kong identity and a deep-seated antipathy toward the PRC.

Each symbol idealizes a past in which Hong Kong does not face the specter of Chinese domination in political, economic, and even cultural terms. This nostalgia is clear in the language of “Recover Hong Kong” or in the appropriation of Cantopop classics from the ’80s and ’90s as protest songs (for instance, Roman Tam’s “Below the Lion Rock” [狮子山下 shīzi shānxià] or Beyond’s “Boundless Ocean, Vast Sky” [海阔天空 hǎikuòtiānkōng]). Most radically, the unfurling of the colonial-era flag is both a deliberate insult to the PRC and a stark reminder that Hong Kong was not always the PRC, at least in practical terms. These nascent national symbols are immediately accessible to anyone who has grown up in Hong Kong, drawing people together from across the social spectrum in one of the world’s most unequal cities. The independence movement has, in many ways, helped democratize the pro-democracy movement.

While we must acknowledge that Hong Kong’s large and diverse populace does not universally support the protests, for the first time since 1997, the city is proffering a united front, based upon a common language (Cantonese) and a shared set of cultural references. Corporate lawyers and investment bankers participate in flash mobs and donate money for frontline protesters to buy protective equipment. Meanwhile, gritty working-class neighborhoods have become protest frontlines for the first time in Hong Kong’s recent history. In the latest round of protests, members of Hong Kong’s historically marginalized South Asian community demonstrated their solidarity with protesters at the famed Chungking Mansion. The Hong Kong and PRC governments expected the “silent majority” often invoked by state media to turn on protesters for disrupting their daily routines, but instead, residents of both middle-class and working-class neighborhoods invited protesters into their homes for shelter and hurled abuse at the police. The latest opinion polling commissioned by the local newspaper Ming Pao shows that nearly 60 percent of the public supports the action of frontline protesters, and an astonishing 80 percent want immediate political reform, while barely 20 percent demonstrate any confidence in the Hong Kong police or government.

The near-complete rejection of the HKSAR government and the CCP does not portend an immediate shift toward support for independence — the majority of protesters continue to oppose this, at least on paper. Sympathetic foreign commentators and activists in Hong Kong maintain that the protesters are united by the “five demands,” not dreams of independence. Conversely, the CCP has increasingly sought to paint the entire protest movement as a “separatist movement” bent on destroying the PRC’s much-vaunted “national unity.” Far from affirming the CCP’s toxic propaganda agenda, it cannot be denied that Hong Kong has witnessed the emergence of a broad-based national movement in recent months. Notably, moderates have allowed this to happen. Indeed, perhaps the biggest change from the Umbrella Movement in 2014 is acceptance on the part of moderate activists that there must be a place for proponents of Hong Kong independence in the city’s political discourse. The latter remain a minority in the city, but stand to gain as “One Country, Two Systems” rings ever hollower. Profound disagreements continue to exist, but they are to be expected in any mass movement that can draw one million people to the streets over months. In a way, they reflect a movement craving true democracy. As the protesters say in Hong Kong, “Two brothers climb a mountain, each making his own effort.” This maxim preaches both independence and unity.

Noah Lachs and Ryan Tang

Noah Lachs is a Schwarzman Scholar (Class 2019). Before coming to China, he studied at Oxford, where he was also President of the Oxford Union. | Ryan Tang is a History and Politics graduate from the University of Oxford. Born in Hong Kong, he now lives and works in London. He has previously been published in the Hong Kong Free Press and MingPao.

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