[Undergrad/HKUSU] The Gap Between Two Hong Kongs: Seriously Looking at Hong Kong Independence

The Gap Between Two Hong Kongs: Seriously Looking at Hong Kong Independence
Translated by Casey Chang, written and edited by Mervyn Ho (Undergrad, HKUSU August 2016)

After the outbreak of instabilities in the beginning of the year, Hong Kong  now  faces another troubled summer.

The shocking press conference of the bookseller Lam Wing-kei busted the Chinese myth of "one country, two systems" (1C2S). The incident has stirred some uneasiness in the general public, yet it has not made the mainstream “elite politicians” recognise the fragility of the so-called "one country, two systems". Also, Lam's testimony did not receive enough attention from "pro-human right" western countries as they did not exert substantial pressure and sanctions on China regarding the Causeway Bay bookstore incident. The severity of the incident is supposed to be devastating enough to shake the confidence of "1C2S", but it only brings about nothing but merely nominal support from a few local and international pressure groups as a result of weeks of vehement protests. Following the fruitless clash with the police by some localist activists on 1st July, the political energy brought by Lam Wing-kei has gradually died down. All these events serve as a cruel reminder of the indifferent attitude of Hong Kong's public and the realist nature  of international politics.

Meanwhile, as  the LegCo election approaches, the rivalry between newly-rising localist and traditional democratic camp has reached its climax. On political arenas such as 4th June Candlelight Vigil and 1st July Protest, the two sides parted with or even rivalled against each other. With the escalation  of Chinese-Hong Kong tensions and increasing calls for Hong Kong's self-determination or even independence, it is imperative that the political landscape of Hong Kong politics will undergo drastic transformation. We have reached a historical turning point shadowed with uncertainty.Where would the post-1C2S Hong Kong go?

The abrupt end of Lam's incident indicates one thing: no matter how localists strive hard to draw support and to get media coverage, the "self-determination" and "independence" claims have never been treated seriously by the ruling business and social elites. The independence claims are considered by Chinese officials, elites and democrats as "impossible, extreme, populist, xenophobic and self-isolated protectionism, lack of economic and political possibilities" and the ideas are only political opportunism advanced by a small number of radicals, and therefore they should not deserve any attention. They simply consider  the option of independence as "unconstitutional and illegal" and bar the independence supporters from running LegCo election even the decision runs into the risk of violating their civil rights guaranteed by the Basic Law.

The localists’ fury is understandable, but one should keep in mind that elites  only calculate the merits of policies by cost-benefit analysis; the benefits generated by the favourable business environment in China, the access to greater China market, legal protection and the free economy system provided by 1C2S remained supremely important to them. Therefore, according to their cost-benefit analysis – it is imperative that the “minor sacrifices” of the dissidents' civic and political rights   are necessary after all in pursuit of the enormous profits brought by 1C2S. The screams and shouts of protests do not have even the slightest disturbance on the prosperous business activities and the clanking of champagnes that are taking  place in the skyscrapers in Central or Admiralty.

As a result, the city is split into two parts. On one hand there are financial complexes, office towers, and luxuriant shopping malls where high-educated, English and Mandarin-speaking white-collars exchange news of global stock market. On the other hand, it shows an unpleasant image of the city where features jumble of narrow alleys, overcrowded public estate and old mansions inhabited by intermixed neighbourhood of the locals and immigrants speaking various languages and dialects; hawkers running away from the police, smugglers from China chased after by disgruntled local youths. The rapid change of living environment, the sprout of jewellery shops and pharmacies changing the face of old neighbourhood, the invasive presenceof Mandarin, and the skyrocketing housing price level have deepened the anxiety of the locals.

There is an irrevocable gap dividing the city into two parts: the upper class refuses to accept any proposal of reforms and denounces any  form of protest as “radical” since they do not understand the anger and anxiety from the other side. And now who can represent and speak for them? For the past, the democrats played the role of the opposition, but now these law school graduates, “global citizens” are unable to handle such anxiety and to answer their demand for an “imagined community”. In a rather bizarre fashion, “Hong Kong nation” comes into being and becomes an important historical force.

The formation of Hong Kong nation is not only about a nostalgic feeling towards the past, but a serious political discourse and struggle which concerns issues such as immigration policy, allocation of social resources, education and legitimacy of using violence. As the popularity of the Hong Kong nationalism grows, the idea of "us and them" starts to weigh more importance than economic efficiency and universal value in political decision.  Although the essence of Hong Kong nationalism calls into question, the idea itself is widely interpreted as the resistance against the oppression of Chinese nationalism. Hong Kong society changes too rapidly after 1997:  Regardless of the reasons are the oppression of crony capitalism or influx of Chinese immigrants, the truth is that most  Hongkongers feel that the living space that they once enjoyed is increasingly being threatened. The grandiose plan of “Chinese dream” proposed by the Chinese government has failed to turn things around and win the hearts of Hongkongers back. All these factors make the image of “a weak nation against an oppressive power” attractive to many Hongkongers.

Hong Kong nationalists can better capture how the common Hongkongers feel nowadays: its carefully cultivated theories on culture and politics  have successfully separated the”Hong Kong nation” from the nation of China, and associate all social and political issues through  the perspective of “survival of Hong Kong nation”: Issues such as medical reform, the national anthem controversy on the soccer field, the medium of instruction in schools, the clash between street hawkers and policemen, every aspect of people's daily life has been turned into battlefields of fighting for the very existence of Hong Kong nation. The awareness of Hong Kong nationalism grows following each round of political mobilisations and controversies stimulated by social media, and it has profoundly challenged the discourse previously dominated by left-leaning liberals and conservative political economists on socio-political issues.

The mainstream is unable to respond to localist's demand for independence or self-determination with proper ideas  and simply downplays them as "fascists" or "populists”. Both sides lack common vocabularies to discuss their ideas, and the cracks are further widened by  stratosphere effects caused by the use of social media.The divide will only be worse in future.

If Britain had never colonised Hong Kong, or Communist China had never claimed Hong Kong back, or the promise given by 1C2S had been duly fulfilled, then the idea of Hong Kong independence would never become popular. It is ironic that the idea of Hong Kong nation shares the same loophole of Chinese nationalism, both being politically constructed ideas that are manufactured conveniently to serve real-life political needs. However,  precisely because Hong Kong nationalists understand that “nations” are products of real-life political conflicts rather than vice versa, it legitimatizes the birth of the Hong Kong nation against the arbitrary official discourse of Chinese nationalism, which claims that national identity is inherent and unchangeable. It is a truly remarkable historic event that in nowadays world, which national borders are thought to be  stable and colonialism is thought to be part of history, there can be a genuinely new nation given birth in a global metropolis in the peripheral area of China.

The rise of Hong Kong nationalism is an extraordinary by-product under the unique circumstances of Hong Kong history. However, keen observers may find the local separatist movement as part of the historical momentum of populism and the counter-nationalism in the post-modern world. The shocking result of Brexit, or the rise of Donald Trump (and Bernie Sanders) are often seen as the resistance by the upset mass against thglobalisationon, neoliberalism and politic elitism. The step down of Cameron also reveals the disconnection between the British government and European Parliament and the labour class, especially those from the old industrial area.

In the aftermath of Brexit, the mainstream media blamed the Brexit supporters as poorly-educated populists who selfishly destroyed the future of British youths. The arguments ignore the other side of the shinning appearance of the EU: the decline of low value-added industries due to the opening of market, wealth gap brought by neo-liberal policy of tighter fiscal control, slump of workers’ salary, shortage of jobs because of competitions of immigrants, cultural shocks, the influx of refugee, the fears of security. The success of Brexit is not a ridiculous joke but a dire warning to the ruling class in this world.

Many have warned about the EU governance model, but the ruling class remains indifferent and does not treat this rise of right-wing populist seriously. The EU demands British to act according to the result of the referendum, and it plans to punish Britons severely in order to deter anyone who wanted to follow suit. London wanted to postpone the triggering of Article 50. Meanwhile, an international law firm attempts to void the result of referendum through judicial appeal. Also, mainstream media view the majority Brexit supporters with contempt. British leaders are trying hard to block the result decided by the means of direct democracy, which showed the hypocrisy of western parliamentary democracy.

Comparing Hong Kong to these western countries with long democratic tradition, the Hong Kong independence movement has more headwinds include the influence of China's authoritarian regime, the rise of Chinese nationalism and despotic HKSARG, but Hong Kong localists and western right wing nationalists share many similarities: they are both facing dominance from a super-nation organisation or a superpower, economic competition from immigrants, heavier burden of social resources allocation, clash of culturesand degeneration of local lifestyle and habits due to intrusion of cosmopolitanism, and the widening gap between the poor and the elites. Traditional left-right party politics remained solid throughout the world, but cracks and crisis are everywhere. The problem has been aggravated after HKSARG has disqualified a Hong Kong nationalist candidate from running LegCo election. According to the recent survey by CUHK, support for localism remains a minority part of the city’s population. The fact that most of them are young people shows obvious generation differences. However, the voice of discontent would not simply vanish after  they are “muted” in the establishment; they would go back to the streets, to every household, and the uncompromising conflict between these “two Hong Kongs” will persist every day.

The significance of Brexit is that western democracy cannot solve the deep-seated social conflict caused by theglobalised world,  but will aggravate social divisions prolonged conflicts due to the exercise of direct democracy. To Hong Kong nationalists, the ultimate solution of the plight of Hong Kong is not “true democracy” but full independence, border control, reinvigoration of local culture, and strengthening of social bonds and identitys within the same political community However, the leaderless situation of Brexit camp shows that drawing support within the country is not hard, but negotiation with a far more formidable opponent will be a much more challenging  struggle. Weak nations are  ignored in the arena of international politics The nationalists have little bargaining power to gain  substantial international support at the moment: Hong Kong as a financial and logistic hub provides some favourable termsin theory , but they are more possibly the major obstacles for advocates of Hong Kong independence.

No matter it is establishment camp’s agendas such as "Belt and Road initiative" or 'China's dream", pan-dems' "the battle against 689" or localists' "general “self-determination” or "Hong Kong independence", all of them have mistaken Hong Kong as an unified entity without internal conflicts. They thought of bankers, lawyers, labourers, and rag-pickers within a single community as people sharing  common interest and goals e. They often assume that once the common goal is achieved, every Hong Konger will live happily ever after. Such common mistakes are made by both supporters of Hong Kong nationalists and liberals who failed to consider the social class divisions. Diversification and complication exist not only within the “imagined communities” but also among the “ethnic compatriots”. Asking the labour class to accept immigrants competing for jobs is as absurd as requesting business leaders to support the cause of Hong Kong independence. The ideological differences and social division between two sides has generated more strife and conflicts.

The solution, other than the traditional economist’s cost-benefit analysis of “achieve the general good”, must include the leftist's idea of wealth redistribution and nationalist's concern of constructing a shared identity. But if one takes a closer look, he or she may find the contradiction between the basic assumptions behind each of these theories and at the end of the day. It is hard to blame localist youth in taking the “valorous” path of violence after all.

As the society is deeply bipolarised (or tripolarised?), problems are increasingly difficult to  be solved with dialogues or debates. Instead, each side mobilizes its own supporters on the “stratosphere” of social networks and engages in verbal or even physical conflicts. What more likely happens in future is not the glory of independence but the disintegration of the society. Only the unpredictable force of history can tell who can be the final winner. Is the trend a boon or a bane for Hong Kong? Who knows?

1 comment:

  1. Again thank you HK Columns for the translation. It is well written and thoughtout. I was speaking with a senior government official the other day about the intelligence of Hong Kong's youth. We both agreed that the youth of today want to hear serious debate about the forthcoming LegCo elections. Many of the candidates do not have a platform for their campaigns and debate only half-hardheartedly. The youth want intelligent debates. I wish them all the best in the elections.
    However, having said the above, the author of the story (Mervin Ho) had answered the questions himself. He blames the lack of international attention and understanding by Hong Kong's elite for the Independence movement to go forward. Maybe they all no it's a non-starter.