Separatist Sentiment on the Rise in Hong Kong

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By Philip Apfel 

Walk around the ever-bustling streets of Hong Kong these days, and pedestrians are likely to be furnishing umbrellas only when it is actually raining. Apart from the occasional lonely protester holding up a sign on a busy street corner, things seem “normal”, if not calm. One could almost be forgiven for assuming that the Umbrella movement, a series of protests that saw thousands of frustrated local citizens take to the streets two years ago, has all but puffed out. However, appearances can be deceiving. Though their umbrellas have left the streets, local citizens’ calls for a proper democracy are growing louder by the day. Concerted efforts by the Hong Kong government (at the behest of China) to stifle and suppress a groundswell of support, especially among young people, for democratic ideals, have largely backfired.

The disappearance of five booksellers in 2015, spirited into the delicate care of China’s state security apparatus in blatant violation of their human rights, for publishing or distributing mainland-criticising books, is just one illustrative example of how China is attempting to tighten its control over Hong Kong. More generally, according to Steve Vickers, a former head of the colonial police’s criminal intelligence bureau, “there is a growing feeling in Hong Kong of greater mainland pressure on universities and civil society”.

In August of this year, a Hong Kong court convicted nineteen-year-old Joshua Wong, the face of the Umbrella movement demonstrations, along with some other student activists, for his involvement in the 2014 protests. The Hong Kong Eastern Court which gave the ruling reasoned that Wong’s conduct “damage[d] social peace”. Mr Wong took the conviction, and the attendant punishment of community service, in his stride, stating that he has “no regrets”, and that his plans to continue fighting for Hong Kong citizens’ right to self-determination are unwavering.

It is clear from these examples that the Communist Party and the Hong Kong government have, in the wake of the Umbrella protests, opted for a punitive, uncompromisingly ‘sticks-not-carrots’ approach, rather than making the effort to hear out and address some of the legitimate concerns by people that were, under the now eroding, feeble spectre of “one country, two systems” (broadly speaking this is the idea that Beijing is responsible for the city’s defence and foreign affairs; while Hong Kong can enjoy self-governance in other areas, ensuring civil liberties such as freedom of association and freedom of the press, and an independent judiciary), promised at least some level of democracy and the rule of law.

The result? Alienated, frustrated members of the population, especially the young, are finding other ways to make their voices heard, and are making demands that are actually more exacting than in 2014. While the 2014 protests focussed around forcing Hong Kong’s unpopular pro-Beijing leader CY Leung from office and achieving genuine universal suffrage (the current voting system for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council skews outcomes in favour of pro-establishment politicians, and the chief executive is chosen by a broadly pro-Beijing nominating committee), today, calls for outright independence are actually entering mainstream politics.

In September of this year, in a move that must have irked the Chinese government beyond measure, six separatist activists, promising to fight against what has come to be known as ‘Mainlandisation’, were voted into the Legislative Council. That makes 15% of the 40 directly elected seats (another 30 are chosen by broadly pro-Beijing, ‘functional constituencies’). Though 6-out-of-70 does not sound like much, the symbolic value of this result is hard to overstate. It is proof of the deepening political divide in Hong Kong, with the unrelenting force of ‘Mainlandisation’ pitted against an equally persevering demand for democracy and self-determination. In the coming weeks and months, due to its composition, the new Legislative Council is likely to pull the idea of independence right into the centre of public discourse. As such, especially if the government continues its hardline approach (and there is no reason to believe that it won’t), numbers in a recent survey that showed that 17% of Hong Kong citizens support independence are likely to grow.

That is good news for those who believe in democracy, the rule of law, and the right to self-determination. But the road ahead is likely to be rocky and full of further obstacles. So batten down the hatches! A storm is brewing. Good thing there are still lots of umbrellas to go around.

Features Editor