Could Hong Kong become Tibet 2.0?

By Louisa Lim

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of short LARB China Blog pieces by Louisa Lim, building off episodes of the Little Red Podcast.  This is an excellent new podcast out of Australia, hosted by Graeme Smith in collaboration with Louisa and distributed by ANU’s Chinoiresie.  The following post is based on Episode 10: “Hong Kong: the new Tibet?” -JW

Turning the Chinese and Hong Kong flags perched on lawmakers’ desks upside down. Unfurling a banner saying, “Hong Kong is not part of China.” Reading the oath of office too slowly. Using a questioning tone of voice when swearing allegiance to China. These protests by localist lawmakers in Hong Kong — and other actions taken during the 2014 Occupy Central protest movement — are why 10 popularly elected Hong Kong lawmakers could be disqualified from the territory’s parliament. Some of their number face even more serious punishment, for instance the flag-fiddler Cheng Chung-tai, who could be looking at three years in jail if found guilty of flag desecration.

As Hong Kong prepares to mark the 20th anniversary since its return to Chinese sovereignty with a blow-out US $80m celebration, its government has stepped up its campaign to oust localist politicians critical of the government from the legislature. This follows China’s intervention in a court case regarding the oath-taking in November by interpreting Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. Although Hong Kong’s Basic Law guarantees it a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years after its return to Chinese sovereignty, Beijing is making it clear — through actions and rhetoric — that it will take whatever action it deems necessary to impose its will on the territory. One China scholar, Kevin Carrico from Macquarie University, is now drawing parallels with Beijing’s treatment of other restive regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet.

Hong Kong’s localist movement, and its more hardline wing which advocates Hong Kong independence, represent a “real paradigm shift” according to Carrico. “Beijing’s hardline policy has produced very unexpected developments in culture and politics. 20 years ago, I don’t think anybody would have said we’d be talking about a Hong Kong National party and the growth of an independence movement. It’s quite unexpected.”

Hong Kong’s distinctive political identity first emerged as a force in 2003, when half a million residents took to the streets to protest against the enactment of proposed anti-subversion legislation, known as Article 23 of the Basic Law. This was followed by a series of cultural heritage preservation movements, including the attempt to save the Star Ferry Pier in 2007 and the campaign against a costly high-speed rail link in 2010, which focused minds on the importance of preserving and valuing Hong Kong’s unique historical legacy. Mounting dissatisfaction with government policies has been a mobilizing force for young Hong Kongers, in particular during a 2012 campaign which succeeded in getting the government to withdraw plans to implement compulsory National and Moral Education in schools and the Occupy Central movement in 2015.

This dissatisfaction is such that a recent survey found 6- percent of respondents believe society had declined since the return to Chinese rule 20 years ago. Chinese officials have also warned about the “tide of separatist ideas” in Hong Kong, and China’s number three Zhang Dejiang has made clear Beijing’s intention to further tighten control over Hong Kong by warning that Beijing’s relationship with Hong Kong “is that of delegation of power, not power-sharing”, while urging Hong Kong to implement Article 23. Another senior Chinese official, Wang Zhenmin, has even warned that the “One Country, Two Systems” model could be scrapped, if it were used as a tool to confront Beijing.

Such moves are likely to have an adverse impact, according to Carrico, “The responses that have developed so far seem to suggest that both the local government and the Beijing government want to take a hardline approach to this emerging cultural and political trend, and that I fear is only going to provoke increasingly hardline responses from people involved in the movement.”

Carrico warns of growing pressure to make the discussion of Hong Kong independence illegal, including a proposal floated in the official Hong Kong and Macau Studies Journal to reinterpret Article 27 of the Basic Law on freedom of speech specifically to muzzle discussion of Hong Kong independence. Carrico says that the central government rhetoric mirrors that used in restive provinces such as Xinjiang, “There’s a continual process of externalization, projection, the idea that any problems that happen in these areas — whether I’m talking about Xinjiang, Tibet or Hong Kong — is always supposedly planned and controlled by these external forces who are trying to destabilize China. This is how they described the Occupy protests in 2014. And this is how they characterize the Hong Kong independence movement.”

Carrico’s level of concern is such that, in discussing the future of the Basic Law, he warns that one sobering precedent could be the fate of the 17-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, signed between China and Tibet in 1951. “If you look at the 17-Point Agreement signed between China and Tibet, there was this guarantee that people’s way of life would be preserved,” he said. “There’d be freedom of religion. Things would not change. Obviously that didn’t come to be the case. Forty-something years later we see the handover of Hong Kong to China with similar guarantees and a much more gradual process of integrating an increasingly hardline policy. But I am concerned that type of hardline policy is taking effect.”

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