By Sasha Ramani, MPP 2018
Hong Kong’s Legislative election on September 4th saw newindependence-leaning candidates winning seats in the territory’s Legislative Council (LegCo).
Traditionally, Hong Kong’s politics have been divided among the pro-Beijing “Establishment” camp and the pan-Democratic camp. This election saw the new “localist” camp take 6 out of 70 LegCo seats;/. Localists are a varied group, but are generally young, disidentify with China, and flirt with the idea of outright independence for Hong Kong. They are also more ready to engage in acts of civil disobedience: several were leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, a protest sparked by Beijing’s refusal to grant open elections for Hong Kong’s leader, the Chief Executive. The protest involved weeks of student-led demonstrations along major city streets.
China’s leadership has been swift to denounce any separatism. After the election, state-controlled news outlet Xinhua quoted a spokesperson at China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office as saying “We firmly oppose any activity relating to Hong Kong independence in any form, inside or outside the Legislative Council”.
Hong Kong’s government, doubtless under prodding from Beijing, tried to keep independence-leaning candidates from running. Six candidates were excluded from the ballot, and are currently challenging their disqualification in court. But six localists escaped and are now legislator-elects. Though not all localists advocate for independence, they all support “self-determination” – for Hong Kong’s citizens to decide for themselves what kind of relationship they have with China.
Hong Kong’s partially-democratic system was inherited from its days under British rule. Of the 70 seats in the Legislative Council (LegCo), 40 are elected by citizens under proportional representation, while the remaining 30 are selected by interest groups that are largely sympathetic to Beijing. Hong Kong’s leader, the Chief Executive, is in-effect chosen by Beijing.
Pro-Beijing parties won 40 seats out of 70 legislative seats, while Democracy-leaning parties (including localists) won 30. The 30 Democratic seats – a record high – gives the Democrats veto power over legislative bills and procedural changes in LegCo.
Until recently, Hong Kong’s independence was seen as a fringe topic. But the failure of the 2014 Umbrella Movement to achieve democratic concessions from Beijing has driven many – particularly the younger generation – to flirt with independence. Since then, there has been wide concern in Hong Kong that its freedoms are being eroded and that the city is being “mainlandized”, as Anson Chan, former Chief Secretary under British Hong Kong, described during her visit to the Kennedy School in April 2016. Chan claimed that localism is “an expression of young people’s effort to preserve our lifestyle, and not to allow some of the worst aspects of mainland culture to creep into Hong Kong”.
Recent events such as the abduction of Hong Kong booksellers, threats issued to pro-democracy politicians, and the rise of politically-driven prosecutions all fuel the belief that China is slowly chipping away at Hong Kong’s freedoms. As a response, the younger generation of Hong Kongers identifies less with China. A post-Umbrella Movement survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong showed that only 8.9% of respondents, a record low, identified themselves as “Chinese”. Conversely, 26.8% responded as “Hong Kongers”, while 42% more identified as “Hong Kongers but also Chinese”.
Incoming legislators were invited to attend Hong Kong’s government reception for China’s National Day on October 1st. However, the two legislator-elects of the localist party Youngspiration claimed that they would reject the invitation, as it celebrated “the national day of a neighbouring country”. Nathan Law Kwun-Chung of the party Demosisto indicated that he would use the invitation to protest at the venue. Law, at 23 years old, is the youngest lawmaker in Hong Kong’s history.
Hong Kong is unlikely to ever realize independence, but separatist sentiment will likely be a persistent thorn in Beijing’s side. The growth of separatism in Hong Kong represents the widening belief that “One Country, Two Systems”, the 1997 formula under which Hong Kong was passed from British to Chinese control, is a failure. The model was initially designed with Taiwan in mind: its architect, former Chinese President Deng Xiaoping, reckoned that its success in Hong Kong would attract Taiwan to agree to a similar arrangement to reunify with China. However, the formula has scarce support in Taiwan, even among the ostensibly pro-China KMT party. Earlier in 2016, Taiwan’s citizens delivered a sweeping victory to Tsai Ing-Wen of the independence-leaning DPP.
The political impasse in Hong Kong is being felt in the business community. In March, the credit agencies S&P and Moody’s downgraded Hong Kong’s credit rating, citing political interference from Beijing. Shortly after the election, Moody’s indicated that the rating could once again be in jeopardy. During Chan’s visit to the Kennedy School, she warned that foreign investment may be frightened away by credit downgrades and threats to judicial independence.
Anthony Saich, a Professor at the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, believes that one of the main concerns with Hong Kong’s governance is that news of local affairs is filtered up to Beijing through the Hong Kong-based China Liaison Office. Through a series of what he calls “Chinese whispers”, the leadership in Beijing receives only flattering news, and therefore misses underlying social tensions. Saich suggested that Beijing should shutter the China Liaison Office completely, believing that this would make meaningful progress towards alleviating tension.
Furthermore, Beijing may want to replace its highly-unpopular Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, whose term ends in 2017. The embattled Leung oversaw the Umbrella Movement and opened a Pandora’s Box of independence sentiment in Hong Kong. But Beijing is unlikely to placate separatists without granting them what they want most: democracy and self-determination.
Picture: Nathan Law Kwun-Chung, 23, Hong Kong’s youngest ever lawmaker and Chairman of the localist party Demosisto. To his right: Joshua Wong Chi-Fung, 19, Secretary General of the party Demosisto. Source: Demosisto Facebook page.