Hong Kongers, Be Honest About Your Independence

Sandhu 2016 Hong Kongers Be Honest About Your Independence

Source: かがみ~ /​Flickr

When visiting my native Hong Kong last September, I wanted to know what my friends and other locals had to say about recent political flare-ups that catapulted the city into the international spotlight. Days before I landed in the territory, six young, pro-democracy candidates had won seats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo), and exactly two years had passed since the historic Umbrella Movement, when thousands took to the streets to protest Beijing’s refusal to allow democratic reforms in Hong Kong, namely universal suffrage by 2017.

Discussing Hong Kong’s independence from China is no longer taboo; this is one change I saw. In fact, some Hong Kongers are now calling outright for independence from China and demanding they have the power to directly elect the chief executive of Hong Kong. While such conspicuous dissent is seen by some to presage political reform, Hong Kongers need to be pragmatic. China will not grant independence to Hong Kong, and no matter who is elected chief executive, he or she will have to answer to Beijing. Rather, Hong Kongers should strive to preserve the territory’s autonomy and freedoms in the long-term – that is, beyond the year 2047, when China’s political system is slated to swallow Hong Kong’s.

Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997 after 156 years of British rule. In an effort to reassure the international community and the Hong Kong people of the territory’s political stability and attractiveness for global commerce, China and Britain devised a one country, two systems” agreement, now enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. China committed to granting the territory a high degree of autonomy” for 50 years. Western observers hoped the rule of law, free speech and vibrant civic culture would flourish in Hong Kong.

In one respect, Hong Kong has thrived. The territory provides Chinese companies with access to global capital markets for bond and loan financing. According to the World Investment Report 2015, by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Hong Kong ranked second in foreign direct investment flows, with record amounts of investments both in and out of China. Foreign companies also use Hong Kong as a base for investing in China because it offers what no other mainland city does: a stable investment environment, independent judges and fair, transparent courts that uphold the rule of law. The Chinese government has also turned to the city to test a range of financial reforms: the Chinese renminbi’s journey to acceptance as a global currency began in Hong Kong in 2009, for example. Maintaining Hong Kong’s political stability in the long run will be important not only for the territory’s residents, but also for China’s economy, its international reputation and for the global economy.

Meanwhile, the one country, two systems” agreement stipulated that chief-executive candidates be selected by a pro-Beijing nomination committee. Back in 1997, Hong Kongers were optimistic that a more accountable, popularly elected government would evolve over time through political reforms. The results of the first LegCo election in 1998 were encouraging: the Democratic Party won 13 of the 50 seats, becoming a formidable opposition. My friends and I were heartened. We believed the territory might even catalyze democratic change on the mainland. 

In early September 2016, another LegCo election took place. To demonstrate their frustration with Beijing, voters elected six new legislators calling for more independence. The new legislators, all under the age of 40, have openly taunted Beijing during protests and interviews. In October, while being sworn in, two of them rejiggered the oath by mispronouncing the word China” with the derogatory Shina” while displaying banners that read Hong Kong is not China.”

Hong Kong has become polarized between those who call for political reforms and universal suffrage by 2017 and those who support Beijing. Huge protests, mock referendums and petitions have contributed to growing tension between the two sides in recent years. The 2014 Umbrella Movement turned the streets into battle fields as police in riot gear, under order, cracked down on student-led protestors demanding broader democratic representation. Beijing made no concessions. 

People are furious about rising prices of housing and basic commodities, increasing immigration – especially from the mainland – and soaring income inequality. As my taxi driver put it, I don’t even see the point why the hell I work so hard. All this work and still I can’t buy everything my family needs. What a waste of time.” There is also a growing resentment for how Beijing and its local representatives have governed the city and intervened in its affairs. 

Interference by Beijing in local affairs has become particularly invasive since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Activists, journalists and lawyers have been detained for endangering state security.” Hong Kong publishers of provocative political books, notably Lee Bo, have been kidnaped and brought to the mainland to be paraded on state television. In a 2014 white paper on Hong Kong, Beijing reminded Hong Kong judges to be patriotic” and asserted Beijing’s comprehensive jurisdiction” over the former British colony. And this week, the Chinese government made an unprecedented intervention by barring the two pro-independence activists who deliberately misread their oaths from taking office. This could prompt a constitutional crisis and fuel more protests in Hong Kong. 

It is this interference that has animated Hong Kong people to vote for the pro-independence legislators. But the ensuing political pushback following the Umbrella Movement has proven futile. While the six new legislators and their supporters continue their pro-democracy movement, they do so in vain: not only will China have none of it, but the pro-independence activists have little support from Western governments and multinationals around the world who are careful not to jeopardize their commercial ties with China.

Once Hong Kong’s poor neighbor to the north, China has become the world’s second largest economy, likely to surpass the United States in terms of nominal gross domestic product by 2026. Multinational corporations are jockeying to gain access to the world’s largest consumer market by selling goods in the mainland. These trends have exacerbated the sense among many Hong Kongers that they have not really benefitted from China’s rise. At the same time, Hong Kong now competes with Shanghai as the country’s financial hub, and the city’s port is losing ground to China’s special economic zones. Growth rates in tourism from China, property investment and commercial expansion have benefited some, but for people like my taxi driver, Hong Kong’s rising prices and changing demographic profile, with more mainland Chinese moving to Hong Kong every year, are seen as threatening. 

The reality is that Hong Kong’s fate has been, and always will be, intricately tied to China. The prospect of independence is illusory. When the next chief executive is chosen in March 2017, it will again be an election committee composed mainly of residents who generally support Beijing. The new breed of young, pro-democracy legislators need to realize that even if many residents in the territory identify themselves as Hong Kong People” before Chinese,” Hong Kong is part of China. Many people in Hong Kong admire China’s rapid economic growth over the last two decades. And many Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese intend to retain personal and professional ties.

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders should accept that the only viable option to safeguard some semblance of democracy in the long run is to build support around preserving Hong Kong’s autonomous status indefinitely after 2047. This is also in China’s interest. For one, Hong Kong is more than just an investment gateway to mainland China. The territory’s legal system and capital markets provide an invaluable platform for which foreign investments – both financial and human – can connect to the mainland. What is more, Hong Kong plays a vital role for China to acquire technological and management expertise. Underpinning all of this is the credibility of the one country, two systems” agreement that has given international businesses a sense of comfort and safety. 

For the first few years after Hong Kong’s handover to China, my friends and I were hopeful that democracy in Hong Kong would eventually give us a more accountable government. As I caught up with them 20 years later, I could tell in their faces and voices that this optimism is fading. But I remain hopeful that Hong Kong’s democratic spirit is not broken. Hong Kong people will have to tread the fine line between standing up for their rights to retain some semblance of independence and coping with the reality of a rising and more assertive China that will embrace Hong Kong ever closer.