Thursday, July 5, 2012

Happy Dependence Day, Hong Kong! 400,000 Protest Chinese Rule—but Secession Is Not on the Table

July 1st is one of the most common days for a national holiday in the world, mainly because countries that get their independence gradually, peacefully, through bureaucratic means, tend to stage hand-overs at the precise middle of the year; it is a neat calendar division, it doesn’t interfere with other holiday seasons, and weather is nice enough to celebrate anniversaries.  So July 1st is Canada Day, Republic Day in Ghana, Independence Day in Burundi, etc. etc.  (Countries born in revolution also tend to have summer independence days, mainly because hot weather is when peasants get riled up enough to revolt: no one felt like storming the Bastille, in December, and if the founders of the Swiss Confederation had solemnized the Rütlischwur on February 1, 1291, instead of August 1st, they would’ve frozen their schällä off.)

The current flag of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

But July 1st also marks some sad bureaucratic transitions that few celebrate.  This week in Somaliland, nationalists mourned their nation’s involuntary absorption into the Somali Republic on July 1, 1960.  Likewise, July 1, 2012, was also the occasion for 400,000 or so citizens of China’s Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (H.K.S.A.R.) to stage mass street protests amid the swearing in, as the territory’s Chief Executive, of Leung Chun-ying, regarded by many as more than a bit too cosy with the mainland Chinese government.  The date was the 15th anniversary of—and here the Chinese Communist Party’s unique gift for naming festive celebrations really comes to the fore—Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day.  (Break out the firecrackers, eh?!  You have to say, though: at least it does not have as skin-crawlingly Orwellian a name as Serf Emancipation Day, the anniversary of the consolidation of Beijing’s brutal rule over Tibet.)  July 1, 1997, was when the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (U.K.) transferred sovereignty of the economically powerful city-state of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.).  This fulfilled a promise made by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to the Chinese dictator Deng Xiaoping in the Sino-British Declaration of 1984.  The U.K.’s 99-year lease on the New Territories, which formed most of the land area of the colony of Hong Kong, was to expire in 1997, and the U.K. and the P.R.C. agreed that in 1997 Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, though they had been ceded to the U.K. in perpetuity by treaty, would be transferred to Chinese sovereignty as well.
This, one would think, had all the makings of a disaster.  Recall, China annexed Tibet in 1959, in the midst of the massacres and famines of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, during which perhaps as many as a quarter-million Tibetans died in a largely engineered famine.  Shortly afterward, thousands of Buddhist temples in Tibet were demolished in the ideological madness of the Cultural Revolution.  (See my blog article on Chinese rule in Tibet.)  All of this, in 1984, was a recent memory.  Why would Thatcher, self-declared global champion of individual economic and political rights, willingly deliver a flourishing peaceful mini-republic into the blood-soaked hands of what was and still is (and there’s really no nice way to put this), measured corpse for corpse, quite easily the most murderous regime in the history of the world?

Well, first of all, the 6 or 7 million Hong Kongers themselves had no say in this.  This was a deal struck by great powers.  But the British extracted an agreement that for fifty years Beijing would, under the “one country, two systems” provision, refrain from imposing political and economic aspects of Chinese socialism in Hong Kong and would allow Hong Kong to continue to enjoy its political and economic “way of life,” including freedom of speech, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, freedom of religion and the press, and a free market.  It would also retain its own currency, the Hong Kong dollar.  There was the niggling little fact that Hong Kong was not democratic and was more or less ruled directly from London through an appointed governor, which was a tad embarrassing because on this front there was far less moral high ground to lord over the Chinese.  But the British scrambled at the last minute and pushed through some democratic reforms in time for democracy to count, under the terms of the handover, as part of the Hong Kong way of life that would stay in place until 2047.

The old colonial flag of Hong Kong was in evidence in this year’s July 1st protests.

Feelings were mixed in 1997, and most of the celebrating was being done by the jingoists that rule from Beijing.  Many non-Chinese fled Hong Kong between 1984 and 1997; there would have been many, many more if London had allowed Hong Kongers the same rights to settle elsewhere in the U.K. as other U.K. citizens enjoyed.  As things unfolded, Hong Kong has indeed been allowed to maintain its free press, its freedom of religion, its free-market economy, and its (newly minted) democratic system (though a version of the free-market economy has spread to other areas of mainland China as well).  Beijing imposes international-style border controls between Hong Kong and the rest of the P.R.C., and there have been no significant impositions of Chinese-style repression in Hong Kong.  Astonishingly, there are even vehement, well-attended protests in Hong Kong on every anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacres, though of course you’ll never read about that in newspapers on the mainland.  On paper, Hong Kong has pretty much all of the civil liberties one expects to find in, say, a western European nation.  And China has even resigned itself to the fact that Hong Kong popular culture (like Taiwanese popular culture), with its decadent, western-style films and music, now floods the mainland.  Nor are there significant controls on reading material and broadcasts that cross from Hong Kong to the rest of China.  This would be almost impossible, anyway, and Beijing is reconciled to the fact that it cannot prevent the educated elite of the mainland from being exposed to “dangerous western ideas” like human rights and democracy.  After all, mainland Chinese are still, to an astonishing extent, constrained from ever acting on those ideas.  (That may or may not be changing, but not because of Hong Kong per se.)  When I lived on a university campus in mainland China in 2011, I bought a pirated, re-typeset, paperback-book-style copy of The Economist every week at a newsstand, downloaded electronically via Hong Kong but printed on campus, including all of the rabidly anti-Communist editorials and reports on events such as the arrest of Ai Weiwei that Beijing would prefer its citizens not get too much detail on.  This was clearly tolerated by the authorities, but everyone understood that displaying a “Free Ai Weiwei” banner would not be.)

QE2 in the HKSAR

Despite all this, however, Beijing controls Hong Kong’s borders with the outside world and the flow of people from the mainland into Hong Kong, so in no way can Hong Kong be used as a conduit for people to escape the gigantic prison camp that is the P.R.C.  And it is an open secret that Beijing manages to influence Hong Kong’s political system, by corrupting political parties via entanglements with Hong Kong’s organized crime syndicates—many of them now fully infiltrated by the Chinese Communist Party—and by a network of secret police that keeps Hong Kong under as much surveillance as is felt necessary, so that any dissent which looks like it might slop over the border can be acted upon.  When one thinks about it, it would be surprising if this weren’t the case.  More ominously, though, Hong Kong police are increasingly treating protestors and dissidents—especially in the labor movement, which is one area of vulnerability in party rule on the mainland—in a way that is not terribly characteristic of, say, western European nations.

A “flash stencil” of Ai Weiwei projected by a protestor onto the People’s Liberation Army barracks in Beijing
with the words, “Who’s Afraid of Ai Weiwei?”

Still, this year’s July 1st protests were surprisingly bold.  People were overtly rankled by the fact that the swearing-in ceremony was conducted entirely in Mandarin—Mandarin in a Beijing accent—rather than in the Cantonese which most Hong Kongers of all social classes—along with tens of millions of others across southern China—speak.  (Mandarin and Cantonese are called dialects of Chinese, because they use the same writing system, but in every other respect they are separate languages.)  China’s president, Hu Jintao, who attended the swearing-in, was heckled during his address by a protestor waving a flag and shouting about Tiananmen Square; the poor chap was hustled away by security officers.  Hong Kong’s old colonial flag, with the Union Jack, was flying in all sorts of places, making a clear point that those were the good old days.  And opponents of Chinese rule in Tibet targeted Hu’s appearances with flags, banners, and chants—something that, just a few miles to the north, could earn someone a one-way ticket to a re-education camp.  (That’s not an exaggeration: one’s family might never hear from one again.  Disappearances are a real specter that haunts every Chinese citizen.)

Pro-Tibet protestors in Hong Kong

But there are some topics that were not the focus of any of these protests.  Here is one exception to the British-style freedom of speech guaranteed to Hong Kong: it is illegal in Hong Kong, as it is elsewhere in China, to advocate secession from the P.R.C.  So (to my knowledge) there were no advocates of independence for Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Tibet.  It seems that the Tibetan protestors mentioned above focused their discontent on Chinese misrule in Tibet rather than the fact of Chinese rule.

Because of these controls on free speech, it is hard to ascertain to what extent there is support in Hong Kong for independence from the P.R.C.  (It is important to distinguish between independence from the P.R.C. and independence from China.  The Republic of China on Taiwan, for example, is China, but it is not the P.R.C.  The Chinese Communist Party would like to conflate the concepts of China and People’s Republic of China in order to paint secessionists as anti-Chinese.  Semantics is crucial here.)  There is no visible public Hong Kong separatist movement, but there is a concatenation of shifting websites known as the Hong Konger Front, which would like to see a referendum on independence for Hong Kong—a prerequisite for which would, of course, be a lifting of the ban on advocating independence.  There are a lot of ways that independence could play out: Hong Kong as a sovereign state in free association with China which agrees to some semantic fictions alluding to national unity (which is the type of situation Taiwan is gradually evolving toward), a fully independent but close ally (such as Singapore is), or an uneasy relationship of a weak independent state and an economically and politically aggressive former-overlord big-brother neighbor (similar to the relationship between, say, Russia and Belarus).  Gradual movement toward the first option seems possible, but it would have to happen extremely gradually and on Beijing’s semantic terms.  And it would be, de facto, unilaterally revocable at any point at which Beijing decided Hong Kong’s independence was becoming inconvenient.

Proposed flag for a Republic of Hong Kong

Certainly, Hong Kong would never want to forego having the P.R.C. as a trading partner, but there are few city-states that would be more economically viable than Hong Kong as an independent republic.  Hong Kong is, arguably, the financial capital of the Eastern Hemisphere.  Hong Kong has the seventh-busiest harbor in the world, the ninth-most-heavily-traded currency, the sixth-largest stock exchange in the world, and the sixth-highest G.D.P. per capita (higher than that of the United States).  If Brunei and Singapore can be wildly successful independent states, so can Hong Kong.  No one disputes this.  (So, incidentally, could Hong Kong’s smaller sister city, the casino resort of Macao, which Portugal transferred to P.R.C. sovereignty two years after Hong Kong’s transfer.)

Given the discontent that so many hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers gave full throat to on July 1st, it is hard to imagine that a referendum held in free conditions could favor staying in the P.R.C.  Being in the P.R.C. offers no advantages to the people of Hong Kong other than free trade with the mainland—and free trade with the mainland is something many other independent states enjoy and which it is easy to imagine an independent Hong Kong enjoying as well.  And, truly, even significantly restricted trade with the mainland, in a context of an uneasy and troubled alliance, would still leave Hong Kong enough economic activity to guarantee an extremely wealthy, flourishing state.

Chinese nationalists and the official line of the Chinese Communist Party would have us believe that any divisions or partitions of China are deeply offensive to “Chinese national feeling,” at a very visceral, cultural, deeply historical level.  It is hard to convey just how fanatically focused on this point official Chinese political propaganda tends to be.  Nonetheless, that doesn’t seem to prevent there being a vast mainstream full-independence movement in Taiwan.  (President Hu visited Taipei a couple days after his Hong Kong visit, and was met by throngs of angry protestors there as well.)  Nor has the majority of Singaporeans who are Chinese ever produced the faintest hint of a desire for political unification with the P.R.C., even in an empty symbolic way.  And this is to say nothing of non-Han parts of China (the Han are China’s dominant ethnic group) such as Tibet, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (“East Turkestan”), and Inner Mongolia, where—and this is in a way a separate issue—there are independence movements.  More to the point, it was not in any sense the Chinese majority in Hong Kong—the Han Chinese majority in Hong Kong, not incidentally—who clamored for a return to rule from Beijing.

It could also be pointed out that other Han-dominated parts of China, especially the special economic zones where capitalism has been very successfully introduced, would make perfectly viable independent states.  Guangdong (formerly Canton) province, bordering Hong Kong, comes first to mind, but there are others.

But when we see the international scorn that Beijing is willing to have heaped upon it for its Tibet policy (and for the Tiananmen Square massacre), and when we see the decades of international diplomatic isolation that it endured rather than bend in its territorial claims on Taiwan, and when we see the preoccupation with squelching Uyghur separatism that dominates its relations with powerful neighbors like Pakistan and Russia, then we begin to realize that Beijing would do anything—absolutely anything—necessary to keep Hong Kong part of “China.” They would exterminate every citizen of Hong Kong if they had to.  They would nuke the place if they had to.  I’m not even joking.  That’s how meshuggeneh the official ideology is on the question of territorial integrity.

Hong Kong’s people understand this, too.  That is why, among the open heckling of dictators, amid the Union Jacks and vocal protests on everything from Tiananmen Square to Tibet to Ai Weiwei, there were no picket signs saying “Independence for Hong Kong.”  Hong Kong may be in many ways a free society—they are not a totalitarian society, they only live in the shadow one—but on this one point they have acquired the personality trait of victims of a totalitarian society: they seem to be censoring their own thoughts for ideologically incorrect ideas before they even get around to thinking them.

[Related articles: “China, Tibet, and the Politics of Reincarnation” (March 2012), “The World’s 21 Sexiest Separatists” (April 2012) (featuring profiles of three different pro-Tibet activists), “What Is a Colony? The United Nations’ Definition Needs an Overhaul” (June 2012), “10 Ethnonationalist Causes That Might Disrupt the Olympics” (July 2012).]

[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it in spring 2013.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

1 comment:

  1. You say, "There was the niggling...fact...HK...was...ruled directly from London through an appointed governor, which was a tad embarrassing because...there was far less moral high ground to lord over the Chinese." You're 100% right!!! I said from the beginning that HK wound up with what was a fascist form of gov't (reps chosen by profession and station in life, not area) because the friggin' Brits never saw fit to give it a viable democracy. --Dave Shea


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