Posted:  March 3, 2015


From the super-sized headlines and melodramatic etchings, anyone on a daily diet of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing press offerings might well think a revolutionary apocalypse is at hand.  Nothing could be further from the truth, of course … unless you adhere to Beijing’s definition of “independence” in its unitary party-ruled state.  Like all the arguing over universal suffrage (Feb. 9 post), the current blow-up over independence is about definitions. Two sides of the same promise … one promise, two different interpretations: one from Beijing, the other for everyone else.

As Beijing sees it, Hong Kong’s demand for genuine universal suffrage is indeed akin to a demand for independence … independence from the strictures of Beijing’s right to make all the political decisions that matter.  But in one sense, Beijing’s logic is correct because there is now emerging here another line of argument that tends toward accepting the official view … not in submission but in defiance. This is the rationale of some pro-democracy partisans … not all young … who have begun to think seditious thoughts and to champion the cause of separatism.  For want as yet of a generic self-description, friendly editors are calling them “local-ists” 【本土派】.  

Beijing’s latest wrathful “anti-independence” campaign thus has a dual purpose:  discrediting the “radical” rationale for separatism; and discouraging the mainstream “moderates” who still think their dream of genuine universal suffrage can be achieved within the existing one-country, two-systems framework.  And thus Beijing’s task grows more difficult by the day.

But officials and media managers are making their job that much harder by their stubborn insistence on using frozen-in-revolutionary-time rhetoric that dates all the way back to their heydays … when the Chinese Communist Party had class enemies to target and the old order to overthrow. Used here and now, this style of “hate” campaigning produces an automatic response in kind  …  reminding Hong Kongers of what it is they have always hated most about the mainland political system.  But maybe that’s part of a necessary exercise:   whereby Beijing can finally come to see the counter-productive effect of its revolutionary rhetoric … and Hong Kong can learn better how to stand its ground with clear arguments that Beijing will no longer be able to ignore.

The current official campaign against independence, so-called, is being waged by Beijing and the Hong Kong government on two related fronts:  one polemical, the other more serious. This is because the latter entails direct interference, for political reasons, in the management of an academic institution that is supposed to enjoy autonomy and constitutional protection under the Basic Law’s one-country two-systems mandate.  The two dimensions are linked in attacks against a student publication at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), and against a former law school dean. 


Tensions have been simmering over the independence idea for a few years … beginning about the time small groups of smartly turned out young people in British-style blue blazers showed up for marches and rallies  carrying the old blue colonial flag.  That was also the time, around 2011, when one of the godfathers of the local autonomy idea, Horace Chin Wan-kan 【陳雲跟】, pen name Chin Wan or Chen Yun【陳雲】,  published a book that caught the mood On the Hong Kong City-State 【香港城邦論】.      

The separatist argument led to a heated dispute last year with sponsors of the annual June Fourth candlelight vigil that commemorates the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on China’s own 1980s democracy movement.   Vigil organizers, the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, have always adhered to an “all-China” democratizing mission that has become anathema to those calling for genuine Hong Kong autonomy (June 6, 2014 post). 

Among local pro-democracy politicians, such inclinations can be found especially in the (People Power and Civic Passion) spinoffs of Raymond “Mad Dog” Wong’s original People Power spinoff from the League of Social Democrats!  The Civic Party also harbors a few such adherents and so do Neo-Democrats, a spinoff from the Democratic Party.

But official grumbling about the new trend escalated only recently into a full blown campaign … part of the pushback against the 79-day street occupation protest that ended in mid-December.  Hong Kong‘s Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying led the charge himself a month later, on January 14, in his annual policy address ( ).   It was an unprecedented departure from the norm because he began by blasting the University of Hong Kong’s student leaders and their decades-old publication Undergrad   【學苑】 for publishing articles in recent issues about Hong Kong self-reliance and self-determination.

He said he wanted to help students “correct their mistakes” and avoid “fallacies.”  Toward that end, Leung took direct aim at the February 2014 issue of Undergrad, which is published by the Students’ Union at HKU.  He mentioned specifically the cover story entitled “Hong Kong People Deciding Their Own Fate,” and also took exception to Hong Kong Nationalism【香港民族論】,  a volume of essays Undergrad published last year.   HKU’s student leaders were in the forefront of the Yellow Umbrella-Occupy Central street protests and if nothing else he transformed the obscure student publication into an instant best seller.  The additional print run of Hong Kong Nationalism, ordered after his address, is already sold out.

In the name of Hong Kong’s promised “one-country, two-systems” autonomy, young people were pushing the idea too far by concluding that genuine self-determination is the only guarantee of genuine universal suffrage.  Leung’s punch line, of course, was that under one-country, two-systems, no such thing as a truly autonomous political entity could be allowed to exist.  Young people should be “guided towards a full understanding” of Hong Kong’s relationship with Beijing.

The pro-Beijing press followed suit for days with pages full of articles on the independence fallacy.  But the campaign could not have touched a sorer nerve since the one thing pro-democracy partisans … and many others … value most is their freedom of political expression.  And here was the Chief Executive, admonishing students about what they should and should not be publishing.

They replied that even though most of them did not subscribe to any such independence theories or even approve of them, the right to publish and debate is sacrosanct.  The very next issue of Undergrad carried an even more provocative article on the possible need for revolution given the futility of Hong Kong’s efforts to protect its autonomy.


Had that been the end of it, the episode might have ended there.  But that was not the end of it.  The authorities have chosen to turn this into a full-blown replica of a mainland-style struggle-criticism campaign which means that individual perpetrators must be singled out and held up for public censure to show what is expected and what can happen to those who transgress.

Except that in this case the target is one of Hong Kong’s most respected law professors, Johannes Chan Man-mun  【陳文敏】, dean of the HKU law school for a decade and until recently the favored candidate for a top HKU administrative position.  That appointment is now on hold and journalists have ferreted out information about some of his behind-the-scenes official detractors who have allegedly been lobbying the university to scuttle his new appointment (Kevin Lau in Ming Pao Daily, Feb. 11; Apple Daily, Feb. 13, 14, 15). 

Meanwhile, the main pro-Beijing papers, Wen Wei Po 【文匯報】 and Ta Kung Pao 【大公報】featured full-page litanies of his transgressions for many days running.  As it happened, the law school’s academic ranking took a nosedive during the past academic year in an academic assessment based on research papers published in international journals.  Wen Wei Po scooped this story with a full-page leaked report on the assessment findings prior to their formal announcement (WWP, Jan. 26; Chan’s response, Ming Pao, Feb. 3).   

Additionally, pro-Beijing partisans have demanded that Chan be investigated by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) on suspicion of mishandling donation funds turned over to the university, as required, by another famous member of the law faculty, Benny Tai Yiu-ting 【戴耀廷】.   But more to the point, among Chan’s many sins is his association with pan-democrats’ electoral reform efforts last year.

The law school sponsored a series of public seminars for everyone with a reform proposal who wanted to discuss it.  The series culminated in a day-long roundtable with local and non-local constitutional law experts focusing on the controversial (for Beijing) question of international election standards (March 26, 2014 post)  Prof. Chan even designed his own (very moderate) electoral reform proposal for submission to the government during the public consultation period.  He also allowed himself to be associated with one of Beijing’s favorite villains, former top civil servant Anson Chan, whose Hong Kong2020 group also lobbied for solutions at variance with Beijing’s plans.

But no doubt the blackest mark against Prof. Chan was that as dean of the law school, he did nothing to prevent one of its professors, Benny Tai, from working tirelessly for over a year to mobilize community support for his Occupy Central civil disobedience movement.  No wonder the school’s academic research took a hit, say loyalists, with all the political distractions Chan aided and abetted during his tenure (WWP:  Jan. 26, 29; Feb. 4, 2, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17).

That officials and loyalists should be unhappy with HKU’s law faculty is understandable.  But official political pressure at this level tends to be more discreet.  The last time so blatant an effort occurred was in 2000 when Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa’s administration tried to be rid of HKU pollster Robert Chung Ting-yiu 【鐘庭耀】.  Academics rallied to his defense in the name of their autonomy and Robert Chung emerged more-or-less unscathed.  Students and faculty are now rallying to Chan’s defense but it’s too soon to say whether HKU decision-makers will be brave enough to respond accordingly since this case lies at the heart of Hong Kong’s tense political relationship with Beijing.


As for the younger generation, Prof. Chan’s fate is not their greatest concern.  HKU students are now seriously contemplating the idea of rebellion and have just turned the idea against their own leaders … the heroes of Umbrella-Occupy.  The all-city Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) assumed leadership of the movement after it began last September, when Benny Tai’s carefully rehearsed preparations proved inadequate for the task. HKU students were in the forefront from the start and the federation is currently headed by Alex Chow Yong-kang 【周永康】 from HKU. But students on the street had disagreed about decisions that were made and how they were made during the 79-day sit-in. 

Hence the motion at HKU to call a student union referendum on whether or not to withdraw from the all-city federation.  The vote carried, but by just 244 votes:  2,522 for withdrawal; 2,278 against; 1,293 abstentions.  Total turnout at only 39% was still much higher than usual for student union elections (Apple, Feb. 15).

Fueling the dissent, however, was not just post mortem quibbling over Occupy strategy and tactics.  More important, said students demanding the vote, was HKFS identification with the “all-China” logic of the annual June Fourth Tiananmen memorial vigil and its traditional mission to work for a democratic China.  This derived from the original idea that the only real guarantee for democracy in Hong Kong is a democratic China.  In 1997, the Democratic Party tried to send delegates to attend the National People’s Congress on the basis of that post-1989 “all-China” conviction.

What has happened during the past year of resistance to Beijing’s restrictive electoral reform framework is a shift toward the dissident “localist” line.  This is the new conviction that produced the counter-June 4 rally last year … a protest movement focusing on Hong Kong, minus grandiose illusions about democratizing China … rallying instead to the call for local “self-determination” 【命運自主】. *   Beijing’s constant cries of independence are like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The more Beijing demands obedience the more local resistance it seems to provoke.

Undergrad polled students ahead of the February 14 HKU referendum and found 28% of 569 students supported “independence,” up from only 15% a year ago.  At that time 68% approved of the one-country, two-systems relationship with Beijing; the new 2015 figure is 53%  (Reuters, Feb. 27).  Of Hong Kong’s eight publicly funded universities, five more are now facing calls from students for referendums on the motion to withdraw from the HKFS, for reasons similar to those at HKU.

Localist protesters themselves say it’s not really about independence but only what they thought they would be getting when Beijing promised one-country with two-systems local autonomy.  Instead, mainland ways and mainlanders are now intruding everywhere … in everyday life, university appointments, student publications, and in the right to elect local representative leaders.  There is no one left to speak to Beijing on Hong Kong’s behalf but only local leaders, approved by Beijing, who speak to Hong Kong on Beijing’s behalf.

*  Lee Yee’s column, Apple, Feb. 18; English link:

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