本土 (Localism) as a political theory can be divided into two aspects. “本土” aims to (a) promote self-determination (自決) by shifting sovereignty from the PRC to the “Hong Kong people” in order to make a political stand against the PRC government. In approaching this question, I seek to point out the potential merits and flaws with this political theory in explaining its possible effects, with the understanding that the theory’s merits will bring about positive effects to Hong Kong and flaws will bring about negative effects. I believe this approach would be satisfactory given localism as a theory in Hong Kong remains at a germane stage.
Throughout this piece, I will rely on the definition of self-determination in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”) and International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as follows: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development,” (所有人民都有自決權。他們憑這種權利自由決定他們的政治地位,並自由謀求他們的經濟、社會和文化的發展。) which the PRC is party to (though it has not ratified the ICCPR).
Merit of Localism: Localism has reasonable legal backing
One of the clear benefits of localism is that it has reasonable backing from a legal perspective. The right to self-determination (自決權) is well established in international law. However, the extent to which such right can be exerted is subject to considerable debate. The right to self-determination was thoroughly examined in Reference re Secession of Quebec,  2 S.C.R. 217, a Supreme Court of Canada case, where the Court concluded that under both Canadian law and international law, Quebec did not have the right to secede from Canada. With respect to Canadian law, the Court concluded that Quebec may not, briefly summarized, unilaterally secede without a referendum and negotiations with other Canadian provinces, without violating Canada’s federalism principles.
However, the more important discussion is in the Court’s views regarding the right to self-determination under international law. The Court distinguished between internal self-determination and external self-determination. Internal self-determination involves the right of the people to achieve self-determination through a country’s existing political institutions, while external self-determination is equated with the right to secede. The Court noted that the right to external self-determination only arises in very rare circumstances, either the “people” in question are:
(1) subject to colonial rule or foreign occupation, but which must be “based upon the assumption that both classes make up entities that are inherently distinct from the colonialist Power and the occupant Power and that their ‘territorial integrity’, all but destroyed by the colonialist or occupying Power, should be fully restored” or
(2) subject to alien subjugation, domination or exploitation outside a colonial context.
The Court also considered that a third circumstance could give rise to a right to unilateral secession, where a people is blocked from the meaningful exercise of its right to self-determination internally, but admitted that this circumstance did not have a sufficient consensus.
The Court reviewed each in turn and concluded that situation of the Quebec people did not give rise to an external right to self-determination. In particular, the Court concluded that the Quebec people could not enjoy a right to secede based on the third circumstance because:
The population of Quebec cannot plausibly be said to be denied access to government. Quebecers occupy prominent positions within the government of Canada. Residents of the province freely make political choices and pursue economic, social and cultural development within Quebec, across Canada, and throughout the world. The population of Quebec is equitably represented in legislative, executive and judicial institutions. 1
Using the Court’s approach, we can analyze whether each are applicable to “Hong Kong people”:
(1) Are the Hong Kong people a people subject to colonial rule or foreign occupation?
While Hong Kong may have been subject to colonial rule or foreign occupation during the British colonial era prior to 1997, it is not readily apparent that Hong Kong is currently under colonial rule or foreign occupation. I would submit that it would be a little bit of a stretch to say current PRC rule is colonial or foreign. However, from this question, one can see that Hong Kong was clearly denied the right to self-determination when it was under British rule.
(2) Are the Hong Kong people a people that is subject to alien subjugation, domination or exploitation?
Along the same line as my response to (1), I do not think that the PRC government could said to be “alien” to Hong Kong or that we are particularly subject to “subjugation, domination or exploitation.” I would agree however that this conclusion is highly debatable and reasonable people could differ in concluding otherwise.
(3) Are the Hong Kong people a people blocked from the meaningful exercise of its right to self-determination internally?
In answering this question, we need two layers of analysis. First, are Hong Kong people capable of internal self-determination within Hong Kong? And, second, are Hong Kong people capable of internal self-determination with PRC? I think if we can all agree on the answer to the second question even if we may be in disagreement on the first question, given the Supreme Court of Canada’s approach to this question. Hong Kongers do not occupy prominent positions in the PRC government, do not necessarily freely make political choices and pursue economic, social and cultural development within the PRC, and the population of Hong Kong are not equitably represented in legislative, executive and judicial institutions of the PRC.
From the above analysis, I would concur that localism as a political theory has reasonable legal backing, at least, at this moment in time, and would have a meritorious effect on political debate in Hong Kong.
Flaw of Localism: Localism is poorly defined because what constitutes Hong Kong people is undefined.
So far we have avoided a particularly important discussion. The right to self-determination is only vested in a “people” and localism as a political theory does not provide a definition of “Hong Kong people,” yet this is the most important question that needs to be resolved. The Supreme Court of Canada refused to consider whether the Quebec population constituted a “people” for the purpose of the right to self-determination because the Court concluded that regardless of how “people” would be constituted, they would not have a right to external self-determination (i.e. right to secede). However, if, on our part, we are to conclude that Hong Kong people should attempt to exude its right to self-determination by way of the political theory of localism, we would need to go the further step to consider the question: Who constitutes Hong Kong people and are we a “people”?
Unfortunately, there is no settled definition of “people” under international law, but we can consider two possible alternatives: (1) Hong Kong people are those who are so designated as Hong Kong permanent residents under Article 24 of the Basic Law or (2) Hong Kong people are those who share a common language and culture, which would readily display the difficult in answering this question.
(1) Hong Kong people are those who are so designated as Hong Kong permanent residents under Article 24 of the Basic Law
This definition seems extremely tempting since it purports to have legal backing. Unfortunately, pursuant to Hong Kong courts’ interpretation of this Article, this definition would expand to PRC citizens who have little connection with Hong Kong. By including these individuals in the definition of Hong Kong people, we would undermine the meaning and the spirit of localism as a justification for sourcing sovereignty in Hong Kong people in order to make a political stand against the PRC government.
(2) Hong Kong people are those who share a common language and culture
This definition seems also rather simple and effective, since it would provide adherents to localism a theoretical stance against the PRC government (i.e. since Hong Kong people and mainland Chinese do not share a common language and differ in “culture,” we are not the same people). However, here, we are also faced with several hurdles. First, “Chinese culture” is very much entrenched in our society, it may be difficult to articulate how the culture of Hong Kong people and those of the mainland differ. Second, perhaps the more difficult hurdle, is that this definition paints a very homogenous picture of Hong Kong and rejects the multicultural and diverse aspect of our city. Hong Kong is a multicultural and diverse society with Cantonese and English as its languages. If we were to define Hong Kong people based on a common language (for example Cantonese) and culture (for example “Chinese culture”), we would disenfranchise other participants who have significantly contributed to our society.
From the above, we can already see that because localism hinges on the definition of “Hong Kong people,” which remains undefined, localism lacks strong theoretical support, which may result in it having a negative effect to Hong Kong’s political development. The fact that “Hong Kong people” is ill-defined is, I would submit, localism’s Achilles’ heel as a successful political theory.
Conclusion: A solution
As discussed above, while localism may have support from a legal perspective, since it relies on the well-established concept of self-determination, it may not have full support because a key aspect of its political theory remains undefined: “Hong Kong people.” This is as much as a self-reflecting question as is a legal question.
To this date, many societies still struggle to consider what its people is composed of and what characteristics its people should bear. For example, United State continues to struggle with this issue. Recently, American society was divided over Coca-Cola’s advertisement (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=443Vy3I0gJs), which displayed Americans of different ethnicities and backgrounds with the “patriotic” song “America the Beautiful” sung in various languages in the background. Some Americans responded to this advertisement negatively, suggesting that the song should be sung in English and that American society was not multicultural or diverse. Thus, these questions, identical to those that need to be resolved by our own society, are being debated by the American people to this date.
The American solution to this question, or at least for those who consider the United States to be a multicultural and diverse society, is interesting: the American people is comprised of those who subscribe and adhere to the values embodied in the United States constitution, which includes the American Bill of Rights. This basis is effective from a theoretical standpoint but it also practically entrenches the United States constitution in its people. This solution transforms the criteria needed to join American society from one which is ethnically or culturally based to one which allows anyone who is willing to subscribe to its values to participate.
This solution could readily be applied to Hong Kong. Could Hong Kong people be defined as those which subscribe to the values of the Hong Kong people defined in the Basic Law, which would allow anyone to join our society as long as they so subscribe? I would consider that to be a very good start.
- The Court relied significantly on an amicus brief, concluding that “For close to 40 of the last 50 years, the Prime Minister of Canada has been a Quebecer. During this period, Quebecers have held from time to time all the most important positions in the federal Cabinet. During the 8 years prior to June 1997, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Official Opposition in the House of Commons were both Quebecers. At present, the Prime Minister of Canada, the Right Honourable Chief Justice and two other members of the Court, the Chief of Staff of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Canadian ambassador to the United States, not to mention the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, are all Quebecers. The international achievements of Quebecers in most fields of human endeavour are too numerous to list. Since the dynamism of the Quebec people has been directed toward the business sector, it has been clearly successful in Quebec, the rest of Canada and abroad.” ↩