Beijing Lies, Revolutions and Hope: The True Story Behind Hong Kong’s Independence Awakening

1345 GMT, 30/07/2016 ● Callum Phillips ● 12 min read

A rampant increase in calls for independence and self-determination have gripped Hong Kong as pro-democracy protestors head for an explosive confrontation with the Hong Kong government, headlined by the formation of the Hong Kong National Party who are unafraid of discussing military violence as a means to an end and the  deceptive proclamations of establishment figures.

HKNP: A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire

The Hong Kong National Party convenor Andy Chan Ho-tin cut a charismatic and passionate figure during an exclusive interview with Medium Raw. Explaining his fears for the future and well-being of Hong Kong, he said “I started forming [the] party since the end of last year. I looked at Hong Kong and saw it is being destroyed by China, so we had to do something(sic)”. Tired of an exhausted and unrepresentative political spectrum, which seemingly buried its head in the sand to new generations and new ideologies, Chan summed up his motivation, “We do not see a party that can change Hong Kong.” He believes Hong Kong is a colony, unfairly removed from the UN list due to Chinese political pressure in 1972, and thus an unique group in the world deserving of their own governance as human beings, with the opportunity to form their own nation as the people of Hong Kong see fit.

Photo: Nora Tam, SCMP

Andy Chan Ho-Tin, Convenor of pro-Independence political group Hong Kong National Party. Photo: Nora Tam, SCMP

Chan was adamant in his beliefs that Beijing has been substantially and heavy-handedly interfering in the Hong Kong way of life through a manipulation of the political system and incumbent government. “The lack of democracy is a big issue, we have fought for it for over thirty years and got nothing. I can see that this is the Chinese government who are intervening [and not allowing progress]”, however it is clear that democracy is no longer the only issue for the more anti-establishment persons, he carried on “There are a lot of new immigrants, something like 1 million from China since 1997″ triggering a fear that the population is being “washed and cleaned”. The government crackdown on Hong Kongese culture, in favour of a Sino assimilation does not seem to stop there, Chan added “In our education, they teach us Chinese patriotism and language, the use of Mandarin, trying to implement simplified characters to Hong Kong. This makes us very disgusted”.

Joshua Wong and the Championing of Self-Determination

Still, Chan is not alone in this way of thinking; during a conversation we had with Joshua Wong Chi-fung of Demosisto, he stated, referring to the February uprising in Mong Kok, “From the Fishball Revolution,” on the first day of Lunar New Year, “it already showed that the ruling class is ignoring grassroots dissatisfaction. More Fishball Revolutions will happen, and it is the responsibility of the government to pay the price… I think for the [traditional] pan-democratic parties, they still hope to maintain the stature of One Country, Two Systems. However, our judgement is that the core values of One Country, Two Systems has been eroded by the interference of Beijing officials, and it is the time for us to decide and demand self-determination”. He added further rationale, “I think they [the Hong Kong government] have ignored the demands of the Umbrella Revolution, rejected the request of universal suffrage and allowed the Lee Bo incident to happen, this alone already explains the reasons for people to demand self-determination.”

Photo: Demosistō

Joshua Wong, Secretary-General of the recently formed political party Demosistō, has been seen as a key figure in the political awakening of Hong Kong’s students. Photo: Demosistō

Leung Chun-ying, the Catalyst Behind Hong Kong’s Independence Push?

It would be both reckless and incorrect however, to assume that only the younger generations feel this sort of dissatisfaction with the current government regime. Approval ratings for the Chief Executive are always hitting new lows, dropping to just 19% of Hong Kong Respondents being satisfied with CY Leung as of the 1st of June 2016. World renowned law professor, and former dean of law at the University of Hong Kong, Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun saw multiple causes of such angst. During an interview with Medium Raw, he pinned blame partly on the confrontational approach adopted by the Chief Executive CY Leung as well as “a kind of helplessness particularly among the young people. they graduate from university and many can’t get a job, there’s no way they can afford housing here, and then it’s not just about the economy but they also see all kinds of unfairness, the rich and the powerful are basically running the system from functional constituencies  to monopolies and so on”.

University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme Survey Results for 1st June 2016

University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme Survey Results for 1st June 2016

Clearly, there is a strong disconnect between the current government and the ordinary Hong Konger. A timely example of this being 2014’s Occupy Central where the demands of protestors were ultimately ignored by the Government. It is that kind of frustration where one cannot see a future, but just face a wall of condemnation that reinforces a desire to become one’s own master calling for autonomy and independence. Professor Chan was hesitant to suggest that independence was the only solution however, arguing that “I feel probably that with a change of government, if the government was prepared to deal and talk rather than condemn, it would be different.” He added, “I told some of the government officials, if your child is a participant in Occupy Central, are you going to condemn them and threaten them saying it is a violation of Basic Law and you will prosecute them? You imagine how they react, of course they won’t. They would rather sit down and talk.” Chan did suggest however that some blame lay at the door of Hong Kongers themselves, indicating that a lot of self-censorship exists alongside the fact that many businesses and even newspapers make commercial decisions, such as the changing of editors, in attempts to reconcile with China and improve their business potential there.

Satirising CY

From Left to Right: CY Leung is a regular source of ridicule by Hong Kong Citizens, often appearing as a wolf. Photo: guim.co.uk, Protestor symbolically mocking “A Wolf in CCP Clothing”.Photo: Reuters, Apple Daily satirising the Chief Exeutive as the infamous Chinese Emporer, Mao. Photo: Apple Daily.

Young Leaders Prepared for a Precarious Future

The selective mutism of the Hong Kong Government certainly does not extend to advocates of independence, and there have been few deaf ears from within the pro-establishment camp. Cries of Article 23 have been splashed across front page headlines whilst many pro-Beijing officials have, predictably, been both swift and brutal in their condemnations of the self-determination supporters. Swathes of outlandish statements, presumably in an attempt to quell a swelling tide, have been made to ravenous reporters all eagerly awaiting the next attack and put down. This has been much to the amusement of HKNP’s Chan who alluded to the cause of the attacks as stemming from one main motivation, “they try to threaten us, I think most of them do not know how to deal with this. They do not have enough knowledge but they have to show they are a patriot towards China saying ‘oh I am a good boy, or something like that’.”  Joshua Wong is also unperturbed, throwing back his own repartee, “if they try to impose Article 23, they will pay the price!”

Both theoretical and practical hurdles have been thrown down in front of Andy Chan and his supporters. Not only were the Hong Kong National Party denied registration by the Societies and Companies Houses; but Rimsky Yuen, the Secretary for Justice of Hong Kong, went out of his way at an April press conference to explicitly state his opinion that “to suggest or to advocate independence is contrary to the Basic Law”, more specifically Articles 1 and 12 of the Hong Kong Basic Law. Solicitor and lawmaker Priscilla Leung recklessly launched a tirade on the term self-determination, stating it fell under the same illegality as it alluded to independence, a statement denying much of the academic research into the differences between internal and external variants. On top of that, Hu Jianzhong, the deputy commissioner of Office of Commissioner of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong, made threats of using the criminal offences of Sedition and Treason against advocates. However, the credibility of such statements is certainly in doubt, and such blustering has led to many openly arguing against their truthfulness.

Rimsky Yuen Stood on Unstable Legal Ground

Secretaries for Justice represent one of the highest authorities of law in a country, and whilst Article 1 of the Basic Law does state that Hong Kong is an alienable part of China, backed up by Article 12 defining Hong Kong as a local administrative region, Rimsky Yuen’s statement overlooks what is often considered a staple of Constitutional Law and often covered in the first lectures of any law student. As Professor Chan points out “The Basic Law is a constitution which binds the government. Therefore the basic law does not create any criminal offence by itself”, which would dismiss the statements as empty gestures “until there is an offence which makes mere utterance of independence to be a criminal offence, it is neither here nor there.” This truth has undoubtedly not escaped the attention of Andy Chan and the Hong Kong National Party, who have noted the legal realities in previous interviews. Such statements may well either be a failing attempt to intimidate supporters into silence, or perhaps a calculated attempt to convince those with little legal experience of wrongdoing by the HKNP, thus undercutting their support at a neighbourhood level.

University of Hong Kong Law Professor, Johannes Chan. Photo: Medium Raw

University of Hong Kong Law Professor, Johannes Chan. Photo: Medium Raw

In relation to Mr Hu, Sedition or seditious libel is considered to be an incitement of disloyalty of the subjects, a crime which in relation to human rights standards has developed through the common law in a rather unfriendly way. The reason behind this is that the law had essentially been copied from British law in a more draconian and nervous World War Two era. At that point there was a hysterical concern about the effects of Nazi German Propaganda on the United Kingdom leading to a severe and unforgiving response drafting. Professor Chan found it highly dubious to suggest that such clear wartime standards and practices would be implemented by a court today for simple avocations for independence, without the carrying out of additional violent acts. In addition to more liberal and humane peacetime standards by judges, the use of such a law may face issues due to more recent human rights protections. As the Professor summarised “modern day section 9 is subject to the 1990 Bill of Rights and the Basic Law itself, I can’t imagine that the court today would accept that line of common law authority of the 1930s”.

A democratically-flawed Hong Kong political system ironically provides a built in defence for the Hong Kong National Party and likeminded political entities. The existence of unwinnable functional constituencies, and the lack of true universal suffrage would make it simply impossible for the HKNP to form a ruling party. Even if they won every single geographical constituency, and every single vote of the people, it would still be not enough to usurp the power required to overthrow a pro-Beijing puppet government, which what legal experts including Professor Chan believe would take to violate the law. The judiciary could also strike another blow to any government legal campaign in relation to unlawful societies. As another authoritarian provision, there are doubts that the court would accept charges of being a member of an unlawful society. That law was hastily rushed through the Legislative Council with an unprecedented three emergency readings in one day during the 1966 riots, and certainly could be derailed by potential Bill of Rights challenge with entwined freedom of association arguments. “That would be an interesting constitutional challenge the government is unlikely to want.

Compounding all of this is a rather coincidentally convenient development from the Registration and Electoral Office. During elections, legislation calls for the Returning Officer to set out a series of criteria for an acceptable election candidate. However, during this year’s process there has been a new “confirmation” form for candidates to sign. According to barrister Wilson Leung, convenor of the Progressive Lawyers Group, this new “confirmation” is not mentioned within electoral legislation, and just so happens to pick out three articles of the Basic Law which state Hong Kong is part of the People’s Republic of China. Speaking to Medium Raw, Leung stated it is very doubtful the Returning Officer has a duty to investigate and check whether those signing the document have told the truth. However, if one of the candidates campaigned for independence but also signed the document, this could bring a risk of a criminal prosecution potentially leading to imprisonment.  Although the courts have rejected an urgent hearing on the matter, should a judicial review eventually go ahead, Leung believes that there is a reasonable chance the Returning Officer will be found to have acted outside his powers should he reject a candidates nomination because they did not sign the new form. This could lead to a rerunning of the election in the areas affected by the candidate’s wrongful disqualification. When asked about why the form had been first implemented this year, Leung said “no one knows for sure, but most likely the rising tide of support for Hong Kong independence… the latest surveys show that 40% of young people support it”. Andy Chan, who did not sign the new form, has already been disqualified on grounds that they could not uphold the basic law. Although no definitive statement has been made on whether a legal challenge will be launched by the party, they did say “We are honoured to be the first party to be banned by the Hong Kong communist colonial government from running in a democratic election on the basis of political views,” The development may also not be as much of an inconvenience to Chan as suspected, who told Medium Raw that the only reason he had formed the political party anyway was for the free advertising that came with it, a scheme which had been overwhelmingly successful in his campaign.

Advocating that Hong Kong is not China has become so mainstream to a HK Identity, it was even seen on banners at the national teams football matches. Photo: Apple Daily

Advocating that Hong Kong is not China has become so mainstream to a HK Identity, it was even seen on banners at the national teams football matches. Photo: Apple Daily

The Murky Road Ahead to 2047

The future therefore is clearly rather unpredictable, and it is not as if the fire raging in Hong Kong has stable foundations. Until 2047 at least, Hong Kong’s autonomy is ultimately at the will of the Chinese Government, according to Professor Chan “there is really nothing apart from self-restraint that in a way backs up the basic law really a lot depends on the good will and self-restraint of China. So that is a very precarious situation.” Leading to many suggesting that the protestors are poking a sleeping dragon with a very sharp stick. Andy Chan is confident that Hong Kong would be protected by the international sphere. His belief is that there is a lot of capital in Hong Kong, and thus any overuse of force by the Chinese would damage the interests of many countries around the world prompting them to step in. Even if they wouldn’t have such intentions, he believes, if they do nothing it is only a matter of time until Hong Kong becomes another Chinese city anyway, and ultimately they should do something to save themselves before it is too late.

As we turn an eye to history, the democratic movement in Hong Kong is still in its infancy. For Mandela, this was a fight which took a sacrifice of a 27 year imprisonment to win. Aung San Su Kyi protested and battled for over 25 before celebrating her party’s recent election success to become the co-ruling party of Myanmar. For some, such as Andy Chan, internal self-determination and democracy is no longer enough as they stand up to a dictatorial regime controlled by China, whist others such as the more traditional parties are seemingly happy to obtain the status quo, and of course we cannot ignore there are still some that may seek a full return to Chinese sovereignty. What we can be assured of is that if the Hong Kong government insists to carry on with aggressive confrontation, wielding a heavy-handed and belligerent police force seemingly dancing to the music of Beijing, the rising tensions will certainly explode in a spectacular and dangerous fashion.

Written by Callum Phillips, Edited by Enoch Lieu
Callum Phillips
About Callum Phillips
Callum Phillips hails from a small town in Wales and is a reluctant Law student at the University of Hong Kong and the University of Leicester. His interests lie in Governance, Human Rights, Social Activism and generally questioning authority. While he is in Hong Kong he has become a very vocal campaigner and a staunch pro-democratic & morality-centred commentator. Tweet him @CallumPhillips8