The demand for independence has been spearheaded by an extreme group within the pro-democracy movement. Two young pro-independence campaigners elected to the Legislative Council used the oath-taking ceremony last September to make a political point. Other than being a publicity stunt, it has done nothing to advance the cause of democracy in the city. On the contrary, the pair’s deliberately irreverent antics have generated a deep split within society. No wonder 2016 was described by some as a chaotic year.
Hong Kong has long been known for its pragmatism, tolerance, culture of moderation, openness and vibrancy. So, today, it is natural to ask: what has gone wrong?
The entry point for inquiry is the year 2014. In the 20 years since the return of Hong Kong to China, that year was probably the most interesting – for all the wrong reasons.
It was a year when a movement for greater democracy in September morphed into a massive street demonstration, known the world over as the “umbrella movement”.
The city’s culture of moderation is deep-seated. The annual mass gathering held to mark the June 4 Tiananmen incident, for example, has always proceeded without trouble. Even the Falun Gong, outlawed on the mainland, are allowed to operate in Hong Kong, albeit with some restrictions. The protest in 2012 against national education was resolved quite amicably. Many were expecting that good tradition to be displayed again in 2014. That is why they were taken aback by the sight of a peaceful, festive movement degenerating into street clashes between protesters and police, with some ugly scenes.
Anyone with political common sense would know that what happens in Hong Kong will have repercussions in Taiwan.
And so it is important to recall that the Occupy movement in September 2014, came just two months ahead of local elections in Taiwan.
Given this small time gap and Hong Kong’s usual self-restraint, it is perhaps puzzling that the Occupy movement was not handled with more sensitivity, skill and wisdom. It was certainly not an event that merited descriptions of moderation, magnanimity or far-sightedness.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Hong Kong protest, with yellow umbrellas as its symbol, was an important factor in swaying voters in Taiwan to dump Kuomintang candidates in the local elections. I was teaching in Taiwan at the time, and had friends in both major parties. My KMT friends were disgusted and asked aloud, “Why is Beijing undermining us and helping our political opponents?”
In the absence of reliable information, I could only offer a conspiracy theory of sorts – that, perhaps, the crazy mess in Hong Kong was connected with power conflicts at the very top of the Communist Party. Perhaps those in Zhongnanhai responsible for Hong Kong wanted to embarrass President Xi Jinping ( 習近平)?
As expected, the KMT suffered a disastrous defeat, which demoralised the party and created a favourable political environment for the Democratic Progressive Party in the general election in January last year.
Taiwan now has a DPP president and vice-president, and the party enjoys a majority in the Legislative Yuan. This political configuration is not something that Beijing had hoped for, or wants to see.
Moreover, Hong Kong’s image of a city of restraint and pragmatism has been dented by the sequence of events since that fateful month in 2014. What can the city do to rebuild its image?
Luckily, there is very little support in Hong Kong for the idea of independence. Based on this, we may conclude that Premier Li’s warning was primarily intended for his audience on the mainland.
For Hongkongers, of greater relevance was his statement that Beijing is committed to the principle of “one country, two systems” and the framework would be applied without being “bent or distorted”. He told the NPC: “We will continue to implement, both to the letter and in spirit, the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, under which Hong Kong people govern Hong Kong.”
This is good news, because the unpleasant events of 2014 could have been avoided if those involved had abided by the letter and spirit of “one country, two systems”.
It is this principle that has largely enabled the continued prosperity of the city over the past 20 years, without undermining its pragmatism and spirit of inclusiveness.
Coming from the mouth of the second most powerful man in the political establishment in Beijing, these words essentially lay down the parameters of political life in Hong Kong. This part of his speech was addressed to the people in Hong Kong, especially to those holding the levers of power.
Michael Heng is a retired professor who had academic appointments in Australia, the Netherlands, and at six universities in Asia