Does Bernie’s Fate Await the Hong Kong Independence Movement?

Does Bernie’s Fate Await the Hong Kong Independence Movement?
Dave Kaup/ REUTERS/ 達志影像
What you need to know

The sudden rise of Hong Kong’s independence movement appears to have surprised many in the political establishment. One academic suggests that while Hong Kong will never be independent, the popular movement could push Beijing to loosen its grip on power.

Earlier this year, many saw Hong Kong’s independence movement as another youth-led political group on the fringe. The group’s leaders have often been coupled with the "localists" who, while certainly bombastic and potentially unpredictable in their opposition to the ruling pro-Beijing factions, are not viewed as a mainstream political opposition.

However, the movement is now attracting headlines and causing major headaches for the political establishment. Six pro-independence candidates have been barred from competing in next month’s Legislative Council elections. School students have drawn the ire of government officials, including Hong Kong’s top politician, after student group Studentlocalism (學生動源) called on high school students to set up their own associations to promote independence from China.

On Aug. 16, in response to the Studentlocalism issue, Hong Kong chief executive C.Y. Leung (梁振英) went as far to say that, “If the idea spreads in Hong Kong, the city’s stability will be affected and its relationship with the Mainland will be seriously damaged. Advocates and participants, especially teenagers, will also pay a heavy price.”

While the spread of the movement has some leading commentators scratching their heads, the simplicity and unifying power of the message – particularly in comparison to the nuanced positions held by Hong Kong’s numerous established pro-democracy parties – has already made its mark.

And the idea “could have a significant long-term impact,” according to Suzanne Pepper, a Hong Kong-based American academic and writer.

Pepper compares the independence movement to the unlikely success of Senator Bernie Sanders’ U.S. presidential campaign.

Hong Kong’s independence movement leaders are saying “the things that someone should say” to introduce ideas to a larger audience and shaking up – to the extent that is possible – the “established powers that be,” she told The News Lens International.

While there are limits – just as an “old life-long socialist” could never be president of the U.S., "everyone knows Hong Kong can never be an independent country” – Pepper suggests the movement could influence Beijing.

“Independence is the equivalent of a mortal sin in Beijing eyes,” she says. “But if ever larger numbers of people here start committing it, I think Beijing will eventually acknowledge that either it lightens up on all its Mainland-style political intrusions and acknowledges them for what they are, or Hong Kongers are going to become increasingly ungovernable.”

U.S. Democratic Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders during a rally in Lawrence
Dave Kaup/REUTERS/達志影像
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign event in a livestock barn at the Douglas County Fairgrounds in Lawrence, Kansas March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Dave Kaup -

As U.S. academic Robert Reich recently wrote, Senator Sanders, despite conceding defeat in the race to win the Democratic Party nomination, left a significant legacy, including opening America’s eyes to the “power of big money” corrupting democracy and rigging its economy.

“Polls now show huge majorities of Americans think moneyed interests have too much sway in Washington,” Reich said. “And thanks, in large part, to Bernie’s campaign, progressives on Capitol Hill are readying a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, and bills requiring full disclosure of donors, ending gerrymandering, and providing automatic voter registration.”

Also, Reich adds, Sanders “has shown that it’s possible to win elections without depending on big money from corporations, Wall Street, and billionaires.”

“He came close to winning the Democratic nomination on the basis of millions of small donations from average working people. No longer can a candidate pretend to believe in campaign finance reform but say they have to take big money because their opponent does.”

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Photo Credit: Bobby Yip / Reuters / 達志影像
An activist (C) demanding Hong Kong independence confronts policemen at a candlelight vigil to mark the 27th anniversary of the crackdown of pro-democracy movement at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, at Victoria Park in Hong Kong June 4, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

At a pro-independence rally in Hong Kong on Sunday – such events are becoming more frequent – Pepper notes one of the lead slogans was "Yesterday 8.31; today the confirmation form; tomorrow Article 23."

The slogan refers three key issues in the Beijing-Hong Kong dynamic: the Aug. 31, 2014 political reform mandating China-style party-managed elections; candidates in the September elections being required to sign a form essentially saying that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China; and, Article 23, the controversial legislation criminalizing threats to national security, which is seen as a serious encroachment on freedoms and has been blocked since 2003.

“It’s very clear: if Beijing lightens up on those three points, the independence movement will fade,” Pepper says, adding, however, it will likely “take Beijing a while to reach that stage of enlightenment.”

A spokesperson for the pro-independent Hong Kong National Party told TNLI last week that the party plans to continue to hold demonstrations and is planning legal challenges against authorities for the exclusion of their party leader in the September elections.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole