What is Dividing Hong Kong’s Localists?

What is Dividing Hong Kong’s Localists?
Photo Credit: Kin Cheung / AP Photo / 達志影像

What you need to know

Hong Kong's 'lost' right to self-determination lies at the heart of the localist argument.

As everyone knows by now, Hong Kong democrats and their movement have always been defined by their disunity. It’s a fact of local political life. The number of pro-democracy political parties represented in the new Legislative Council elected on Sept.4 tells the tale well enough (Sept. 20 post). Friends and sympathetic onlookers despair but they’re more-or-less learning to live with it. Benny Tai’s (戴耀廷) "Thunderbolt Plan" for strategic voting was only the most ambitious attempt to discipline candidates by trying to concentrate the attention of voters instead.

Now a new generation of democrats has stepped into the spotlight – not necessarily all young but all post-Occupy. The new generation is defined by adherence to the 2014 street-occupation protest movement and its spirit of defiance against the powers-that-be meaning Beijing and the political system it has created for Hong Kong.

The spirit of defiance is so strong that it has swept through the entire pro-democracy movement. Now virtually everyone, parties old as well as new, proclaim themselves intent on defending Hong Kong’s interests first and foremost against the accumulating pressures from Beijing. Unity on something at last. Except that everyone is not necessarily talking about the same thing and specifics are hard to come by. So the next step now that the spirit has been agreed upon is to decide what it means. Differences begin again.

Photo Credit: Bobby Yip / Reuters / 達志影像
Newly-elected lawmaker Baggio Leung wears a banner "Hong Kong is not China" while taking oath at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, China October 12, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

A new fault line

The clearest definition so far has come from newly-elected Legislative Councilor Baggio Leung Chung-hang (梁頌恆) – that is, the clearest definition coming from among the officially-approved candidates. Baggio Leung dedicated his campaign to independence advocate Edward Leung Tin-kei (梁天琦)and ran as a stand-in for him in New Territories East after his candidacy was invalidated (Aug. 3 post). The two campaigned together ahead of the Sept. 4 election and plan to continue their collaboration.

Depending on definitions, 30 democrats of all kinds were elected to the 2016-20 term of the 70-seat legislature. Among them is one fence-sitting Functional Constituency Councilor who says he doesn’t like partisan labels. Of the 29, it is generally agreed that six are “localists” – in Hong Kong eyes the most radical variety of officially-approved pro-democracy partisans.

But Baggio Leung says that in his eyes not all six deserve the localist label. In fact, the number by his reckoning is only three. One of the three is Yau Wai-ching (游蕙 禎) councilor-elect for Kowloon West. Like Leung, she is a member of the new post-Occupy group Youngspiration (青年新政)that shot to local fame after their unexpectedly good showing in the District Councils election last November.

The third is councilor-elect for New Territories West, Cheng Chung-tai (鄭松泰). Cheng belongs to the pre-Occupy radical group, Civic Passion (熱血公民). Its candidates and their allies didn’t do so well on Sept.4. They contested in all five constituencies with Cheng Chung-tai the only winner. Losers included Wong Yeung-tat (黃洋達)in Kowloon East and Raymond Wong Yuk-man (黃毓民)in Kowloon West.

Consequently, the promise reflected in their platform no longer exists, says Cheng (Ming Pao, Sept. 20). They were much criticized by other radicals for accepting the idea that the Basic Law should be kept forever – albeit after a popular referendum to legitimize amendments. But they remain committed to the goal of mobilizing popular support for basic political change

These three may represent the cutting edge of post-Occupy politicians, but they are not the youngest student-leader generation. Baggio Leung is 30; Yau, 25; Cheng, 32, is a university lecturer with a degree from Beijing University. Disqualified independence advocate, Edward Leung Tin-kei (梁天琦)of the group Hong Kong Indigenous (本土民主前線) is 25.

Baggio Leung explained his reasoning. Even though all six say they are committed to democratic self-determination, he says only the three focus sufficiently on the need for a separate Hong Kong identity.

Photo Credit: Tyrone Siu / REUTERS / 達志影像
Nathan Law (C), candidate from Demosisto campaigns with student activist Joshua Wong on election day for the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, China September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

In contrast, New Territories rural reformer Eddie Chu (朱凱廸) and Joshua Wong’s (黃之鋒) Demosistō party, seem satisfied to define democratic self-determination as a high degree of autonomy only, without the specific focus on Hong Kongers unique experience that sets them apart from the mainland. Community organizing may be necessary but it will not be sufficient if Beijing, and the 2047 future, and Hong Kong’s separate identity do not signify in the localist frame of reference.

Leung said this means that ‘a line should be drawn between those who can vote and those who can’t in the referendum’ (Standard, Sept. 22). He was referring to the popular vote that several localist groups say should be held in a few years’ time to determine Hong Kong’s post-2047 future – when Beijing’s official 50-year guarantee for Hong Kong expires.

The guarantee to maintain Hong Kong’s existing way of political life is written into Article 5 of its Basic Law, which was promulgated by Beijing in 1990 to serve as Hong Kong’s governing constitution during the first 50 years of Chinese rule following the British departure in 1997.

Leung currently hesitates to elaborate on the idea of independence, at least not now before he is formally sworn in as a legislator. The authorities have warned them of unnamed consequences should any of the newly-elected legislators violate the formal nomination agreement to uphold Hong Kong’s current Basic Law political system.

He nevertheless anticipates that he will not be allowed to run again in 2020 because of the separatist campaigning he aims to do between now and then (Ming Pao, Sept. 19).

But he says that to continue to strive for universal suffrage elections, as promised by the Basic Law, is in effect a contradiction in terms. This is because the right to control universal suffrage elections has been and can continue to be usurped by the government. Candidates can always be disqualified for their political beliefs as happened to Edward Leung ahead of the Sept. 4 election.

Baggio Leung now sees the simple quest for universal suffrage elections that has sustained Hong Kong’s democracy movement since the Basic Law was promulgated as an exercise in futility and one no longer worth pursuing. It is futile without a more fundamental shift in Hong Kongers awareness of themselves as a separate community.

Last summer, soon after the Hong Kong government introduced the new confirmation form addition to candidate qualification procedures (July 22 post), he explained his views to a sympathetic interviewer who quoted him as saying: "Our beliefs and plans are based on civic or liberal nationalism. Without a shared identity, a referendum would not be representational. By the time the referendum is complete, the candidates at the Chief Executive election in 2022 will be under significant pressure to either represent Hong Kongers or continue to be China’s cronies, the latter will surely trigger the nerves of Hong Kongers then as the sense of identity would be strong enough to bring substantial consequences." *

Localists trace the origins of Hong Kong’s current impasse to the Sino-British negotiations over its future, or more specifically to the successful maneuver by Beijing that set the stage for those negotiations. When Beijing replaced Taipei as China’s United Nations representative, Beijing demanded that Hong Kong be removed from the U.N.’s list of colonies. This was done in 1972.

Thereafter, since it was not a colony, Hong Kong could not claim the internationally recognized right to self-determination or self-government after the British left in 1997. That lost right to self-determination lies at the heart of the localist argument.

In more immediate practical terms like cooperation among the new 2016 class of democratic legislators, the first order of business was to try and revive the custom of a coordinating platform to replace their weekly lunchtime meetings. That custom has had a checkered history but got off to a fairly good start. Almost everyone agreed to join including two pre-Occupy radicals who didn’t participate in times past: “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung (梁國雄) and People Power’s Raymond Chan Chi-chuen (陳志全)

Not participating in the preparations, however, were Baggio Leung’s three “genuine” localists. He and Civic Passion’s Cheng Chung-tai (鄭松泰) declined the initial invitation. Yau Wai-ching said she didn’t receive one.

The fence-straddling Functional Constituency legislator is medical doctor Pierre Chan Pui-yin (陳沛然). He is now calling himself a centrist inclined toward democracy. He agreed to join the democrats’ new platform but he has also joined the WhatsApp group that coordinates for pro-establishment legislators.

Photo Credit:AP/達志影像
FILE - In this early June 4, 1989 file photo, civilians with rocks stand on a government armored vehicle near Chang'an Boulevard in Beijing as violence escalated between pro-democracy protesters and Chinese troops, leaving hundreds dead overnight. The legacy of the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square looms larger in Hong Kong than in mainland China, where the Communist Party has virtually erased all public mention of it. In this former British colony, hundreds of thousands attend candlelight vigils each anniversary to commemorate the grim end to the Beijing movement that was vanquished before many of the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong's streets were even born. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener, File)

Contrarian dissent

Baggio Leung and his friends are setting the pace with their search for a separatist Hong Kong identity. But they couldn’t carry on for long without provoking a backlash – and not just from without but from within as well.

Beijing has so far said nothing of post-election significance to address the new level of separatist dissent, except for a standard blast from its Hong Kong liaison office legal affairs expert Wang Zhenmin (王振民). He gave a post-election luncheon talk during which he dismissed the new separatist wave saying Hong Kong would never be independent not even in as thousand years.

Wang’s comments suggested just how unprepared to address Hong Kong’s new political realities Beijing seems to be since he conjured up the most irrelevant of taunts. He said Hong Kongers have become disoriented by China’s rise and are fearful of being overshadowed by the mainland’s success. He also said that Hong Kong and the mainland share the same fate, which can never change, and the mainland cannot but influence Hong Kong (Ta Kung Pao, South China Morning Post, Sept. 23).

Much closer to home and of more immediate interest is the view of veteran critic Wong On-yin (王岸然). He is an Occupy sympathizer and dislikes pre-Occupy pan-democrats. He has long been critical of the Democratic Party leadership’s meandering political drift (June 14, 2011 post). And he is scathing in his opinion of those who carry on with their 25-year-old slogans about building a democratic China and ending one-party dictatorship (June 5, 2015 post).

He now contrasts their focus on the June 4, 1989 crackdown in Beijing, compared to the distance that the older pre-Occupy generation maintains between itself and its post-Occupy successors. He says the older generation has already forgotten the events of 2014 that he regards as the start of a new chapter in HK’s democracy movement.

But Wong On-yin is not too keen on the idea of Hong Kong self-determination either, at least not in the form being expressed by what he regards as some current band-wagon enthusiasts.

He’s not worried about those who understand that it’s going to take time to overcome the handicap represented by a majority of Hong Kongers who remain “apathetic and indifferent to politics.” He ranks newly-elected legislator for Kowloon West, Teacher Lau Siu-lai, ( 劉小麗) among those with a more sober view of the need to build community participation first before talking about political self-determination.

Presumably, Wong is not similarly impressed with Lau’s Youngspiration colleague Yau Wai-ching, also just elected in Kowloon West, because she seems to be among those he wants to warn.

In any case, his new targets are those who he says are calling for amendments to the Basic Law and popular referendums to decide on Hong Kong’s post-2047 fate. He complains that they are getting ahead of themselves – without appreciating the serious obstacles that those goals must overcome if they are ever to be achieved.

His point is that just as the older generation has been living off the June Fourth slogans for decades, so now the younger generation is taking up a new cause, distracted by its idealism, but without due regard to practical realities. He is one of those forever lamenting failure and he says he doesn’t want the new generation to be cheated out of their vote like his generation has been.

What bothers Wong are some newly elected young post-Occupy activists who “are trying to divert public attention from the pressing unfinished business of fighting for democracy by pushing for self-determination and amendments to the Basic Law come 2047.” **

His points about both the past and present generations are well-taken. Or they would be if he had explained what he means by democracy and how the younger generation can fight for it without acknowledging the single greatest obstacle to its achievement.

In fact, whatever their faults, both generations are correct. It is Beijing that represents the single greatest threat to their ideals. And it’s Wong who still seems to be thinking in the old pre-Occupy way, assuming that democracy fighters here have the luxury of carrying on indefinitely in a sealed off environment free of mainland political interventions.

Photo Credit: AP/達志影像

Protesters holding yellow umbrellas gather to observe a moment of silence to mark the first anniversary of "Umbrella Movement" outside the government headquarter in Hong Kong, Monday, Sept. 28, 2015. A year earlier, Hong Kong's famously busy streets were shut down by pro-democracy activists who occupied them for 79 days in what became known as the "Umbrella Movement." The protests were led by students and other activists who took to the streets to voice their opposition against Beijing's plan to restrict elections for top leader of the semi-autonomous Chinese city. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Suzanne Pepper here.

Edited By: Edward White