The Fringe Idea Fueling China’s Hong Kong Crackdown
(Bloomberg) -- Occupying a corner of China smaller than Los Angeles, Hong Kong has never been seen as a viable candidate for nationhood. Nonetheless, a small, but vocal independence movement has emerged to challenge China’s authority over the former British colony. Beijing’s campaign to quash the idea is having big consequences for the political system credited with maintaining the city’s status as a global financial center. A pro-independence activist is slated to address the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club on Tuesday to discuss government efforts to levy an unprecedented ban against his party.
1. How did the movement emerge?
The British said little about Hong Kong’s self-determination before returning the city to China in 1997 on a pledge to preserve and expand its liberal democratic institutions over another 50 years. Frustration over the slow pace of reform boiled over in the mass “Occupy Central” demonstrations of 2014. After failing to win concessions, some activists began to embrace a more radical approach and organize pro-independence groups.
2. What do they want?
Besides shoring up local political freedoms, supporters also want to limit the flood of mainland tourists and home buyers that have pushed up living costs. Some advocate a far-off referendum to determine Hong Kong’s fate while others want a sudden break from Beijing. To the ruling Communist Party, they’re all “separatists.” After some self-described “localists” helped incite a riot that left more than 90 police officers injured in 2016, Chinese officials launched a campaign to break up the groups and curb their influence.
3. How practical is Hong Kong independence?
While supporters often cite Singapore -- a city-state even smaller than Hong Kong -- the example discounts the Communist Party’s fierce opposition to any separation. Moreover, the city’s 7.4 million residents are dependent on mainland China for food, water, electricity and trade. A Chinese University of Hong Kong poll conducted last year found less than 3 percent considered independence possible, even though 11 percent supported the idea.
4. Why is China so concerned?
The party bases its legitimacy in part on restoring what many Chinese view as their rightful territory and can’t afford to have Hong Kong inspiring independence campaigns in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. Also, the movement has been surprisingly successful among Hong Kong’s youth. Voters elected six “self-determination” supporters in local legislative elections in 2016 -- including two avowed independence backers. During a visit to the city last year, President Xi Jinping called challenges to Beijing’s rule a “red line.”
5. What do other Hong Kong people think?
More mainstream democracy advocates accuse Chinese officials of exaggerating the independence threat to divide the opposition and justify new efforts to quash dissent. They blame a decision by former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying -- a staunch Beijing ally -- to attack a little-known book called “Hong Kong Nationalism” in his 2015 policy address with promoting the idea. Sales of the book surged.
6. How has China responded?
Authorities have stepped up prosecutions of the most aggressive protesters and moved to lock pro-independence activists out of the political process. After two successful legislative candidates inserted insults to China into their oaths of office, the national parliament exercised a rarely used power to interpret local law, barring those who voice separatist views from public office. In January, the local government prevented another candidate from running in a special election because her party endorsed self-determination.
7. What’s the risk?
The government’s latest attempt to ban a pro-independence activist’s party illustrates how the push to silence the movement could pose a broader threat to Hong Kong’s political freedoms. Freedom of speech and assembly are enshrined in the city’s charter. Chinese officials have pressured the Foreign Correspondents’ Club to cancel Tuesday’s speech by National Party founder Andy Chan. Leung, who now sits on a national political advisory body, has questioned whether the club’s government-owned premises should be put out for public bid as a result.
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