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Separatists steal the show in Hong Kong polls

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Edward Leung, a pro-independence candidate from the Hong Kong Indigenous, campaigning during a by-election on 28 February 2016. (Photo: Reuters/Bobby Yip)

In Brief

Today’s election in Hong Kong is turning into a coming out party for the growing separatist movement, a stunning development less than two decades after the former British colony’s handover to China.


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This new force — opposing both Beijing and the traditional democracy movement — has made politics in Hong Kong a three-way affair, as commentator Joseph Lian recently noted in an oped in the New York Times

Whereas the old democracy movement accepts a Chinese national identity and Beijing’s sovereignty — while humbly petitioning the Chinese Communist Party to reconsider its authoritarianism — this new movement takes a different tack. It rejects Chinese identity, insisting that ‘Hongkonger’ is a nationality of its own. Moreover, it doesn’t insist on peaceful protest in all cases. It came to prominence during the months-long street occupation protests two years ago when its members blockaded parts of the city.

The separatists are expected to win around five of the 35 popularly-elected geographical constituency seats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. The traditional democracy movement or ‘pan-democrats’ are expected to win 13 and pro-Beijing forces 17. The other 35 seats in the 70-seat chamber, the so-called ‘functional constituencies’, represent industries and interest groups. Pro-Beijing parties are expected to capture a large majority of those.

The popularity of the growing separatist movement has already been tested at the ballot box. At a by-election for a Legislative Council seat held in February 2016, the movement’s 25 year old candidate, Edward Leung, captured 15 per cent of the vote while the mainstream pro-democracy candidate got 37 per cent.

Just a few weeks before that by-election, separatists engaged in violent clashes with the police over what protesters saw as authorities’ suppression of a folk tradition: unlicensed street vendors selling fish balls during the Lunar New Year holiday. As Leung was one of those arrested over the protest, the poll was effectively a gauge of opinion of the acceptability of a militant protest against Beijing. To be fair, Leung’s eloquence and charm probably boosted his vote. That the accused ‘rioter’ received 66,524 votes suggests considerable tolerance in the electorate for forceful protest against Beijing.

Leung was seen as a shoo-in to be elected at today’s polls — the proportional representation system means quotas to be elected start at around 11 per cent. But electoral officials invalidated his and others’ nominations, saying his mandatory professed acceptance of Hong Kong’s status as a part of China was not believable.

The most dramatic moment in the lead up to the election was the manner in which one candidate announced that he was dropping out of the race. At a televised debate, Ken Chow of the nominally pro-Beijing Liberal Party, eyes downcast and dressed completely in black, read a statement. He said he was ending his campaign because of threats, including against people close to him. He choked up, nearly breaking down in tears as he spoke.

It was a shocking turn of events. The other candidates at the forum and the audience were stunned, except perhaps for one person. As the clearly distressed Chow spoke, pro-Beijing candidate Junius Ho smiled. That is according to Cheng Chung-tai, a candidate seen as part of the separatist movement. Ho denied Cheng’s claim. We don’t know who made the threats. Ken Chow refused to say.

The perceived transformation of Hong Kong into something resembling mainland China is what anti-Beijing Hongkongers call ‘mainlandisation’ or ‘reddening’. Cheng’s vigorous exchange with Ho — who lost his composure and told Cheng to ‘shut up’ — only added to perceptions that the separatists are the most fearless in calling out Beijing and its local proxies.

Apart from its obvious gall, one of the most noteworthy aspects of the separatist movement is its painstaking efforts to preserve a Hong Kong identity rooted in the historical differences with China. An example of this is its revival of old rituals and ceremonies of the colonial era.

29 August was the 71st anniversary of Liberation Day, which marks Britain’s resumption of rule over Hong Kong after the Japanese surrendered at the end of the Second World War. After the 1997 handover it ceased to be officially observed. But in 2016, among those who attended an unofficial commemoration at the Sai Wan war cemetery in eastern Hong Kong island was Andy Chan, the 25 year old who founded the independence-advocating Hong Kong National Party in March this year, and Althea Suen, the similarly pro-independence president of the student union at Hong Kong University.

Great scholars of nationalism, including Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson, have detailed how ceremonies, rituals, flags and anthems are key to national identities and the nation-building process itself. It is understandable why some, particularly the younger generation, are embodying the ideas of Hobsbawm and Anderson, constructing a Hong Kong nationality with a view to seeking separation from a greater China they do not feel a part of.

Benjamin Garvey is a PhD candidate at the Australian Centre on China in the World, The Australian National University.

3 responses to “Separatists steal the show in Hong Kong polls”

  1. ‘the most noteworthy aspects of the separatist movement is its painstaking efforts to preserve a Hong Kong identity ‘

    Its ‘Hong Kong identity’ consists of having been governed by a drug cartel for 100 years. That has to leave people screwed up.

  2. So a government official can disallow someone’s candidacy on the basis that his professed acceptance of Hong Kong as a part of China was ‘not believable?’ I thought that in a democracy it is up to the voters to make this decision rather than a government official overseeing the election.

  3. 1 “29 August was the 71st anniversary of Liberation Day, which marks Britain’s resumption of rule over Hong Kong..”

    Some like to remember it as the day of infamy. How would Britain like it if one day a superpower like China colonizes one of the islands in the British isles, after a war over crack and crystal meth, which the superpower insists must be sold in London, as a free trade pretext? Opium is so passé.

    2 2016 is also 156th anniversary of the destruction of the Old Summer Palace, (which was 7 times larger than the Vatican City) at the end of the 2nd Opium War circa 1860, when it was destroyed by British and French forces. See rare images below:

    3 No matter how the pro-democracy MPs care to slice it, the 50 year ‘one country two system’ ends in 2047.

    When Margaret Thatcher met with Deng Xiaoping in the 80s, she was told, to her utter surprise, that Britain could keep HK island as it was already ceded in perpetuity to Britain, never mind it was done by the Qing Emperor, himself an invader.

    But the problem was/is that HK island has not enough water. So she had no option but to return HK back to China and extracted a 50 year ‘one country two system’.

    Even if, in the unlikely event, that the pro-democracy MPs manage to pry HK island from the PRC, they will need a huge desalination plant after 2047 in the island, while the New Territory reverts to China.

    Can 7.6 million cramp into a small island with not enough water and food? They are stupid if they think they can.

    Why stupid? If Thatcher declined the offer from Deng she knew what she was doing and she was a lot smarter than the newly minted MPs in HK.

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