Shielding protesters from pepper spray and tear gas, umbrellas – symbolic of resilience, asymmetry of force, and audacity – has brewed up a political storm, and now the political climate is rougher than ever.
With Brexit and Trump’s imminent presidency looming in the backdrop of international politics, the ongoing tussle in Hong Kong seems like a contagious hop on the political bandwagon. Despite the streak of populism across the world, the prospects for independence in Hong Kong remain slim.
Chaos arose in the Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) when conspicuous protests were staged during the oath-taking process. Yellow umbrellas were hoisted, an allusion to the pro-democracy Umbrella Revolution in 2014. Copies of the Chinese government’s restrictive ruling on Hong Kong’s election procedures were ripped to shreds. An expletive and a provocative slur peppered the oath. While some championed their acts as heroic, naysayers were quick to revile the theatrics. For political activists like Yau Wai-Ching and Sixtus Leung, their young age suffered from heavy censure. Youthfulness became synonymous to rebellious arrogance.
But was it really just foolhardy impulse behind the fiasco? Are Yau and Leung just puerile hotheads venting their youthful exuberance, as their critics carped? Did they simply let populist sentiments rob them of their self-restraint?
Here’s something to ponder: if independence is as dire as the advocates claim, why not take the oath of office in compliance — to effect changes from within the system? After all, it would be imprudent to bargain the position of a legislator away for a spectacle of dramatics. Is it not easier to amass lobbying power in office than on the streets?
History could refute that notion. The disproportionately pro-establishment government has been adept in silencing advocates of localism. On the streets, authorities have assumed a dismissive attitude when it comes to discourse with the masses. Demands for universal suffrage were left unaddressed. Demonstrations were responded to with police brute force. Five staff members of Mighty Current, a publishing house well-known for distributing books critical of China’s administration, went missing. All five turned up in the custody of mainland Chinese authorities. In the LegCo, pro-independence agendas are severely outvoted by a pro-Beijing cohort. Out of the 70 seats, 30 of them are functional constituency seats. The exclusive electorate for those seats is a handful of special interests groups: predominantly pro-Beijing professionals, business and corporations. As of October 2016, pro-establishment lawmakers make up 40 seats in the LegCo chamber, as opposed to the 26 democrats in office. At best, independence-leaning politicians consolidate to become a pan-democracy minority whose voices are drowned out by an overwhelming opposition. As long as the imbalance pervades LegCo, it is implausible for localism to amass lobbying power and flourish in Hong Kong.
When playing by the book proves to be futile, such political ordeal warrants unorthodox measures. Sure, the expletives Yau inserted into her oath exude repulsion. Draping a flag that reads “Hong Kong is NOT China” during the swearing in is a flashy display of mutiny. Their methods may be unrefined, but the traction they garnered snowballed. Human Rights Watch issued concerns against China’s encroachment of Hong Kong. International scrutiny on the matter surged. More importantly, they forced China’s hand.
The intervention of China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) asserted China’s intolerance for monkey business. In light of the fiasco, it caused an escalation in the saga. Stepping in to interpret the Hong Kong Basic Law gravely compromised the independence of Hong Kong’s courts. In justifying its sovereignty, China has reneged on its enticing narrative of granting Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy”. This unfolds the hypocrisy China has fabricated. It is clear that international treaties no longer hold water, and the local administration’s capacity to govern is left to the whim of China. With the 50-year lease on the current capitalist system expiring by 2047, the days of Hong Kong’s semiautonomous political system are numbered.
Fearing a repeat of the Tiananmen massacre, some may dread the freedom fighters for aggravating matters. Rattling China is as bad as sealing up the fate of Hong Kong’s hopes to break free from China’s Special Administrative Region (SAR). As a peripheral state, Hong Kong is a political trophy for China to gloat. In its efforts to bring Taiwan into the fold of the SAR, China often uses Hong Kong as its testimony. The prospering economy and vibrant lifestyles are heavily advertised as fringe benefits of being under China.
But there’s much more at stake for China than just alluring a government in exile back into its administration. If it were to let Hong Kong assume full authority and yield its current sovereignty, this could be the watershed for separatist movements and revolutions in regions like Macau and Tibet, especially the latter where the opposition to China’s current rule is clear. With political unity as top priority, China has been harping on about the importance of an authoritarian regime for disciplinary oversight purposes. In other words, China cannot afford to lose Hong Kong and will see to preventing it from happening by all means necessary.
Though contemporary localism only emerged recently, rudimentary waves of local consciousness in Hong Kong can be traced back to the generation of baby boomers. Having harboured in the hearts of the locals for over half a century, the sentiment seems to be stirring more people into action. Suppressing dissenters like Yau and Leung has invited backlash from the locals. Instead of cowering in fear, the prospect of independence is becoming increasingly attractive. China views the exponential growth of separatism in recent years as a new blight that needs to be eradicated. The past few decades have witnessed Hong Kong’s abject submission to China’s rule. That might just be the calm before the storm.