Longtime China hand Tim Collard argues that HKNP’s purported goal amounts to nothing more than ‘poking sticks’ at the central government
As a foreign observer of China, a long-service diplomat in the country both before and after 1997, I will retain an affection and concern for this great nation, and particularly for Hong Kong, until the day I die; not out of any residual imperialist designs, but because China has become part of my life. I am a great admirer of the way Hong Kong has managed a unique situation — “one country, two systems” is wholly without precedent — and the way the HKSAR has successfully steered a very tricky course. It is always alarming when someone decides to risk rocking the boat, and thus I am horrified by the controversy now triggered by the emergence of an openly secessionist group, calling itself the Hong Kong National Party, in the HKSAR, which has elicited a sharp and wholly predictable response from the authorities both in Hong Kong and Beijing.
The government’s response has, however, been restrained and entirely guided by the principle of the rule of law. An investigation is under way as to whether the activities of Andy Chan Ho-tin and his party are in breach of the law, and if they are found to be so, the law will take its course. The situation is at the moment somewhat unclear, given that the demands of Article 23 of the Basic Law have not yet been met. But it is fairly clear what will be required by those ultimately authorized to interpret the Basic Law, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. “Acts of sedition or secession” will be strictly forbidden.
The issue here is that — as we are, quite correctly, told — independence for Hong Kong is impossible. If something is impossible, advocating it is just rather silly, and thus unworthy of serious consideration.
And so the question arises: What are the HKNP actually trying to achieve? Their ostensible preferred outcome is clearly impossible, so there must be a reason behind their actions. And that reason can be no other than to constitute a provocation to the SAR government, with the intention of embroiling them with central government in Beijing. The furor has already been launched. And there can be no possible positive outcome for Hong Kong from this provocation. This is why I have no sympathy with this particular group of activists. They have nothing positive to gain: They have little enough support in Hong Kong itself, and none whatsoever north of the Lo Wu crossing.
Hong Kong’s freedom of speech and association is an important issue. For Hong Kong to use its unique experience to contribute to and enhance the public life of China as a whole is both sensible and desirable. For Hong Kong to make sensible suggestions to central government about the HKSAR’s and the nation’s future is also perfectly legitimate. But to use those freedoms of speech merely to poke Beijing with sticks is madness. Even in the United States, that great bastion of free speech, it is understood and agreed that the right does not extend as far as shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.
And of course conditions and traditions in each country are different. We have separatist parties in the UK: I live in Scotland, under a devolved regional nationalist government aiming openly at full independence. (We have a Monster Raving Loony party here as well.) Two years ago we voted to leave the European Union, an act which many Britons regard as an illegitimate act of secession. But Hong Kong is a part of China, where historical development has differed from ours. Hong Kong people are not stupid — most of them are extremely well educated, rather better than we Brits are, in fact. And everybody in Hong Kong knows the score. The HKNP know that it is not a matter of if, but when, they will be suppressed. It is difficult to believe that Chan and his associates have the interests of Hong Kong and its people sincerely at heart: The only thing they are likely to achieve is a tougher formulation of the laws required by Article 23. Chan, of course, is old enough to know and to take responsibility for what he is doing. The ones I fear for are the younger people who may well get drawn in by fiery rhetoric and inexperienced youthful enthusiasm; they will be the ones to bear the consequences of their indiscretion, even well beyond 2047.
As for the plan of the Foreign Correspondents Club to invite Chan to address its members, they must by now be aware that they are playing with fire.
The author is a sinologist and former British diplomat in Beijing.