Beijing Blows Hot Over Hong Kong’s Nationalist Party

Will China prevail upon the Hong Kong government to use a sledgehammer against the tiny if vocal minority calling for the territory’s independence?

The announcement last week of the formation of the Hong Kong National Party stirred the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Beijing’s representative in this Special Administrative Region into self-righteous wrath, calling the event a threat to national security.

Given the Maoist-style crackdown on dissent in China itself, headed by President Xi Jinping, that has raised concerns that Beijing will force Hong Kong’s chief executive Leung Chun-ying into a similar crackdown in the territory.

The party, which has yet to register, is headed by Chan Ho-tin, one of the leading activists in the 2014 Umbrella movement calling for more democracy and an end to Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs. The party says it will run candidates in the legislative elections due in September, hoping to build on the good showing of anti-Beijing radical Edward Leung in a recent by-election in a New Territories constituency.

Whether the party will even be allowed to register is yet to be seen given that the HK & Macau Affairs Office has already deemed any pro-independence movement as illegal under both the Chinese Constitution and the Basic Law governing Hong Kong. Needless to say, the United Front media acolytes and businessmen favored by Beijing leapt to echo these sentiments, sometimes using extreme language.

Almost no one in Hong Kong seriously believes that independence – as Singapore became independent of Malaysia – is possible given the might of China and its obsession with a national unity which is already fraying at the edges (Tibet and Xinjiang as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan). But localism, in effect meaning resistance to mainland influence and pressures, has a wide following and a National Party could well attract sympathy, particularly from the young who are frustrated by the lack of progress achieve by mainstream pro-democracy parties and who attribute economic and social ills to a Hong Kong government which takes its direction from Beijing and from a pampered business elite.

The Basic Law is supposed to guarantee freedom of speech, assembly and organization but it also contains the now infamous Article 23. This states:

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organization or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies

Hong Kong has never in fact enacted any such laws. In fact a crassly worded draft attempt in 2002-3 arousing such opposition as to force the government to withdraw it. Defining an act of treason, secession or sedition is difficult at best. Given the Communist party’s problem in distinguishing between words and illegal actions the issue is fraught with danger for freedom of speech. In the United Kingdom it is not treason to advocate the secession of Scotland. But will Hong Kong continue to tolerate expressions of support for the independence of Taiwan? Or Xinjiang, let alone Hong Kong? Likewise “state secrets” can apply to almost anything in China – including, as it does, to apparent criminal accounting and other financial misdeeds by Hong Kong listed mainland companies.

Beijing may well now want to return to the Basic Law 23 issue. There have been hints in the past which may now be spurred on by the creation of the National Party. If so, it can expect a new surge of hostility from the broader population as well as possibly violent demonstrations by radical and young elements. Dissatisfaction with the government over social and economic issues could readily spill over into anti-Beijing, pro-localist sentiment.

This week happens to be the 50th anniversary of the 1966 Star Ferry riots, disturbances sparked by a rise in ferry fares but reflecting wider social discontents. Lasting three days, the riots saw one dead, and many injured and dozens arrested. In response the then-colonial government established an official Inquiry which concluded that government was out of touch and needed to pay much more attention to social issues, and those involving youth in particular.

There has been no such Inquiry either into the Umbrella movement or riots which shook the Mongkok district of Kowloon in February this year. Officials lash out at youth and activists generally but show no willingness to address underlying causes.

It is by no means difficult for radicals to get into the legislature. Multiple seat (5 or 6) popularly elected constituencies mean small parties and outspoken individuals can get seats with as little as 20 percent of the vote. But with half the legislature being chosen by mostly pro-government business and professional groups, the government can and does ignore the opposition.

Beijing might be advised to ignore the National group and avoid using the sledgehammer against them. And if it wants to interfere in Hong Kong affairs it should lean and lean on a Hong Kong administration headed by its very own appointee, CY Leung and listen to public opinion not be governed by vested interests which have made Hong Kong’s domestic economy a byword for oligopoly.