Of late, discussion of Hong Kong’s possible independence from China has been in the air, a cause no serious politician has espoused since the former British colony returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. What happened?
This phony issue stems from a lack of confidence in China’s pledge to allow Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” for 50 years. It is an attempt to provide an alternative to integration with the mainland, which many assume would happen if “one country, two systems” failed.
The Hong Kong government, determined to show its loyalty, is suggesting that the mere discussion of independence is dangerous, possibly illegal. But there’s really plenty of room for discussion, such as assessing its feasibility, the pros and cons of independence and its legality.
Actually, the government should welcome discussion because pro-independence advocates will have to defend a proposition that, on the face of it, is indefensible. Such advocates have so far failed to show that they are charting a course into anything but a blind alley.
The Chinese government has responded on two levels. On one level, state leader Zhang Dejiang declared during a visit in May that “one country, two systems” is a national policy and will not change.
On another level, Chinese officials point to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitutional document, whose first article says: “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China.”
To them, that’s the end of the discussion. By law, Hong Kong cannot be independent.
Not all countries cling to every inch of their territory this way, without regard for popular sentiment. Thus, the British government agreed that Scotland could hold a referendum in 2014 on the question, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” The proposition was defeated and Scotland remains part of Britain.
In Asia, there are a number of independence movements, such as in the Philippines and Myanmar. They are armed movements with poor prospects of success. In fact, very few independence movements in Asia have resulted in the emergence of new nations.
Singapore, interestingly, became independent of Malaysia in 1965 not as a result of an independence movement but because it was expelled from Malaysia. So, in a real sense, independence was forced on Singapore.
That may well be unique. In most cases, the road to independence is strewn with bodies. Take, for example, Bangladesh. The former East Pakistan had to fight a bloody liberation war in 1971 before it won its independence and became the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, the world’s eighth most populous nation.
On the other end of the scale is tiny East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, with little more than a million people. It declared independence from Portugal in 1975, only to be invaded and annexed by neighboring Indonesia, a move not recognized by the United Nations. In 1999 the United Nations organized a referendum in which an overwhelming majority favored independence, and so Timor Leste came into existence, ranking 154th in terms of population.
From a geopolitical standpoint, Hong Kong’s independence is improbable although, if it were to happen, it would be bigger than either Timor Leste or Singapore. Hong Kong would rank 101st in the world. But Hong Kong relies on China for most of its water and for much of its food. Hong Kong can only become independent with China’s blessing, which seems highly unlikely. There is little reason for China to decide to expel Hong Kong, as Malaysia expelled Singapore.
The United Nations, too, is unlikely to back a referendum, as it did in East Timor. Hong Kong’s handover to China was recognized by the United Nations, and the Sino-British Joint Declaration was lodged as a treaty with the world body in 1984.
So what options are left? Are pro-independence young people, mostly students, willing to go to war with the People’s Liberation Army, like East Pakistan took on West Pakistan? East Pakistan had a bigger population and economy than West Pakistan. Hong Kong is tiny compared with the mainland, in all respects. It has no army of its own.
The only alternative, and a peaceful one, is for China itself to want Hong Kong to be independent. Perhaps that is what the pro-independence advocates should work toward: a scenario in which China is so sick of Hong Kong that it thinks the best thing to do is to expel Hong Kong and its 7.2 million people from the Chinese nation. How’s that as a solution? Would that be good for Hong Kong? Is that what people want?