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What Comes Next? Visions of Hong Kong’s Future

2019/9/30 — 13:06

【文:Publius Servilius Casca】

按:過去數月已證明香港的情況令人難以置信地可怕。 即使沒有「逃犯條例」,香港仍在結構上處於腐敗狀態,其自由亦受到中國新政策(無論是「國民教育」還是新的監視協議)的持續威脅。 這個問題無法通過香港捍衛者目前願意討論的方案來解決——甚至連選舉也沒用,過去的事件告訴我們,選舉很容易就被中國政府奪走。為了迎接當下,香港的抗議者及盟友應開始研究這城市可如何從中國完全解放出來並實現獨立。

The last few months have proven that the situation in Hong Kong is incredibly dire. Even without the extradition bill, Hong Kong remains structurally corrupt and its freedoms remain under constant threat from new Chinese policies, be they “patriotic education” or new surveillance protocols. This is a problem that cannot be solved by the solutions Hong Kong’s defenders are currently willing to discuss –not even elections, which past events tell us could easily be taken away by the Chinese government. To meet the moment, protestors in Hong Kong and their allies should begin inquiring into how the city might free itself fully from China and achieve independence. 

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If we are to learn anything from the latest protests, it should be that small victories – the pulling of a bill, the changing of a policy — remain well within grasp.

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But this is no way for Hong Kong’s people to live. It is one thing for a civilized society to demand the active political participation of its citizens; another entirely for a society to require citizens to risk their lives and livelihoods daily in defense of the institutions that protect their most basic freedoms. The people of Hong Kong deserve better –at minimum, they deserve to enjoy the liberties that have traditionally come with life in this city without having to fight for them constantly.

It is not only unfair but also unrealistic to expect Hong Kong’s people to permanently bear the onerous burden of protest and civil resistance. Sooner or later, Carrie Lam or someone more persistent than her will succeed in one of their attacks on Hong Kong’s freedoms. Perhaps this will be by the exercise of greater force than we have seen in the last several months; perhaps it will simply be by the endurance of autocratic will in the face of popular exhaustion. But the conclusion is the same. One cannot – and should not — expect people to endure brutality forever.

People in Hong Kong seem to understand this. As the government continues to behave as it did before ELAB was withdrawn, so too have protests continued in much the same manner. It is not difficult to see why. Ask any Hong Kong protestor, and they can tell you about all of the current and future threats to Hong Kong’s liberty –rampant police brutality, lawlessness in the city’s leadership, creeping totalitarianism and cultural imperialism from the mainland’s computers and cameras and curricula.

Ask about China, and they can tell you of worse, of a government that seeks to render Hong Kong indistinguishable from any city in the PRC by making Hong Kong’s institutions weaker, its rulers more autocratic, its security state more expansive and carceral and retributory. Each new challenge coming down the line to Hong Kong’s freedom, they can explain, –from the new push for “patriotic education” to the proliferation of facial recognition towers across the city— is a part of Beijing’s insistent efforts to drag Hong Kong towards a destination at which the mainland has already arrived.

But in the face of all this, the political response by Hong Kong’s protestors seems, to me, to not fully acknowledge the fundamental bleakness of the situation. Elections? An independent inquiry? The dropping of charges? A change in government rhetoric? All noble goals, to be sure, but are they all we can hope for in the face of such intractable systemic dysfunction?

If there has been a collective realization that something is structurally wrong with Hong Kong’s relationship with its Chinese overlords, then why is there still such a reluctance to discuss the possibility of more radical options –such as independence? If people acknowledge that the city is in such dire straits, why not examine every possible option for its salvation?

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Now that we have moved to a discussion of something as controversial as Hong Kong separatism, I will admit freely to having been radicalized on this issue. But look into Hong Kong’s future, and the various dim possibilities make a strong case for independence by themselves.

Hong Kong is free in large part because of its longstanding traditions and robust institutions, but in larger part because of its role as a conduit to Western financial markets. The Chinese government may still move gingerly, relatively speaking, out of fear of disrupting the global economy.

It is worth noting that other troublesome localities –Xinjiang and Tibet, for example— are afforded no such luxury; there is, after all, no Lhasa Exchange Index or Urumqi Special Administrative Region. What happens, then, to Hong Kong in a situation where for some reason (trade war, economic instability, or perhaps just the unpalatability of Hong Kong’s decaying rule of law) foreign businesses begin moving the capitalist infrastructure they have built in the city to other locales, just as they moved Europe’s banking from London to Frankfurt after Brexit? If the Chinese government is already willing to impose such ghastly measures to suppress protests in Hong Kong now, when the city is still the center of Asia’s capital markets, what will they be willing to do if those markets have moved their focus elsewhere? I doubt many of the city’s defenders are willing to wait to find out.

Let us posit another scenario –one, however implausible, where Carrie Lam or one of her successors concedes and grants all five demands made by the protestors, including that key final call for universal suffrage and democratic elections. How does this story end?

For answers, we can look to Wukan, a small village in Guangdong Province that in 2012 became the first locality in PRC history to offer any real semblance of democracy. Yielding to protests in a way that one could, with some work, conceivably imagine Carrie Lam doing, then- Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang acquiesced to village elections for a sort of local congress that would represent the citizens of Wukan. Victorious, some 6,500 Wukan townspeople participated in a secret-ballot election (“free of Communist Party meddling,” the Wall Street Journal reported) that ousted a longtime Party official and replaced him with a village activist.

There are no more elections in Wukan. Four years after the initial vote, Lin Zuluan, the protestor who defeated the Party’s man at the ballot box, was arrested, kidnapped by police in a midnight raid on his home. Lin was sentenced to 37 months in prison; roads around the village were blocked, demonstrations were put down with tear gas and rubber bullets. Wang Yang, by then elevated from his position in Guangdong into higher office under Xi, stood by in silence, subsumed into the monolithic engine of Chinese autocracy.

Wukan’s example tells us something that should give pause to even the most optimistic of Hong Kong’s democracy activists: that even in victory, defeat looms. Democracy granted by the grace of tyrants is no democracy at all.

Even absent any dramatic shifts in Hong Kong’s political or economic situation, the city’s outlook remains ominous. How many protests, how much more political unrest will the Chinese government endure until it brings in force from the mainland to crush demonstrations once and for all? Someone I know involved with the anti-ELAB movement confidently bet a friend in America a small sum of money that the PLA would not arrive in Hong Kong within three months time – would he be willing to make that bet if the length of time was three years? Thirty years?

Hong Kong is not Taiwan. It has no American ships or planes or troops to protect it. Even the most aggressively pro-Hong Kong senators in the U.S. have not suggested they would be willing to go to war with China over Hong Kong’s freedom. Nor does the city have much hope of securing such protection. Given that Hong Kong does not enjoy de facto independence like Taiwan does and lacks the preexisting Cold War-era relationships that keep America committed to Taiwan’s autonomy, it is not as if any Hong Kong government, democratically elected or not, could ask for American soldiers to come to its protection, much less expect them to arrive.

Future protests are, by merit of this, left in the same position today’s protests are – haunted by fears of another Tiananmen. More than once in the last three months, foreign experts believed false reports of PLA forces moving into Hong Kong; this, at the very least, does not reassure us about the city’s future. How long until those reports become correct?

Free people do not live in constant fear of police brutality and PLA invasion. As with Wukan’s “democracy,” liberty that might be wrenched away by military men at any moment is no liberty at all.

The reality is that Chinese autocracy moves with a shark’s inertia, unable to stop for fear of sudden death. Xi’s transformative vision for “China proper” is clearer than any Chinese Dream he has ever spoken of –the PRC seeks to turn Taiwan into Hong Kong, Hong Kong into Shenzhen, Shenzhen into Tibet, Tibet into Xinjiang. Already the social credit system and AI surveillance algorithms used to pack Uyghur Muslims into concentration camps have metastasized across the Chinese mainland from Xinjiang to Zhejiang to Guangzhou, the facial-recognition infrastructure moving similarly from Guiyang to Shenzhen. With such menaces in their geographic and political backyard, the people of Hong Kong can no longer count on legal barriers and local autonomy to protect them from this rapidly advancing danger, not when the authority that grants these scant defenses is the source of the threat itself.

To submit to a milder autocracy today is to plan to submit to a harsher one tomorrow. No clear-minded Hong Kong protestor can accept a settlement at this point without knowing that our city’s Chinese overlords will soon tear it away –if not now, then later; if not in 2019, then in 2020, if not in 2020, then in 2030 or 2040 or 2047. Even if, in the most improbable of events, Xi and Carrie Lam and all their like left Hong Kong alone from now until 2047, the end might well still be the same –Hong Kong unified with the mainland, reduced to being just another city in the PRC. Hong Kong’s people have shown a remarkable capacity to fight for their own rights. It would be a pity if that fight ended as if it had never happened at all.

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We are essentially left, then, with this problem: Hong Kong’s government is lawless and cruel and unlikely to improve; even if it does, its handlers in Beijing, who attempt frequently to remake Hong Kong’s leadership in their image, are even more lawless and cruel and unlikely to improve; even if they do improve, there is nothing in China’s political system to prevent the similarly lawless and cruel and obstinate from rising to power in the future.

Why should any citizen of Hong Kong countenance life under such rulers, life constrained by such a system? And more importantly, why should any citizen of Hong Kong trust this system to grant them any liberties or leave any of their institutions untouched, much less protect them in the long term?

If Hong Kong’s activists want democracy so that they may be able to control their own fate, why should they not take steps towards the ultimate form of self-determination –self-rule? Or, failing that, why should they not at least give the idea some long-term consideration? If we fear that Hong Kong could lose its freedoms in ten years or fifty years, could we not hope that the city might gain its freedom in a similar scope of time?

What I am suggesting is, I think, less radical than it ultimately sounds. I do not mean to suggest that independence is immediately, or even in the near term, feasible. I do not know how the city might learn to stand economically on its own. I wonder if Hong Kong might become another Singapore. I merely argue that in light of everything that has happened in China under Xi and in Hong Kong under Carrie Lam, the long-run political settlement Hong Kong’s advocates should look towards should change from greater autonomy to complete independence.

I offer that political and policy efforts should focus not only on the short-run measures of police accountability, legal protections, and democratic elections, but also on a long-term position of total autonomy. As Hong Kong’s people continue to fight for procedural reform and new rights, they should understand these struggles as part of an integral project that seeks to define and protect Hong Kong as a distinct entity; not just a place with a set of political expectations and a unique way of life, but a sort of nascent nation-state.

Hong Kong has always had its own distinct culture, its own distinct language, its own distinct institutions; indeed, part of the recent conflict (and presumably many of the coming conflicts) concerns the preservation of such things. We see already in the slogans and songs of today’s movement the beginnings of a more clearly articulated Hong Kong identity. Is it so unreasonable to think this could and should develop further? Perhaps even to imagine that one day, “Glory to Hong Kong” might be sung proudly by schoolchildren who have never known the yoke of mainland Chinese tyranny?

In any case, that is all for the future. For now, the job of the brave demonstrators we see on the streets every day is to push back against the illiberal excesses of Hong Kong’s government and its Chinese handlers, to mobilize every time Beijing moves to pull Hong Kong closer into its orbit. Such opposition will, I suspect, be the work of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy civil society for the foreseeable future, lasting maybe decades or more in political time; the people who are anti-ELAB will soon have to become anti-nationalist education, anti-surveillance, anti-social credit. But the overarching goal these protesters look towards should no longer simply be more elections, more democracy, more autonomy –it should be full liberation for Hong Kong. In the midst of protests about CCTV installations or Cantonese language, we should dream bigger – however fancifully and fitfully— of a future free of Chinese control.

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In a certain telling, Hong Kong was never meant to be ruled. Each time it has fallen in recent history under the reign of a new overlord –Qing, Japanese, British, Communist— it has been by force and injustice. When the city was given up into the hands of the PRC nearly two and a half decades ago, it was only because a promise was made that Hong Kong could one day choose its own leaders, that it might soon be ruled by foreigners no more, but governed by its own. It is clear today that the fulfillment of this promise cannot and will not come from the people nor the country currently in charge of Hong Kong.

In the old times, people in what is now Hong Kong would say 山高,皇帝遠 –“the mountains are high and the Emperor is far away,” a proverb referring to the relative autonomy citizens in the south of China would enjoy given their distance from the gleaming capital and restless imperial administrators of the north.

We no longer live in ancient times. We should aspire to greater things –not tolerated freedom, but total freedom. Not a faraway emperor, but no emperor at all.

光復香港,時代革命!

Publius Servilius Casca is a writer and legal resident of Hong Kong. He currently studies politics at an American university.

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