See all those languages up there? We translate Global Voices stories to make the world's citizen media available to everyone.

Learn more about Lingua Translation  »

Speaking of Independence Is Getting Harder for Hong Kongers

“Hong Kong independence” slogan at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Photo: Apple Daily, non-commercial use.

The leaders of 10 universities in Hong Kong are condemning “abuses” of free speech on campuses. In a joint statement published on September 15, university chancellors also expressed firm opposition to the idea of Hong Kong breaking away from China.

Two days later, a Hong Kong politician from the pro-Beijing camp labeled those who advocate for independence as “enemies” who should be killed.

The two events highlighted not only the precarious state of free expression in Hong Kong, but also tensions over the city's future. Hong Kongers enjoy more freedoms than their counterparts in mainland China under a principle known as “One Country, Two Systems.” This autonomy is enshrined in Hong Kong's governing doctrine, known as the Basic Law, which went into force in 1997 when the United Kingdom handed the former colony over to China.

According to the Basic Law, the city shall retain its way of life for 50 years, or until 2047. After that date, Hong Kong's fate is uncertain.

What is certain is that in recent years, Beijing has been more forcefully asserting its influence over Hong Kong. Those who support more democratic rights, such as genuine universal suffrage, or outright independence have faced fierce repression.

The university administrators’ joint statement, which was noticeably brief, was perceived as a response to the appearance of pro-Hong Kong independence slogans on campuses since September 4. The statement in full read:

我們珍惜言論自由,但我們譴責最近濫用言論自由的行為。言論自由並非絕對,有自由就有責任。所有下列的大學,特此聲明,不支持「港獨」,並認為這是違反基本法。

We treasure freedom of expression, but we condemn its recent abuses. Freedom of expression is not absolute, and like all freedoms it comes with responsibilities. All universities undersigned agree that we do not support Hong Kong independence and believe that it contravenes the Basic Law.

City University of Hong Kong
Hong Kong Baptist University
Hong Kong Shue Yan University
Lingnan University
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
The Education University of Hong Kong
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
The Open University of Hong Kong
The University of Hong Kong

The statement echoed a comment on September 8 from Carrie Lam, the city's chief executive or top leader, that argued pro-Hong Kong independence messages go against the “One Country, Two Systems” principle and the Basic Law.

Student unions from 12 universities and colleges issued a response:

我們珍惜言論自由,此權利生而有之。校方不支持港獨,但大學師生享有言論自由,討論港獨絕無不可。所有下列的學生會,特此聲明,討論港獨絕對符合《基本法》第二十七條,校方請停止混淆視聽。

We treasure free speech, a basic human right. The universities can say they don’t support Hong Kong independence, but students and teachers should have the freedom of speech to discuss Hong Kong independence. Below the undersigned student unions hereby issue this statement of clarification: the discussion of Hong Kong independence is in alignment with Basic Law Article 27 [which guarantees freedoms of speech and assembly], the university administrators should stop confusing the public.

‘Obviously, the statement is in response to political pressure…’

The joint statement did not specify what the “recent abuses” were, but could be referring to incidents such as a Chinese University of Hong Kong student allegedly using the derogatory term “Chee-na” during a row with mainland peers over independence, or messages posted to bulletin board at Education University of Hong Kong taunting a top Hong Kong education official over the suicide of her eldest son.

Au Kar Lun, an experienced media worker, believed the careful wording of the statement points to it being the product of political pressure from Beijing:

左報與維穩機器催促鞭策之下,十間大學校長發表簡短聯合聲明,「不支持港獨」。聲明語焉不詳,明顯沒有共識,模模糊糊,沒有清楚說明問題,也沒有解釋理據,內容欠奉,卻仍然要集體表忠,只有一個目的,就是為了應付龐大壓力,交貨表態;唯一清晰的,是一句「不支持『港獨』」。

Under pressure from a pro-Beijing newspaper and the stability maintenance machine, the heads of 10 universities issued a brief joint statement saying that they do not support Hong Kong independence. The content of the statement is so empty and it is clear that they don’t have consensus. It does not address the context and has not explained their reasoning behind the statement. There is no content and it only serves the purpose of expressing loyalty. Obviously, the statement is in response to political pressure as the clearest message in the statement is, “We do not support Hong Kong independence.”

One concrete example of such political pressure emerged when Leonard Cheng, the head of Lingnan University, said students could discuss Hong Kong Independence in campus. In response, a pro-Beijing newspaper criticized him for indulging the students, and a number of pro-Beijing university council members warned that academic and speech freedoms should not be abused to “cover up illegal acts.”

On citizen media platform inmediahk.net, Chu Kong Wai, an alumni of the Chinese University, expressed his disappointment with the university administrators’ statement:

這個聲明的目的,在十大校長和其支持者的角度,是一個棄車保帥的「止蝕」行為,希望能夠抵擋借「港獨」議題,乘勢進攻大學自主領域的攻勢。他們認為譴責所謂濫用言論自由的行為,表態反港獨效忠基本法,就能保住現有的空間;他們不是天真無知,就是鴕鳥可笑。…十間大學校長的聯合聲明正要告訴我們,香港人其實就連討論這部小憲法的權利也沒有。今日不能討論港獨,明天是否不能討論「真普選」,後天會否就不能討論「量入為出」的原則?

Supporters of the university heads’ statement believe that it is a move to “cut losses” and save the universities from further political intervention under the excuse of cracking down on “Hong Kong independence.” They believe that by condemning the abuse of free speech and reaffirming their stand against Hong Kong independence and their loyalty to the Basic Law, they can maintain space for academia. But they are either too naive or are acting like turkeys [burying their heads in the sand]… The joint statement by the 10 university heads tell us that Hong Kongers cannot even have the right to discuss the mini-constitution. Today we can’t talk about Hong Kong independence, tomorrow we can’t talk about genuine universal suffrage and the day after we can’t even talk about the budget principle of “keeping its expenditure within the limits of revenues” [according to Basic Law Article 107].

‘What’s wrong with killing enemies in a war?’

Opposition to discussion of independence took a turn toward open hostility on September 17 at a rally calling for Hong Kong University to sack Professor Benny Tai for leading the massive pro-democracy protests that took over downtown Hong Kong for three months in 2014.

At the gathering, pro-Beijing figure Tsang Shu Wo exclaimed on stage:

If he advocates Hong Kong independence, he’s not Chinese, he’s an outsider and must be killed.

Julius Ho at a rally on September 17 calling for Benny Tai to be sacked from the University of Hong Kong. Apple Daily photo. Non-commercial use.

His comment was met with chants of “no mercy” by the crowd of thousands, including lawmaker and Lingnan University council member Julius Ho, who remarked later that it was “not big deal to kill pigs or dogs.” He further argued:

If we’re talking about Hong Kong independence, that means war. What’s wrong with killing enemies in a war?

Though a public call to kill is against the criminal ordinance, Secretary of Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung has played down Tsang's and Ho's statements. In contrast, just a month ago, three pro-democracy activists — Alex Chow, Nathan Law, and Joshua Wong — were sentenced to between six and eight months in prison for advocating the peaceful protests of 2014.

‘Have we decided Hong Kong’s direction after 2047? Not yet.’

Perhaps the more fundamental issue is why some Hong Kongers want to discuss independence from China in the first place. Hui Fung Ming, a student activist and a graduate of Education University, argued on inmediahk.net that debate about Hong Kong as an independent state is necessary given the city's post 2047 future is unclear:

香港基本法寫明五十年不變,2047就係另一場二次前途談判,而港獨係香港未來2047年二次前途談判嘅其中一個可能性同option。依家2047年定左方向啦咩?未吖嘛,你地屋企啲屋契到時候都會到期架喎,有可能會好似中國咁行社會主義集體所有制收哂你地啲地同屋架喎,你地係咪唔介意?

The Basic Law in Hong Kong promises Hong Kong’s way of life will remain unchanged for 50 years. By the time of 2047, Hong Kong’s future will be another round of negotiation. Hong Kong independence is a possibility and option in the negotiation. Have we decided Hong Kong’s direction after 2047? Not yet. A large number of land leases will expire after 2047, and it remains possible that if Hong Kong follows China in adopting the socialist collective system, the land can be confiscated. Is that none of your concern?

Hui Fung Ming continued, saying that Beijing and Beijing supporters’ logic is flawed:

港獨違法根本就係一個偽命題,如果按呢個邏輯推演,咁應該除咗一國兩制作為唯一一種政治體制以外無嘢係可以討論到,因為按香港基本法去講香港係落實一國兩制個喎。咁樣嘅話嘢講一國兩制以外嘅嘢都應該係違法喎,成日指手劃腳嘅黨媒講中國政府全面實施對香港管治行一國一制都違法喎,點解佢地又可以講,政權又唔去禁止下呢又?…如果連學校都唔俾講港獨,我想問以同樣嘅邏輯推演落去的話,係咪喺街入邊警察求其聽到有人講港獨兩個字就即刻可以執法拉人呢?大家係咪想要咁樣的香港?

The claim that Hong Kong independence is against the law is false. According to such logic, “One Country, Two Systems” should be the only political system that can be discussed. According to the Basic Law, Hong Kong has adopted “One Country, Two Systems,” so other alternatives should be illegal. But pro-Beijing media outlets keep advocating Beijing to implement “One Country, One System” in Hong Kong, so they are allowed to propose an illegal political system? Why doesn’t Beijing ban them from saying so?… If we can’t deliberate Hong Kong independence in universities, according to the logic, shall the police officers take action in arresting whomever talks about Hong Kong independence in the street? Do you want a Hong Kong like this?

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »

Guidelines

  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.

Receive great stories from around the world directly in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the best of Global Voices
* = required field
Email Frequency



No thanks, show me the site