‘Hong Kong is not China’.
The two legislators’ combination of foul language and independence advocacy has generated shock in Hong Kong society — as well as in Beijing. But against this shock, a recent editorial in the Hong Kong Free Press from a Youngspiration voter thanks Leung and Yau for ‘doing exactly what I voted for you to do’, namely insulting China, which ‘deserves no respect for their human rights record and censorship of its population’.
While these legislators may have done what at least some voters wanted them to do, Beijing’s leaders certainly did what everyone expected them to do by reinterpreting Hong Kong’s Basic Law to disqualify the two legislators. This reinterpretation has also put the seats of eleven other democratically elected legislators at risk for perceived deviations from the oath taking script. Beijing’s interpretation emphasised the importance of ‘sincerity and solemnity’ in declaring loyalty to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
These competing visions of the urgent need for either scorn or solemnity highlight the very different legal and political cultures in Hong Kong and the PRC. In Hong Kong, rule of law is a two-way street. Both the public and those in power are bound by the law and one can criticise power so long as one remains within the framework of the law. By contrast, in the PRC ‘rule of law’ is primarily a rhetorical matter, divorced from actual practice. Respect for the law is equivalent to respect for the authorities, who interpret and implement the law however they see necessary.
As a result, the Basic Law, the mini-constitution which provides the foundation for Beijing’s rule in Hong Kong, is open to infinite and arbitrary interpretation by Beijing. This is deeply disconcerting. Problems that first emerged in the 2003 National Security Law controversy are reaching a new peak in this oath-taking controversy, which is now also being used as a pretext to pass the National Security Law.
Hong Kong residents who continue to place their faith in the Basic Law as a guarantee of the city’s rights and freedoms will always lose to leaders in Beijing who, holding the final right of interpretation, are free to interpret the Basic Law however they please. No matter how one might fight the law, the law wins.
Beyond legal cultures, these contrasting visions reveal a deeper issue at the core of the localist movement — there is a basic mismatch between the two societies and political systems. What we are witnessing is a fundamental clash of civilisations. Despite the orientalist assumption of a unifying Chinese identity, Hong Kong and the PRC are two very different societies, cultures and peoples who have experienced vastly different historical trajectories since 1842. It is not particularly surprising that the aspirations of Hong Kong society, reflected in the election of the controversial Youngspiration duo, do not correspond to the aspirations of Beijing’s leaders.
It is also not surprising that Beijing’s response to these challenges in Hong Kong reflects its standard post-1989 approach to its own society, labelling its critics as traitors in violation of the law. Beijing’s heavy-handed response overlooks and widens the fundamental differences that generated these conflicts in the first place. While Beijing can disqualify and remove legislators from office, it cannot yet silence or arrest even its most outspoken critics in Hong Kong, who are becoming ever more emboldened as a result of Beijing’s interference. Beijing’s policies, hoping to force Hong Kong to conform more closely to its wishes, are in fact pulling these two distinct societies ever further apart.
The localist movement that has emerged in the last six years, unprecedented in Hong Kong history, is a product as well as a producer of Hong Kong–PRC differences. Increasingly vocal acts of protest produce ever more extreme responses in Beijing, which in turn provoke increasingly vocal and extreme responses from Hong Kong society. The two societies and political systems are becoming trapped in an irreversible feedback system that runs the risk of making Hong Kong, one of Asia’s most important international cities, ungovernable.
When first proposed, the idea of ‘one country, two systems’ may have seemed like an ingenious example of pragmatism. But this concept, like a ‘socialist market economy’ and other Beijing-based mental acrobatics, is not a reality. It simply does not and cannot exist in practice. Hong Kong’s localists recognise this and have proposed the solution of ‘two countries’ as a guarantee of two systems. As unlikely as this idea might be, so long as Beijing continues to prioritise ‘one country’ over ‘two systems,’ the localist movement and its vision will only continue to grow.
Kevin Carrico is a lecturer of Chinese studies at the Department of International Studies, Macquarie University. His book, The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today, is forthcoming from the University of California Press.