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As Hong Kong’s crackdown on dissent continues, is independence the secret dream in many hearts?

Outside, there are some five dozen pro-independence advocates, gathered on the pavement between the Legislative Council building and Tim Mei Avenue.

Inside, there are 2,000 to 3,000 at the rally organized by the pro-democracy movement to support Benny Tai, who for nearly two weeks has been under sustained attack by the Communist Party, the Hong Kong government and their allies for having done something he didn’t do – advocate independence – though if he had done it, he had a perfect right to.

independence free speech rally benny tai

Photo: HKFP.

People are angry. The chants are loud. Rarely seen in public these days, the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming appears in support of his Occupy Central with Love and Peace co-founder.

Long Hair and Lee Cheuk-yan give well-received fiery speeches. The loudest chants of the night are in response to Lee’s call to “end one-party dictatorship”, a classic pro-democracy slogan and a gesture in defiance of recent suggestions by Party allies that people who make that call will no longer be allowed to enter Legco.

The rally is held in the designated Legco protest area on a Saturday evening. (I want to protest against the designated Legco protest area. Something in me recoils at the idea of protesting where the government tells you to.) Legco is dark; there is no one inside; the same for the surrounding government buildings.

And all of adjacent Tamar Park is empty too, except for the young lovers, who aren’t distracted from their common purpose. I wonder about the point of shouting at an empty building and think of the koan, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

The crowd is full of pro-democracy stalwarts, familiar faces I’ve seen for years; its average age makes me feel almost like a youngster. There are probably more young people among the five dozen pro-independence advocates outside than among the thousands gathered inside.

protest rally benny tai free speech

Photo: HKFP.

I turn to a woman of long acquaintance, someone who was one of the 1,000 arrested in the Umbrella Movement, the 250 prosecuted and the 90-some convicted, in her case of obstructing police by sitting on the pavement just around the corner from where we now stand. She’s a middle-aged professional who as recently as last year expected to die of cancer.

I ask, “What do you think of them?” gesturing toward the pro-independence group.

“I agree with them,” she says.

I am surprised. She’s been in the pro-democracy movement for years and even belongs to one of the traditional pro-democracy parties which certainly does not espouse independence.

“They’re right,” she continued. “It’s all we have left. We have nowhere else to go.”

There is a pause. A silence hangs between us. I’m waiting for her to tell me more.

“You know Gwangju?” she asks hesitantly.

“You mean Gwangju, Korea?”

“Yes.”

And then it is as if she doesn’t dare say more, or doesn’t know quite how to say it, as if saying it might make it happen and she isn’t sure whether she wants that or not.

It takes me a moment to follow her unspoken train of thought. On May 18, 1980, the people of Gwangju rose up against dictatorship. It was not a peaceful uprising. They stole arms from police stations and armories. Hundreds were massacred by the South Korean military, but the uprising inspired a movement that went on less than a decade later to set the country irreversibly on the path to democracy.

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I’m not shocked by her intimation that it might take outright rebellion and a violent crackdown to catalyze the next stage of the freedom struggle. Since last summer, I’ve come across others who have spoken of armed uprising. It’s easy to dismiss this kind of thinking as crazy, deluded, wishful, irresponsible, but the very fact that such ideas are in the air says something about the political climate in Hong Kong these days.

And these people have done their homework: hers is the first allusion to Gwangju I’ve come across, but several others have compared Catalonia’s nonviolent struggle for independence negatively to Euskadi Ta Askatasuna’s violent fight for a Basque country, arguing the latter got more from Spain for the Basques than the former has for the Catalans.

But most of the people I’ve spoken to who are thinking along these lines are localists or independence advocates. I am so struck by the thoughts of this woman whom I thought I knew so well that I decide to pose the same question—what do you make of the independence advocates?—to others who’d come for the main rally inside.

The traditional pan-democratic political parties and many of their supporters have given the pro-independence types a wide berth. They either disagree with them in principle, suspect they’ve been infiltrated by Communist agents who are driving their agenda, or are afraid of being smeared with the separatist label themselves, which ironically is just what’s happening now with the tarring of Benny Tai, of all people, as a separatist.

Prior to the Umbrella Movement, Benny would often joke about how ironic it was that such a staunch moderate as himself ended up leading the most “radical” organization yet in Hong Kong, but only in the sense that it advocated civil disobedience; it never objected to the Communist Party’s assertion that Hong Kong is “an inalienable part of China”.

As recently as the annual January 1 pro-democracy march, when a pro-independence group appeared in the marchers’ midst, big gaps opened up both before and after it—none of the traditional pro-democracy people wanted to be associated with them, almost as if they were toxic.

At the march on November 6, 2016 against the Party’s impending interpretation of the Basic law on oath-taking, subsequently used to disqualify six democratically elected Legco representatives, many in the crowd went out of their way to say they were protesting against the Basic Law interpretation; they did not support the actions of representatives who displayed banners reading, “Hong Kong is not China” while taking their oaths.

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Sixtus “Baggio” Leung, one of the three whose oaths were rejected. Photo: Stanley Leung/HKFP.

I end up asking nine others. They range in age from their mid-30s to mid-50s. All are veterans of the pro-democracy movement, from before the time when even the idea of an independent Hong Kong occurred to most people. All are acquaintances. They feel comfortable talking with me and might say something quite different to strangers.

In all, of the ten people I ask, all separately from one another, six express sympathy with the independence advocates demonstrating outside and four are critical.

Of those four, two seem simply to have a visceral reaction against them. I don’t get the impression they’ve thought carefully about the issue. When I ask them if they have anything against Hong Kong being part of China, they don’t answer directly but instead say they support democracy in both Hong Kong and China.

To me, they represent the traditional pan-democrats whose thinking really hasn’t changed much since the Umbrella Movement, who’ve refused to consider the many issues that have since arisen regarding the strategy, purpose and goals of the pro-democracy movement.

The two others disagree with calling for independence on grounds of strategy: Yes, “one country, two systems” is broken beyond repair, but advocating independence plays into the Party’s hands, presenting it with a justification for taking full control of Hong Kong before the end of the “one country, two systems” period in 2047.

Notably, none of the four opposes independence on the grounds that they feel Chinese and want to be part of China. In the pro-democracy movement these days, you’d be hard pressed to find many who identify with China.

The days when the pro-democracy movement was led by people like Szeto Wah– who co-founded the first pro-democracy party as well as the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China , believing deeply in both democracy and being Chinese– are well and truly over.

Of the six who sympathize with the independence advocates, I don’t get the sense any are fervently committed to that cause. Rather, their sympathy is related to a lack of faith that the Party will ever abide by the terms of “one, country, two systems”, which would mean genuine universal suffrage and real autonomy.

They simply don’t think anything good can come of Party rule over Hong Kong. In fact, the idea makes them despair. So, like the first woman I spoke with, they feel backed into a corner with no way out.

All ten express deep pessimism about the direction Hong Kong is going. One says, “If the Party and Hong Kong government really wanted to stamp out calls for independence, the most effective thing they could do is to ensure affordable housing and decent-paying jobs for young people. The problem now is that people, especially young people, see no future for either themselves or Hong Kong, and they see their personal fate and the political fate of their city as closely related.”

independence free speech rally benny tai

Photo: HKFP.

A professional woman in her mid-30s says, “Of course I agree with them. I think most everyone of my generation shares that sentiment—they think Hong Kong would be better off independent. That’s where their heart lies.”

“Where their heart lies….” The phrase keeps returning to me. As much as anything else, the sympathy with the independence advocates comes out of a feeling of heartache for Hong Kong. When you feel you can do nothing else, you still have your heart, and what is within your heart – if you haven’t relinquished it, if it hasn’t been possessed by demons.

These informal interviews, in addition to much else that I’ve heard and seen since last summer, lead me to wonder about the extent to which resistance to Party control of Hong Kong is being driven underground. More than ever before, authorities are declaring a range of political beliefs “illegal” and unacceptable.

As a result of these exclusions and attacks, people are discouraged from expressing their political views. It’s always safer not to. But those views don’t disappear. Instead, they remain in the heart and mind; they go underground. And what happens when a substantial part of political life drops out of public view? What are the implications of this resistance of the heart?

These closet independentists make my own self-determinationist position seem like watered-down agnosticism. I advocate self-determination because I see it as a basic human right, enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and, through Basic Law Article 39, in Hong Kong law.

I insist on Hong Kong people’s right to decide their own political status, a right that they have never enjoyed, and I am willing to go along with whatever Hong Kong people decide, as long as they do so freely and fairly. But isn’t this an intellectual position? What is really in my heart? If Hong Kong people could exercise their right of self-determination and hold a referendum on Hong Kong’s political status, what would I vote for?

Isn’t the choice almost made for me by the process of elimination? Full assimilation into a China ruled by the Communist Party? No way. Maintaining a “one country, two systems” arrangement which the Party already refuses to honour and is steadily eroding? Only for dupes. So…?

Is the Party right after all that self-determination is just a veiled form of independence? If Hong Kong people could follow their hearts, would they choose independence? Is that why the Party is attempting to nip any talk of independence in the bud now, before it festers? I still think most people would be satisfied with genuine universal suffrage and real autonomy. But they think that’s impossible, and where does that leave them to go?

The dynamics of a political crackdown: Freedoms eroding, the resistance driven underground

But if these six sympathize with the independence advocates, why don’t they join them? Two cannot appear to advocate independence publicly because of their jobs. For the others, doing so would represent a decisive step they simply are not ready to make. Some are undecided exactly what they think.

It’s also a matter of difference: The cultures of the independence advocates and the pro-democracy movement are different. No pro-independence leaders have yet arisen who make it seem like the “respectable” thing to do. They are seen as angry young men.

That taking the leap to advocating independence should be perceived as so decisive, a bit like coming out, a point from which there is no turning back, is also a symptom of the climate which Party propaganda and intimidation has brought to Hong Kong. Are you ready to make yourself a target?

After all, Benny Tai became a target simply for hypothetically mentioning the idea of independence. By contrast, millions flooded the streets of Catalonia last year to support the independence referendum, and they did not appear to fear losing their jobs or otherwise suffering retaliation.

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Observing the independence advocates, I can’t help but observe the police as well: they are filming them the whole time, as I have seen them do on multiple occasions.

Anyone who has attended pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong is probably familiar with police filming them. It is an abuse of civil liberties that Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Human Rights Committee have repeatedly criticized, though most people in Hong Kong don’t seem bothered.

The police say they have a right to film in any public place. But in practice, they tend to film those they suspect of being engaged in unlawful activity. For example, whenever they declare a protest “unlawful”, the cameras come out.

Even this use of cameras is questionable. Though the police must have hundreds of hours of video footage of them by now, no one has ever been prosecuted in Hong Kong for advocating independence, in spite of the fact that the Hong Kong government has repeatedly said it is “illegal” and “against the Basic Law”.

Yet the police continue to film them continuously, without pause, whenever they come out to the street. (Here are some of my photos of police filming independence advocates at the January 1 march.)

Whenever I see police filming protesters, I talk with them about it. Most refuse to engage with me, but on this evening, a polite and earnest officer is willing to entertain my questions. Like colleagues of his I’ve spoken to before, he begins by invoking the police’s right to film in public.

I reply that this overlooks the fact that the police are different from ordinary citizens, and police filming of people exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly can be intimidating. “Can you imagine how it would make you feel if the police followed you around pointing a camera at you, and what it might make others think of you?”

He then tells me they’re engaged in “crime prevention”, to which I respond, “What crime are you preventing, and how?”At that point, the officer says he has given me his explanation.

“But wait,” I say, “now let me give you mine: What you are doing has little to nothing to do with law enforcement. Your bosses are ordering you to carry out the political agenda of the government, and your filming amounts to intimidation. You should either arrest these people and charge them with a recognizable crime or stop pointing your cameras at them.” He pretends he hasn’t heard me.

No one knows what the police do with the video footage. Are they conducting facial recognition studies of it? Are they building a database of independence advocates? Are they compiling a dossier for the government? Could they be sharing it with mainland authorities? There is no independent oversight of or accountability for this.

In that light, it isn’t difficult to see why people with pro-independence sympathies might think twice about voicing them. The use of the police to carry out the regime’s political tasks is one aspect of the deterioration of the political climate. When freedom erodes, it is hard to contain the erosion; it tends to occur in small ways in multiple places at the same time.

We are far along that slippery slope, and the goalposts of the permissible keep moving.

In February 2016, the then Hong Kong Indigenous leader Edward Leung (now in prison awaiting trial on riot charges) was allowed to run in a Legco by-election. He did well and was expected to win a seat in the general Legco elections of September that year but was disqualified. First move of the goalposts.

Edward Leung Tin-kei

Edward Leung Tin-kei. File Photo: Stand News.

His ally, Baggio Leung, was elected in his stead. Then Baggio and his Youngspiration party fellow Yau Wai-ching were kicked out of Legco. Second move of the goalposts.

That effectively put an end to pro-independence involvement in formal electoral politics in Hong Kong.

But the Party was not done there. It began to equate independence and self-determination. The two are very different concepts with very different implications for Hong Kong but the regime makes no distinction.

So, four more elected pro-democracy Legco representatives were kicked out. Two of them, Nathan Law and Lau Siu-lai were self-determinationists, one was a long-time “radical” thorn in the government’s side (Long Hair), and one simply happened to occupy a seat that Party allies wanted back (Edward Yiu). Third move of the goalposts.

When Nathan Law’s Demosistō party fellow Agnes Chow attempted to run in the March 2018 by-election to fill his vacant seat, she was barred on grounds that her party advocated self-determination, though Nathan had been allowed to run a year and a half before. Fourth move of the goalposts.

From that point on, not only independence advocates but self-determinationists are effectively and arbitrarily barred from holding public office, though courts have never ruled on whether independence or self-determination advocacy is “illegal” or “against the Basic Law”.

Now, for the first time, the Party is going after a traditional pan-democrat, Benny Tai, alleging ludicrously that he advocates independence. Fifth move of the goalposts, and a clear warning to other traditional pan-democrats that they had better watch their step.

But why Benny Tai, who’s never said anything that could remotely be construed as “against the Basic Law”? Precisely that: to scare everyone else who thought they were safe, to make everyone think twice about what they say, how they say it, where they say it, and to whom.

The campaign against Tai is orchestrated. It’s the first time I can remember the Hong Kong government singling out a particular individual for political criticism, something which is in itself chilling and simply unacceptable. It appears that the fact he gave the speech in Taiwan particularly incensed the Party.

Tai has long been a target. After the Umbrella Movement, the governing council of the University of Hong Kong, dominated by Party allies, forced the university to discipline him for alleged improprieties involving donations to OCLP that passed through the university.

It also rejected vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson’s nomination of Johannes Chan, pro-democracy head of the law faculty where Tai works, to pro-vice-chancellor. Lunatic Party allies like Junius Ho (independence advocates should be “killed mercilessly”) have tried to get Tai fired.

See also: Interview: Labelled a ‘threat to China,’ Hong Kong law scholar Benny Tai says Beijing is trying to brainwash Hongkongers

Besides restricting academic freedom, the Party is also cleansing public institutions such as Legco and universities of “hostile elements”.

Some speculate the attacks on Tai are paving the way for introduction of draconian Article 23 “national security” legislation, but the Party doesn’t need to attack Tai to do that. Its constant anti-independence propaganda is sufficient. It’s likely, though, the Party is using the attack to test the waters: how much resistance might there be this time around to a more draconian slate of laws than what was tabled, and defeated, in 2003?

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Photo: HKFP.

The attacks on Tai are also part of a Communist-style campaign to replace truth with proclamation: Henceforth, whatever the Party says is the truth, no evidence needed. This corruption of language and disregard for accuracy are part of the mainlandization of Hong Kong’s political climate.

But at its root, this is the Party’s fight against any kind of speech which even mentions considering political arrangements for Hong Kong other than the status quo. The Party simply doesn’t want Hong Kong people to think about the future of Hong Kong, especially not out loud, in public.

It is implacably hostile to the idea that Hong Kong people should have any say at all in deciding their political fate. Accordingly, the Party is steadily constricting political space, ringfencing a very small circle of “acceptable” opposition groups that will be allowed to participate in formal politics, and excluding an ever wider range of other groups.

I’m often reminded of the Martin Niemöller ditty: First they came for the independence advocates, and I did not speak out, because I was not an independence advocate. Then they came for the self-determinationists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a self-determinationist. Then they came for Benny Tai, and I did not speak out, because I was not a moderate. Who’s next?

If you’re talking localists, independence advocates, self-determinationists, and anyone whom the Party and Hong Kong government arbitrarily decide to label as such, that’s a substantial part of the population, perhaps upwards of 25 percent, effectively disenfranchised from participation in the few and highly circumscribed free and fair elections Hong Kong has had.

These are now so compromised as to pose a dilemma to the pro-democracy movement: how much is it worth to participate in such an illegitimate process?

One of the main effects of all this is to silence people. They lie low and retreat to the resistance of the heart.

Even the outspoken have had to negotiate this thicket of accusation and denunciation. Self-determinationists, though they advocate a right enshrined in the Basic Law, have been de-emphasizing this key political aspiration in order to continue to participate in the increasingly narrowing formal political sphere.

By late 2016, there were burgeoning discussions of self-determination. After his election victory, having received the most votes ever for a Legco candidate, self-determinationist Eddie Chu Hoi-dick said the goal was to eventually make the self-determinationist camp the largest pro-democracy camp in Legco.

Eddie Chu

A sign featuring Eddie Chu and his promise to defend freedom of speech. Photo: SocRec.

Now, he is the only self-determinationist remaining in Legco, Nathan Law and Lau Siu-lai having been kicked out, and recently he has downplayed self-determination. The same goes for Demosistō. When Agnes Chow began campaigning to fill Nathan Law’s seat in January 2018, she played down the party’s call for self-determination. It barely featured in her campaign.

Demosistō feared the government might use that as grounds to bar her and also, even if it allowed her to run, would smear her as pro-independence. In the end she was disqualified anyway.

As the Party constricts political space and the resistance submerges, reality becomes harder to discern

These are the dynamics of political crackdown. With the dozens of prosecutions of pro-democracy leaders and activists, with the exclusion from elected office of an ever-expanding range of groups and individuals, with attacks on freedom of speech, resistance is being driven underground, and exactly what is happening becomes harder to discern, even for those involved in it.

Yes, a crackdown frightens people away from political participation. But can you scare people into submission as successfully in a semi-free place like Hong Kong as in an unfree society like the mainland?

What are the risks to the Party in alienating ever more people from its rule? Does it believe that it can eventually isolate and contain its political enemies while the majority of the population will more or less go along with whatever it decides to impose on the city? Is that objective attainable?

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Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

Or is the increasingly hidden political life of Hong Kong a sign that the crackdown is merely germinating the seeds of the next uprising, whatever form that might take?

Is the resistance weakening, or lying low while deepening and transforming? What is the worth of a resistance that, at least for the time being, remains largely within the secrecy of the heart?

What happens when you drive a people into a corner, with nowhere else to turn, or, as People’s Daily puts it in typically bombastic and violent language, apply a “sledge hammer” to them?

The intention is that they surrender, are obliterated, disappear. But there are other possibilities too. Are those five dozen independence advocates who appear to be a tiny minority really only the tip of the iceberg?

As Hong Kong's crackdown on dissent continues, is independence the secret dream in many hearts?