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Lessons for Hong Kong-Beijing relations from Quebec’s 2018 provincial election

By Jean-François Dupré

The ongoing election campaign in the predominantly French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec points to important changes in Quebec politics and society.

For the first time since the 1970s, sovereignty is not a prominent campaign issue. Instead, the Parti Québécois has virtually suspended its calls for independence, and it is now struggling to retain its place as a top contender for power.

Quebec flag

Flag of Quebec. Photo: Wikicommons.

The fact that Quebec independence is no longer a major political force does not mean that Quebec identity has been waning. And it doesn’t mean that Quebecers are finally embracing a strong Canadian identity either.

Quite the contrary; it is precisely because Quebecers feel secure with their identity and their autonomy that they no longer feel the need to promote independence. Put simply, they are no longer supporting independence because they don’t feel a Canadian identity is being imposed on them.

They are satisfied with the progress Quebec has made as a nation within the Canadian federation. Quebecers have internalised their independence.

In Hong Kong, recent years have seen a reverse phenomenon, with localist and separatist parties appearing on the political scene.

Comparing the emergence of self-determination claims in Hong Kong and their radicalisation with the history of secessionism in Catalonia, secessionist claims typically emerge or become strengthened as a result of a rigid response by the state to a region’s moderate demands.

In Hong Kong, the “831” Decision of 2014, in which Beijing made clear that Hong Kong’s democratisation would not take place anytime soon, was a transformative event that radicalised the opposition and led to the articulation of self-determination and independence claims.

These claims were countered with an even firmer response from Beijing, which is now invoking national security as a justification to ban pro-independence parties and to further constrain Hongkongers’ freedoms and liberties. There have been pressures, for instance, to ban mere academic discussions of Hong Kong independence on campuses.

Hong Kong Independence CUHK

Hong Kong independence flag at a Chinese University of Hong Kong campus. File Photo: Apple Daily.

In Catalonia, these dynamics of polarisation and radicalisation have escalated all the way to the suspension of Catalonia’s autonomy status by the previous Partido Popular-led Spanish government, although the recently-elected leftist government in Madrid has since backtracked on many of the state’s repressive measures.

Quebecers’ demands for self-determination were handled in a markedly different manner by the Canadian state. First, the federal government’s reaction to the rise of Quebec nationalism in the 1960s was not to suppress Quebec’s identity and its culture, but to enshrine the idea of Canadian biculturalism by adopting a state-wide policy of official French-English bilingualism.

Although the federal government did invoke the War Measures Act when terrorists from the Front de Liberation du Québec stepped up their use of violence by kidnapping political figures, it did not repress organisations that advocated achieving independence through peaceful and democratic means.

This doesn’t mean that Quebec-Ottawa relations haven’t been combative. In fact, they have featured their own reactive logic.

Quebec’s own response to Canadian bilingualism was to proclaim French as its only official language. In 1980, the Parti Québécois-led government held the first referendum on independence (which the federal government did not forbid), but lost its bid for “sovereignty-association” by 40.4 per cent to 59.6 per cent.

When the Canadian constitution was patriated in the early 1980s, Quebec felt excluded from negotiations. This, together with the failure of other negotiation rounds aimed at satisfying Quebec’s claims for recognition as a “distinct society” within Canada, led to the second independence referendum in 1995, in which the independence option lost by less than a 1 per cent margin (49.4 vs 50.6).

Catalonia independence

Senyera flag representing the Catalan language. Photo: SBA73 via Flickr.

There are many differences between Quebec and Hong Kong. But there is one point from which lessons can be derived. In Canada, individuals, parties and provincial governments have been allowed to advocate and promote independence, and Quebec even held two referenda on independence.

Politicians, government officials, journalists, scholars, students… everybody has been allowed to discuss these issues freely in any part of Canada, even in a partisan manner.

Most children brought up in Quebec after the 1960s have never sung or heard the Canadian national anthem in schools. They have rarely been encouraged to celebrate the Maple Leaf flag or any aspect of Canadian identity or history. Yet Quebec nationalism as a political force is now at its lowest in decades.

Beijing has done just the opposite of Canada, and the result is expectedly divergent from Quebec’s.

Canada has not conceded to all of Quebec’s demands. But the state’s willingness to respect Quebec’s right to self-determination – including its right to hold referenda on independence – and to negotiate with Quebec’s authorities in a generally fair, transparent and democratic manner, has enabled it to contain Quebec nationalism in an effective, constructive and civilised way.

Gold Bauhinia Square

Flag-raising ceremony at the Gold Bauhinia Square. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Similar observations could be made on Scotland, where the 2014 referendum on independence from the UK resulted in a victory (55.3 per cent to 44.7 per cent) for the status quo.

The best way to deal with a dissatisfied and insecure population is to accommodate it and to give it a sense of security.

If Beijing is serious about stabilising Hong Kong and earning the respect of its population, it needs to start acting like a responsible and respectable government. Love and respect cannot be earned by force. Coercive measures like patriotic education and the National Anthem Law are only bound to backfire and feed antagonism.

Jean-François Dupré is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada.

Lessons for Hong Kong-Beijing relations from Quebec’s 2018 provincial election