Shhh... Don't Tell Anyone if You Think Hong Kong Should Be Independent

 | Sep 11, 2017 | 11:00 AM EDT
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The campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong is the site of heated discussion on the topic of freedom of speech -- and frenzied poster posting. At issue is the very identity of Hong Kong. Until 2047, the city is technically part of China -- but also a "special administrative region" with its own rules.

First came posters from Hong Kong students advocating that Hong Kong seek independence from China. Then came posters, sometimes superimposed on the pro-independence ones, from mainland students telling those students they are wrong. Get out of China if you feel that way, the mainland students said, attacking the university student union for defending the freedom of activists to express such an opinion.

Crowds of the two sides clashed verbally, shouted at each other a bit, then dispersed. A few similar posters appeared on some of the seven other university campuses in Hong Kong.

One mainland student even became a minor celebrity on social media in mainland China after ripping down the pro-independence posters and arguing with Hong Kong students. Representatives of the student union then pointed out she was ripping them off something called the Democracy Wall, and wasn't allowed to do that. She hustled off.

Fair enough. If this was Berkeley or Harvard, no one would query the bickering. Let students be students, and hash these sorts of things out. 

But in Hong Kong, much of the establishment would like to see any talk of independence banned. Many members of the Legislative Council, Hong Kong's equivalent of Congress, say it breaks the law, without ever having proven that point in court. And the leader of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Vice Chancellor Joseph Sung, has worked to stop even academic debate of the issue

"Our campus is a place for learning. It should not be turned into a political arena," he said -- a rather silly statement at a university that teaches a four-year undergraduate major in government & public administration.

Sung is a biologist by trade. On this issue, however, he has suddenly become a legal scholar. "The idea of an independent Hong Kong is not only in breach of the Basic Law of Hong Kong but also contrary to what I personally believe," Sung said in an issued statement. "Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China; this is beyond dispute." 

It most certainly isn't beyond dispute, which is why people are disputing the issue.

Hong Kong's Basic Law, its constitution, protects the right to "freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration."

The Basic Law's preamble says "Hong Kong has been part of the territory of China since ancient times." Article 1 goes on to say that "the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is an inalienable part of the People's Republic of China."

The Crimes Ordinance -- enacted during the British colonial period -- forbids "treason" and "sedition" in Hong Kong. The law mentions "Her Majesty, or Her Heirs or Successors" as much as the Government of Hong Kong, and has basically not been used since the 1970s.

I've read the definition of "seditious intention." It bans inciting people to violence, as well as encouraging them to break the law -- bringing "into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection" against the administration of justice in Hong Kong. 

I've read the definition of "treason." It bans killing the Queen, waging war against Her Majesty, and attempting mutiny. You're also not allowed to "seduce" any member of the Chinese People's Liberation Army from their duty to China, or seduce a Hong Kong police officer or member of the Flying Service from their duty to Her Majesty.

But in this instance, we do not here have a mob with pitchforks and flaming torches, or even anyone encouraging another person to break the law. We have university students presenting a political stance. They are raising an issue for discussion.

You are definitely allowed to suggest that a law be changed. The Crimes Ordinance expressly permits an attempt to persuade the "inhabitants of Hong Kong to attempt to procure by lawful means the alteration of any matter in Hong Kong as by law established." And it also permits Hong Kongers "to point out, with a view to their removal, any matters which are producing or have a tendency to produce feelings of ill-will and enmity between different classes of the population of Hong Kong."

China is not used to any such freedom. The mainland government's stance on the issue is clear. Never mention the idea of independence in a public venue. 

When a small group of people formed the Hong Kong National Party to promote the idea of an independent Hong Kong, the head of the liaison office that serves as Beijing's official mouthpiece in the city said the idea "went beyond the realm of freedom of expression ... and must not be tolerated."

And the results of expressing such views within mainland China's borders, where freedom of expression does not apply, are also currently on display. At the same time that the debate over Hong Kong independence has surfaced at CUHK, a Taiwanese democracy activist has appeared in the dock in one of the "show trials" that China loves to conduct.

The 42-year-old activist, Lee Ming-che, has admitted that he has circulated or written articles that "attacked and wickedly smeared the Chinese government" and "promoted Western-style multi-party democracy" on social media and messaging boards.

Lee went missing in China in March. It subsequently turned out that he was detained for 176 days without any access to his family or a lawyer of his choice. Of course, Lee's "crime" is only to express his political views. To say that you think democracy is a better system than communism is only a crime in a communist political dictatorship. 

Back in Hong Kong, at the same time that the debate about Hong Kong independence rages, there are clear attempts to quash such comments, too. It's also clear some activists are going to push the issue.

The 25-year-old son of the new education undersecretary, Choi Yuk-lin, died last week in an apparent suicide, falling off the luxury Sorrento skyrise apartment block in Tsim Sha Tsui, where the family lives. The secretary's eldest son, Peter Poon Hong-yan, had been treated for depression after suffering a serious cycling accident while training for a triathlon.

Choi is unpopular since she is expected to spearhead the Hong Kong government's attempt to bring in a "national education" curriculum that critics see as pro-China brainwashing.

Shortly thereafter, two men put up a poster on the campus of the Education University next to CUHK that "congratulated" Choi on her son "going to heaven." Another activist claimed he had put up a copycat poster at his alma mater, the City University, and dared authorities to "arrest him quickly," adding on Facebook: "I want to know which law I broke."

It's a given that you shouldn't be mocking the mother of a young man who has, apparently, just committed suicide. It's highly distasteful. It may verge on hate speech -- a point that would need to be argued in court.

But to use very bad taste as a basis to argue that freedom of speech must be carefully considered and controlled -- that any talk of independence is too toxic for young university minds to handle -- is cynical. Some school principals have vowed not to hire graduates of the Education University, which educates teachers -- something that would undoubtedly be illegal.

Arguing that Hong Kong should be autonomous or even free of China is political as an issue and academic as an argument. As controversial as the concept may be, it's worthy of discussion. To say that such ideas can't be expressed in public amounts to civil censorship.

Should we ban fascism? Why not also ban socialism? Why not, as was attempted in the United States in the 1950s, ban communism?

You may think Hong Kong should be independent; you may think its place permanently belongs as part of China; you may, on that political spectrum, be somewhere in between. But a sensible person will realize this is an issue where there is likely to be disagreement. Take part in the discussion if you want, or stay silent, or go shopping. It's up to you. That's the beauty of freedom of speech.

You can ban or block the voices you don't want to hear. But that does not mean they do not exist.

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