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Opinion | Secessionists beware: Hong Kong has your measure

By Grenville Cross

The Basic Law could not be clearer. Whereas Article 1 states that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is "an inalienable part of the People's Republic of China", Article 12 provides that it is "a local administrative region of the People's Republic of China". After 1997, however, this did not prevent some people from disrespecting the city's constitutional status, and seeking its independence.

Although the secessionists had a vested interest in there being no laws to frustrate their ambitions, the Basic Law's Article 23 requires Hong Kong to enact national security laws, including one to prohibit secession. In 2003, therefore, when first chief executive Tung Chee-hwa's government sought to implement Article 23, they helped to galvanize local and foreign opposition, and the legislation was withdrawn.

Thereafter, duly emboldened, they expanded their activities in all areas, including the universities. One manifestation of this was The Undergrad, the official publication of the Hong Kong University Students' Union, which, from February 2014 onwards, published articles calling for "the Hong Kong nation deciding its own fate" and "democracy and independence for Hong Kong". Another example was the increasing hostility toward mainland visitors, as when, for example, on Feb 17, 2014, over 100 "nativists" harassed shoppers in Tsim Sha Tsui, screaming "Locusts!" at them.

One group closely involved in whipping up this hatred was Civic Passion, founded by Wong Yeung-tat in 2012. It also organized summer camps to provide what it called "lectures on localism", together with "military style training". Its sister body, Hong Kong Indigenous, founded by Roy Wong Toi-yeung in 2015, was, when not engaged in street violence, orchestrating hostile receptions for mainland visitors in the New Territories.

The various "localist" groupings understood only too well that secessionist activity was not an offense and that, if they played their cards right, they could avoid prosecution. Even if attempts were made to curb their activities, they knew the Civic Party and its allies would ride to their defense. And no matter how repugnant their behavior, they were comforted by knowing that there would always be woolly minded individuals who countenanced their activities under the guise of "freedom of speech".

On Aug 14, 2018, for example, the Foreign Correspondents' Club threw its doors open to Andy Chan Ho-tin, founder of the Hong Kong National Party. Although his political agenda violated the Basic Law and caused deep offense to many people, the FCC, with its "anything goes" mentality, welcomed him as an honored guest. This was despite the Companies Registry having refused to register the HKNP, which had pledged itself to using "whatever means available" to secure the city's independence.

If the FCC wanted to inflame tensions and test bottom lines, it succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. Having condemned the "Chinese colonial masters", Chan said he hoped the "international community can, like the US, objectively review the imperialistic threat that is coming from China". He declared that Hong Kong "is truly a separate entity from the so-called Chinese nation", and that "the cry for Hong Kong's independence" is "an ethical cry for liberation". Then, to titillate his hosts yet further, he even threw in a call for the US to "deal an economic blow to China", by reviewing the US-Hong Kong Policy Act, and to "start sanctioning" Hong Kong government officials, which must have delighted some.

By any yardstick, Chan's performance was despicable. It brought the good name of free speech into disrepute, in the same way as a racist tirade or an anti-Semitic rant would have done. Yet, although the FCC was eager to allow Chan free rein, RTHK, to its credit, declined to play along. It refused a live broadcast, pointing out that it was not part of its responsibility to provide a platform for independence advocacy, causing an incensed HKJA to express its "deep regret". In staging this stunt, the FCC displayed not only gross insensitivity but also culpable ignorance. It seemed wholly unaware that the most effective way of protecting free speech is to use it responsibly, and not to indulge in grandstanding or needless provocations, let alone vacuous membership surveys.

Shortly afterward, on Sept 24, 2018, the HKNP, to nobody's surprise, was banned under the Societies Ordinance, which allows for any group to be proscribed "in the interest of national security, public safety, public order and the protection of rights and freedom of others". The then-secretary for security, John Lee Ka-chiu, said this was unavoidable as it had "a very clear agenda to achieve its goal of Hong Kong being made an independent republic". It could, he said, use force to achieve its ends and had spread "hatred and discrimination" against people from the mainland. This, inevitably, meant its odious activities had to be brought to an end, even if it meant upsetting the FCC.

Separately, the secessionists set their sights on elected office, but to succeed they had to obfuscate. Whereas the Demosisto Party of Joshua Wong Chi-fung, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, and Agnes Chow Ting, founded in 2016, was originally committed to upholding "democratic self-determination", opposing the Communist Party of China and calling for a popular referendum to push for the city's autonomy, they knew this would not pass muster with the returning officers. Its platform, therefore, was watered down to facilitate, for example, Chow's plan in January 2018 to contest a Legislative Council by-election.

Nobody, however, was fooled. Given her ties to Demosisto, Chow, who was required to sign a declaration to uphold the Basic Law and accept Hong Kong's status as inalienable part of China, was adjudged ineligible to stand. The chief executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, explained that "any suggestion of Hong Kong independence, self-determination, independence as a choice is not in line with Basic Law requirements, and deviates from the important principle of 'one country, two systems'".

In 2019, moreover, Joshua Wong also tried to worm his way into elected office. Although, in seeking a District Council seat, he claimed to support neither Hong Kong's separation from the mainland nor independence, the returning officer, Laura Liang Aron, saw straight through him. She blocked his candidacy, saying he had tried to "mislead" the public in claiming to have changed his stance, which was incompatible with the Basic Law (Article 1).

Meanwhile, Youngspiration, founded by Baggio Leung Chung-hang in 2015, was also advocating the "Hong Kong nation's right to self-determination". Its sheer crudity, however, shocked many, including fellow secessionists. After Leung and Yau Wai-ching were elected to the Legislative Council in 2016, they even turned the solemnity of the oath-taking ceremony into a farce. Apart from uttering profanities, they swore allegiance to the "Hong Kong nation", displayed a banner proclaiming "Hong Kong is not China", and insulted the Chinese people, resulting, after a violent confrontation, in their expulsion.

When, on Nov 7, 2016, the National People's Congress Standing Committee issued an interpretation of the Basic Law's oath-taking requirement, a hammer blow was dealt to the secessionists. It effectively barred Leung and Yau from the legislature, and prevented advocates of Hong Kong independence from contesting its elections in future. The interpretation required public officials to take their oaths "sincerely" and "solemnly", or face disqualification. In other words, the NPCSC had called the secessionists' bluff, as Agnes Chow and Joshua Wong would shortly discover, although they were not as yet a spent force.

Once the insurrection got under way on June 9, 2019, the secessionists again flaunted their colors. As they trashed the Legislative Council on July 1, 2019, they raised a British colonial-era flag, obliterated the word "China" on the Hong Kong emblem, spray-painted "Hong Kong is not China" and "oppose Chinese colonialism" on the walls, destroyed a copy of the Basic Law, and did everything possible to demonstrate rejection of their own country. In the ensuing months, they attacked mainland people and property, destroyed national and regional flags, and chanted "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times". Some were even arrested at bomb-making factories, in possession of high-grade explosives intended for future use.

However, after the enactment of the National Security Law for Hong Kong on June 30, 2020, the police finally acquired the tools they needed to fully protect Hong Kong, and the secessionists realized the game was up. Anybody involved, whether or not by force, in committing secession or undermining national unification now faces life imprisonment, while those who incite these crimes are liable to 10 years' imprisonment. Once they were convicted, it always seemed likely that the courts would come down hard on the secessionists, and so it has proved.

On July 30, after Tong Ying-kit was convicted of inciting secession by driving a motorbike around the streets with a banner attached proclaiming "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times", he was sentenced to six years and six months' imprisonment. In its judgment, the High Court described his crime as being of "a serious nature", thus deserving of severer punishment (HCCC 280/2020). On Nov 11, moreover, Adam Ma Chun-man, who promoted separatism on numerous occasions in speeches and chants, was sentenced to five years and nine months' imprisonment, with the District Court explaining that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China, and that individual rights and freedoms are not absolute (DCCC 122/2021). Both sentences sent out a highly deterrent message to would-be secessionists, and make clear just how gravely this offense is viewed.

Quite clearly, therefore, the joint efforts of investigators, prosecutors and, now, judges, to combat secessionism are bearing fruit, and the threats to China's territorial integrity are dissipating. The National Security Law, together with the NPCSC's oath-taking interpretation, has spelt the death knell for those who hoped to use the "one country, two systems" policy to sow disunity and undermine China. Whereas many of the secessionists have either reformed themselves or come to terms with the new realities, those who have fled are now reduced to futile posturing in foreign capitals, where they can still attract cheap applause in anti-China circles.

At one time, it seemed that the secessionists, with their foreign backing, posed a real danger to Hong Kong's well-being, but no more. They are a spent force, and the authorities have their measure. They can no longer harm the city, and its future as a significant player in China's unfolding success story is now assured.

(Source: China Daily)


The author is a senior counsel, law professor and criminal justice analyst, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.

Read more articles by Grenville Cross:

Opinion | Riot prosecutions: Full steam ahead after CFA ruling

Opinion | Legal aid: Reforms promote fairness and benefit taxpayers

Opinion | District council disqualifications: EU meddling hypocritical and shortsighted

Opinion | National Security: New mechanisms ensure fair trials


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