What’s wrong with independence? Clearly under present circumstances it is a very long-term objective. But if that is really a politician’s dream there is a lot to be said for him saying so, rather than creeping along pretending to be something else until the right moment comes, if it ever does.

There is one attraction for Hong Kong’s younger generation: merely mentioning independence produces the sort of reaction from the people we love to hate – the kind of reaction you would expect if you produced a string of garlic at a vampire wedding. Surely there must be something to be said for an idea which our real estate moguls and mainland puppet masters are lining up to condemn?

File photo: Todd Darling.

While we are on this aspect of the subject, a prize for tactlessness for the billionaire who said that “Hong Kong had been returned to its rightful owner.” Hong Kong is not just a piece of land. It is people. People do not have owners unless they are slaves.

But I digress. We may acknowledge the truth of the criticism that independence is “not what most people want”. I suppose this is true, but the problem is that what most people want is the high degree of autonomy and “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” which we were promised many moons ago. Unfortunately this does not seem to be on offer at the moment. Independence is like the Mark Six: for a small price you can dream for a few hours.

Now let us dispose of a few small items. The fact that the Basic Law states that “Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China” is not relevant here. Even the most despotic regimes suffer from one limit on their power: they cannot bind their successors so they cannot control the future. History is full of arrangements which were intended to be permanent and weren’t. Law describes the present.

Photo: Wikicommons/HKFP remix.

We can also rule out the possibility of sedition. Contrary to the view often expressed by left-wing dimwits and Beijing officials, Hong Kong does have a law on sedition and it is contained in the Crimes Ordinance Sections 9-14. Of particular relevance to our present topic is Section 9 (2) (b), which states that an act, speech or publication is not seditious if all it does is “to point out errors or defects in the government or constitution of Hong Kong as by law established or in legislation or in the administration of justice with a view to the remedying of such errors or defects.”

We also need not linger over the argument that independence is impossible because “China will never allow it”, see above, and without that approval we would run out of water, be over-run by the PLA etc… Clearly any practical route to independence will include somewhere along the way the consent, however reluctant, of the Chinese government of the day, and the willingness to make sensible arrangements for the resulting new relationship. No doubt an independent Hong Kong, even if that independence ran as far as a new flag and a seat in the UN, would have to tread warily round its giant neighbour. The situation would be rather like that of Finland in relation to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Independence always has limits, at least for small countries.

Photo: StandNews.

The more interesting argument is the one which goes, or implies, that if Hong Kong became independent this would be to the detriment of China, and a sacrilegious trespass on the Holy Ground which has been forever ruled by Beijing. I propose to approach this in a rather round-about way. On the Internet you can find interesting animated maps in which 2,000, or even more, years of history pass in a couple of minutes. I think it is a good idea to show one of these to students of international relations, to make the point that all borders except those which consist of a seashore are in the long run temporary and transitory arrangements.

The European version of the map comes with a commentary from me, drawing attention to the periods when half of France was in England, half of Italy was in Austria, half of England was Danish, and so on. We note the appearance and passing of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Duchy of Burgundy, and more recent mayflies like Yugoslavia.

The Asian version of the map does not come with a commentary from me, because I don’t know enough Asian history. But a conspicuous feature of the comings and goings is that there is clearly no such thing, historically, as an eternal China. Kingdoms come and go, expand and contract, foreign empires take over and expire in their turn. In fact modern China seems to be the largest version on offer. The current government’s view of this matter seems to be that any territory which at any time acknowledged the rule of a mediaeval despot in Beijing is to be regarded as historically Chinese. The merits of, and reasons for, a Communist regime trying to reconstruct a hereditary feudal empire are too complex a matter to go into here. But it does seem that the historic Chinese empire exerts the same sort of mysterious attraction which led European statesmen, for some 1,400 years, to seek some sort of restoration of the Roman empire. The only person who got close (the Emperor Charles V) eventually recognized the futility of the project and divided his empire in his will. But the notion survived in the Holy Roman Empire – famously neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire – until Napoleon killed it off at the beginning of the 19thcentury.

Qing China. Photo: Wikicommons.

The trouble with this sort of ambition is that what worked as an ancient empire may not work as a 21st century state. Modern political assumptions include the expectation and hope, to say the least, that people will be ruled by arrangements to which they have broadly consented. Historic empires relied on force. When empire involved nothing more demanding than an occasional exchange of gifts between rulers there was no practical limit on size. If the government of a modern state aspires to the full range of functions, on the other hand, then size may be a serious problem. China is the only country of its size which does not have a broadly federal structure – that is to say with states or provinces which have a vigorous separate existence from the central government. The only other possible exception – hardly a happy portent – is Russia.

It is tempting to offer as a wild generalization that it is probably impossible to govern China satisfactorily in its present form. There must either be a devolution of powers to the provinces or a reduction in size. And if neither of these options is chosen voluntarily then it is likely that one or the other will be imposed by events.

That may be over-stating the position. But we can surely at least agree that agitating for more autonomy for Hong Kong is not an attempt to sabotage China. If anything it is an attempt to wean the country off the notion that long-term progress can be made in a situation where the central authorities select a target and provinces are expected to hit it. Our surprisingly numerous local Hayek fan club seem to overlook one point about the great man’s critique of attempts to steer markets: he wasn’t attacking Keynesian economics, he was attacking centralized state planning.

Well we shall see. What we shall see is how confident people feel about the rightness of their views, because it is lack of confidence which leads to calls for suppression of dissenting voices. If independence is a stupid idea then nobody will vote for it and there is no harm in a political group calling for it. We may give them some credit because, as John Stuart Mill put it, an idea which is never challenged changes from a living truth to a dead dogma. If there turns out to be substantial support for independence then it will perhaps get into the heads of our real rulers the idea that the present arrangements are not what we signed up for.

I notice one of the regime’s academic running dogs the other day pointed out that “a high degree of autonomy” does not mean “complete autonomy”. This is true. But it must mean something substantially more than we have now, in which it appears that the only matters on which our government exercises untrammelled discretion are the provision of lifts at footbridges and non-slip finishes on the floors of public toilets.

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.