Banners bearing the slogan “Hong Kong independence” flew at universities across the city last week, while institutional authorities scrambled to remove the signs for supposedly violating the city’s laws.
But widespread sympathy with the cause of Hong Kong independence – or even the right to discuss it – would have been unthinkable just years ago.
Andy Chan, the founder of the first pro-independence political party in Hong Kong’s history, was the first person to be barred from participating in a local election as a result of a political position. The event sparked a major outcry as some accused the government for suppressing citizens’ freedom of speech.
But Chan thinks that Hong Kong’s political reality has been festering under the surface of “One Country, Two Systems” for decades – it was simply up to his Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) to unmask it.
Article 1 of the Basic Law – the city’s de facto constitution – stipulates that “the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China.” The Basic Law also guarantees the right to “freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration.”
In 2016, Chan was disqualified from standing in the Legislative Council elections after the government said that he could not “possibly uphold the Basic Law or fulfil his duties as a legislator” while simultaneously advocating independence. HKNP said that Chan’s disqualification would set a precedent allowing the Hong Kong government to use “violation of Article 23” – a security law targeting treason and sedition – as justification for removing political opposition.
But academics and politicians warned that talk of independence may instead bring forward legislation to enact the law – originally shelved due to mass opposition in 2003 – as the Chinese government clamps down on “impermissible” challenges to its jurisdiction.
‘Unmasking’ the system
Speaking to HKFP, Chan rejected the idea that the independence debate had hastened a crackdown on free speech, claiming that his party had – most importantly – lifted previous taboos around discussion of the city’s future.
“What we did was to unmask the system which previously appeared very good, with One Country, Two Systems, rule of law, democratic elections – in the past, we thought that Hong Kong was not a bad place to be. But what we did was to really test it. We tested the limits of freedom of expression, of democratic elections. Does Hong Kong actually have rule of law? Is One Country, Two Systems being implemented perfectly, as some people say?”
“We tested it out. And we found out, actually, it’s not true – we unmasked the political reality. Hong Kong is not as free a place as people originally thought.”
Chan said his political awakening came on September 28, 2014, when the police shot 87 tear gas canisters in an attempt to clear pro-democracy protesters who were occupying major roads in Admiralty and Central. The effort failed, sparking the 79-day long Occupy protests in opposition to Beijing’s proposed reform framework, in which leadership candidates would be vetted through a state-controlled nomination committee.
Chan said that he was initially a supporter of the pan-democratic camp, but that he soon grew disillusioned with the actions of the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) and the stagnation of the Occupy movement. He said that he supported escalated direct action.
“In the first few days after the tear gas, HKFS stopped students from occupying … the only road connecting Hong Kong Island to Kowloon and the New Territories – they said that traffic would be congested. But the whole point of occupation was to cause disruptions that would force the government to respond to our requests,” said Chan.
“HKFS tied the hands of every student union,” said Chan. “We hoped that our actions would allow us to fight for democracy. But if we really wanted to use Occupy Central to make requests to the government, then our actions had to keep moving forward, one step at a time, until the government was actually willing to reply.”
After the protests ended, Chan led the movement for Polytechnic University to disaffiliate from HKFS in protest of its decisions during the Umbrella Movement. The student referendum succeeded; PolyU joined three other universities – the University of Hong Kong, Baptist University, and City University – in leaving the federation.
One Country Two Systems: a ‘colonial project’
After graduating from university with a degree in engineering and business, Chan went on to establish the Hong Kong National Party with activists who thought that existing pro-democracy parties did not go far enough in their advocacy aims.
“I never thought I would run for election, or create a party. But when I assessed the political environment of Hong Kong, it seemed like the city was at a dead end. I realised that independence was the only way out,” said Chan.
“I counted the different political parties – the electoral alliance between Civic Passion, the Hong Kong Resurgence Order, and the Proletariat Political Institute, for example – but I knew they wouldn’t talk about independence… I saw that if I didn’t come forward, no one ever would and Hong Kong would only get worse and worse.”
Chan announced the establishment of HKNP in March 2016, in the run-up to the Legislative Council election. Although localist groups such as Hong Kong Indigenous already existed by that time, Chan said that his party occupied the extreme end of the political spectrum in advocating the full separation of Hong Kong and China.
Chan said that that the Occupy protests made him realise that the fight for democracy could not be limited to contesting the Hong Kong government, but had to extend to the national level.
“One Country, Two Systems is a dead end – a colonial project. If you look at Tibet’s example, China and Tibet had previously signed the Seventeen Point Agreement, in which China promised to protect Tibet’s culture, language, religion – to help the Tibetans pass on their culture to the next generation. But look at Tibet now – people are being killed, they are being exterminated,” said Chan.
“Hong Kong is walking down the same path. In the last 20 years, more than 1 million people from the mainland have come into Hong Kong, Putonghua has become a widespread teaching medium, and ‘red investment companies’ have bought up local enterprises and communal resources such as water and electricity. It is a form of colonialism. And so our party looks for a way out of this situation.”
Personal safety and police
HKNP held a pro-independence rally near the government headquarters in Admiralty after Chan’s disqualification in 2016. According to his estimation, the rally was attended by 10,000 people, with thousands chanting the slogan “Hong Kong independence.”
This year, however, HKNP was barred from holding a vigil outside the Tsim Sha Tsui clock tower on June 30 to commemorate the eve of the 20th anniversary of the “fall” of Hong Kong. Police cited public order concerns and the event’s potential conflict with the Basic Law as its reasons for prohibiting the event.
On June 30, HKNP went ahead with the vigil, calling the authorities’ ban “unconstitutional.” Chan said that when he arrived in the area of the clock tower, there was already a strong police presence. HKNP attempted to move the vigil to the Urban Council Centenary Garden. But the police remained adamant that the event could not take place.
“That night in Tsim Sha Tsui, there were 200 policemen following me – one person. If there was anyone else there, they could’ve arrested us,” said Chan.
Chan said that his family was largely unfamiliar with Hong Kong politics, and that their main concern was his safety. He said that the other core members of his party – many of whom are students and young working professionals – were in a similar situation. But Chan said that given his experiences in the past, his main concern when it came to his personal safety was the police.
“I have never had anyone come knocking on my door, like other members of localist parties. But I’ve asked police before and they have told me that no matter where we go, we will not be allowed to hold public events,” said Chan.
In 2016, HKNP failed to register its name at the Companies Registry due to political reasons. Chan has filed an appeal for both his disqualification and HKNP’s denial of registration.
The ‘impossibility’ of independence
Some have accused HKNP for simply being an organisation which issues statements – a criticism Chan rebuffed by saying that the party had previously run street stations informing the public of their political ideas.
Others – including members of the pro-democracy camp – have said that independence for Hong Kong is a pipe dream – not only dangerous in principle, but impossible in practice.
In response to pro-democracy critics, Chan said: “In the eyes of the CCP, fighting for democracy is the same as fighting for independence… At the moment, Hong Kong has its own currency, its own borders, and its own relations with other countries. If Hong Kong also has democracy, then it would be 99 per cent independent – it might elect someone who doesn’t agree with the CCP, or who supports independence.”
“If you say independence is impossible, then I would say democracy is also impossible. The same reasons apply. If China continues to control Hong Kong’s water, its electricity, then how are the pan-democrats going to fight for democracy? If you fight for democracy, doesn’t that mean you have to separate from China?”
Chan said that Hong Kong’s current dependence on China for its environmental resources could be resolved through international outreach. According to a report by Civic Exchange and ADM Capital Foundation, about 80 per cent of Hong Kong’s freshwater comes from the Dongjiang, the eastern tributary of the Pearl River.
“Look at Israel – it is surrounded by powerful countries, and does not have many resources. But it is extremely technologically advanced – look at its water technology,” said Chan.
“International support is also very important. For example, the relationship between the US and China is getting worse and worse. Another world war is bound to happen. Then what will Hong Kong’s position be? China’s threat to the world is increasing. You can see that America is creating a defensive barrier. From South Korea, to Japan, to Taiwan – and on the other side, it is trying to get Russia. You can see that in Asia, they’re [the US] trying to surround China. Could Hong Kong become one of the points in the defensive barrier? Maybe even the most frontline point?”
In August, HKNP issued an open letter to the US Consulate, as well as letters to Senator Marco Rubio and President Donald Trump, calling for the abolition of the city’s special status in American law. The move came after 13 land activists and three pro-democracy Occupy student leaders were jailed following sentence reviews requested by the government’s Department of Justice, as well as the disqualifications of six democratically-elected lawmakers over their oaths.
“We understand it is a concern of the Government that termination of differential treatment in favor of Hong Kong may cause Hongkongers to suffer. Nevertheless, this special status of Hong Kong has long been abused by its communist colonizer, tapping economic benefits therefrom without paying any respect to the values behind it,” said the letter to the US Consulate.
Chan said that Hong Kong citizens needed to break through its taboos regarding independence as well as “foreign intervention.”
“The world today is different. To survive, we need to find new solutions.”
‘Enemy of the state’
The fledgling pro-independence movement has not gone unnoticed – Hong Kong and mainland government authorities have slammed the movement and its parties for promoting secessionist ideas.
During her election campaign, Chief Executive Carrie Lam vowed to tackle pro-independence forces in the city and to strengthen public education over the “danger” Hong Kong independence would pose to children and the city’s stability and prosperity.
Soon after, at a celebration of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, President Xi Jinping warned: “We will never allow any people, organisation or political party to split any part of Chinese territory out of the country at any time, in any form.”
In the face of such threats, Chan said his party would remain undeterred. He said that despite the party’s reliance on volunteers and crowdfunded donations, the party would continue to advocate for national self-determination for Hong Kong. He said the party had no plans to field any candidates in the upcoming by-elections to replace the six ousted lawmakers, but that it will continue to engage outreach efforts to promote its cause.
“The most important thing in politics is for you to have a group of supporters. If your people exist, then you will find a way,” said Chan.
Chan said that he knew that he was regarded by many as an “enemy of the state.” But he said that his actions were ultimately harmless.
“If they call me an extremist – I don’t think I’m as extreme as the League of Social Democrats – they’re always pushing and throwing metal barricades. Have you seen me do that? At least not on video!” Chan said.
“I am a person fighting for freedom. I believe in freedom. Maybe they think it’s unreasonable that I’m fighting for freedom, but my requests are quite ordinary. I’m not hurting anyone, I’m not running amok. I am not ashamed of what I’ve done. The reason I have done so much is that I just really like the identity of being a Hongkonger. I really like Hong Kong culture, our language, our way of life, this place. I really like this identity. And I saw that if I didn’t do anything, this identity would disappear…”
“It’s very simple – I am simply someone who is protecting what I want to protect. They treat me like I’m a terrorist – but I’m not.”
Additional reporting: Karen Cheung.