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Adventures of a Girl Reporter, Asia, Hong Kong Deadline, Observations, Opinion, Politics

A dangerous little question: Why shouldn’t Hong Kong people decide?

Why shouldn’t Hong Kong people decide what happens to Hong Kong? It’s a simple question with a straightforward and, I fear, unchanging answer – China won’t tolerate it. The received wisdom was that Hong Kong people weren’t interested in democracy, they just wanted to get on with making money untroubled by questions of politics, so why even ask the question.

Unfortunately for the received wisdom, every time the question was asked – no matter how obliquely – it was answered quite differently by the people most closely affected.

The answer was so straightforward the question itself was hardly asked while I was growing up there. Indeed, the first time I ever heard it – sometime in the early 80s – the idea seemed so shocking and strange it reduced the group of Hong Kong Chinese I was with first to silence and then to nervous laughter.

The question had been asked before then – there was a brief push by the British after the Second World War to introduce some form of suffrage to its little Asian dominion but it was soon consigned to the ‘too-hard’ basket where it largely remained over the following decades.

Sir Murray Maclehose, who governed Hong Kong from 1971 – 1982, rejected a push in 1979 for a move towards democratisation and, years later, described it as a “thoroughly unhelpful line to develop.”

Dimbleby bookIn his biography of Chris Patten, The Last Governor, Jonathan Dimbleby quoted Maclehose’s reasoning as, “If the communists won that would be the end of Hong Kong. If the nationalists won, that would bring in the communists.”

The received wisdom was that Hong Kong people weren’t interested in democracy, they just wanted to get on with making money untroubled by questions of politics, so why even ask the question.

Unfortunately for the received wisdom, every time the question was asked – no matter how obliquely – it was answered quite differently by the people most closely affected.

For example, in 1987, 10 years before the handover, more than 360,000 Hong Kong people expressed their opinion on direct elections in response to a Green Paper (which buried the prospect in the small print) of whom more than 260,000 were in favour.

In a shameful effort to placate Beijing, Hong Kong authorities attempted to hide the inconvenient result with a bit of sleight-of-hand which gave signatured petitions the same weight as individual submissions.

Hong Kong has always relied on the tolerance of China. It has to. Most of Hong Kong’s water has always come from the mainland so all China has ever had to do is turn off the taps. It never did but it threatened the survival of the territory in other ways. Back in 1962 China withdrew its forces from the border, turning on a flood of people who swamped Hong Kong in their escape from the Great Famine.

Those refugees and millions like them built Hong Kong on that lump of unforgiving rock and their children grew up with family stories that were confirmed and added to with every new wave of escapees and every scrap of news coming out of the mainland.

For a good many of them, Hong Kong was not nearly safe enough but with no skills and no money there was nowhere else to go. And not much incentive – or opportunity – to make a fuss about the status quo.

Nevertheless Hong Kong has a strong history of street protest. In 1973 young people led public protests against corruption in a sign that self-interested survival was giving way to a growing sense of civic pride and a shared vision of society.

Since 1989 millions have rallied each year to commemorate Tiananmen Square and demand a new answer to the question, “Why shouldn’t Hong Kong people decide?” That the question is silenced on the mainland only seems to strengthen Hong Kong resolve to keep asking it and, in ever greater numbers, to answer it with a call for full democracy.

Hong Kong’s brave young citizens have delighted the world with their politeness and persistence but anyone who thinks they are naïve hasn’t been paying attention. They have grown up in the shadow of Tiananmen and studied its lessons in a way that’s been denied their mainland compatriots.

They know the answer to the question remains the same but still they ask it, with politeness and persistence and with unbelievable courage.

Further reading:

Hong Kong protestors defy government with massive rally – by Hannah Beech, Time

Analysis: Will Hong Kong protests end like Tiananmen Square did? By Jim Maceda, NBC News

Things that could only happen in a Hong Kong protest – By Samanthi Dissanayake, BBC

Mesh networks and FireChat: How Hong Kong protestors are keeping communications alive – by Steven Max Patterson, NetworkWorld

Hong Kong protestors in cyberwar – by Jeff Yang, CNN

Refugees fleeing into Hong Kong in 1962 – Some incredible pictures at Hong Kong culture and news website Hong Wrong

© Sally Baxter 2014

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About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter. Now I'm an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.

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