Localism in Hong Kong

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Localism in Hong Kong is a political movement centered on the preservation of the city's autonomy and local culture. The movement encompasses a variety of groups with different goals, but all of them oppose the perceived growing encroachment of the Chinese central government on the city's management of its own political, economic, and social affairs.[1][2] Localist groups formed as topical interest groups which oppose specific issues, such as opposing parallel trading and influx of mainland immigrants and tourists. On the autonomy of Hong Kong, milder elements advocate for greater autonomy while remaining part of China; and the most radical call for the return to British rule or full independence as a sovereign state. Many localist groups also advocate "militant" with "some kind of clash" to defend the indigenous interests.[3]

Though localist groups with different agendas and ideologies have existed since the handover, today's movement as a whole emerged in the early 2010s and gained significant traction following 2014 massive protests against the Chinese government's decision to pre-screen Chief Executive candidates before allowing them to be chosen in a 2017 Chief Executive election. Following these protests, a number of localist political parties were formed and have begun participating in street actions and electoral politics.


Localism in the western context constitutes libertarian ideas of a decentralised local government as opposed to the central government, and stresses on self-sufficiency, agriculture and communalism. Although it also stresses on Hong Kong's economic self-sufficiency and local democracy, localism in the Hong Kong context emphasises on the mainland Chinese cultural and political threat to the city and attempts to reinforce a Hong Kong identity as opposed to the Chinese national identity. It often includes an anti-immigration stance, and it has been said that "nativism" is synonymous with localism.[2][4][5][6] Some localists call themselves "autonomists", while the Beijing government brands them "separatists".[7]

History of local consciousness in Hong Kong

Hong Kong was established in 1841 as a free port. The colonial government encouraged the free movement of capital and labour and there was not a strict sense of "Hong Kong residents" or "Hong Kong people" legally, as the Hong Kong identity cards were not introduced as identity documents by the government in 1949 in the light of the influx of refugees fleeing from the Communists' takeover in Mainland China.

Sociologist Lui Tai-lok in his book Four Generations of Hong Kong People, divided Hong Kong people into four generations. The first generation, he states, was the ones who were born before 1945 and had experienced the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong,[8] while the baby boomers, the second generation who were born after the war, were the first wave of local consciousness.[9]

First wave

The baby boomers were children of the refugees but were born and raised in Hong Kong and have a strong sense of belonging. They sought to break through the Cold War rivalry between the Communists and the Nationalists which dominated the political scene at the time.

The 1970s saw unprecedented waves of student movements, such as the Chinese Language Movement and the anti-corruption movement, the defend the Diaoyu Islands movement, and so on, which was independent of the left-right spectrum and became the first wave of local consciousness.[9] The Chinese Language Movement successfully made Chinese to become the official language of Hong Kong along with English. The student movements at the time consisted of some liberal, nationalist, and anti-colonialist elements.[9]

In the 1960s and 70s, the colonial government also attempted to create an apolitical local consciousness in order to boost the legitimacy of the colonial rule. Under Governor Murray MacLehose's administration, Hong Kong underwent a massive decolonised reform. The aim of creating a local identity was to raise the bid for the British side in the upcoming negotiation over Hong Kong sovereignty after 1997. The British government also carefully avoided to provoke Hong Kong people's British belonging as it had already decided to prevent massive migration from Hong Kong to Britain.[9]

Second wave

The second wave of local consciousness emerged in the 1990s as colonial rule was coming to an end. The 1989 Tiananmen massacre sparked massive local protest and fear about looming Communist rule. The local cultural scene responded by consolidating enthusiasm about distinctive features as well as diversity of Hong Kong culture and identity. It cited post-colonial theory, rejecting Sinocentric chauvinism and promoting the cosmopolitanism of Hong Kong as an international city, together with liberal ideals of inclusiveness, diversity and trans-nationality. It also emphasised the importance of universal values, a diverse civil society, civic education, press and academic freedoms after 1997.[9]

Third wave

The protest against the Guangzhou-Hong Kong XRL outside of the Legislative Council building in 2010.

The 1 July 2003 march recorded an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 people demonstrating against the government's proposed anti-sedition legislation, the largest protest since the 1989 Tiananmen square protest.[10] Many post-80s (generation who born in the 1980s, Millennials in western terminology) were inspired by the democracy movement and came out onto the streets. 7.1 People Pile was one of the groups came to exist after the protest. They were also upset by rapid urban development which was sweeping away old neighbourhoods and communities. They were strongly opposed to the political and economic monopoly of vested interests, collusion between business and government and questioned the nature of the capitalist system in Hong Kong.[9]

They were also dissatisfied with the established opposition pro-democracy camp, which they considered ineffective in challenging the system. Several conservation movements led by young activists emerged, protesting against demolition of the Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier, Queen's Pier, and the buildings on Lee Tung Street (known as "Wedding Card Street") in 2006 and 2007. Protests against the construction of the Hong Kong section of the high-speed rail link to Guangzhou (XRL) escalated in 2009 and 2010 and established a new high point of the localist movement.[9]

Rise of contemporary localism

Chin Wan's city-state theory

The failure of the peaceful anti-XRL protests damaged the reputation of the left-leaning moderate activists. Some turned to a more radical approach. Scholar Chin Wan published the book, On the Hong Kong City-State in 2011 which triggered fierce public debate and was popular among the young generation.[11] In the book, Chin suggests abandoning the hope for a democratic China and positions the democracy movement in a "localist" perspective, in order to counter Beijing's "neo-imperialist" policies toward Hong Kong. It analysed the potential threat of the influx of mainland tourists and immigrants to the established institutions and social customs of Hong Kong, which he considered likely part of a colonisation scheme by Beijing, including the increasing use of Mandarin Chinese and Simplified Chinese in daily use and schools.

He advocates "Hong Kong First" and "Hong Kong-China separation" positions in order to protect Hong Kong from "cultural genocide".[12] He suggested building Hong Kong into an autonomous city-state, merging the British culture with a restored Chinese culture.[13] Chin's view was largely accepted by Hong Kong independence advocates and those who advocate for the restoration of British rule in Hong Kong.

Since then, it has created a paradigm shift on Hong Kong local consciousness from the left-wing discourse of reinterpreting colonial history, cherishing the inclusive and diverse nature of the Hong Kong culture to the right-wing discourse of anti-Chinese sentiment and nostalgia for British rule.[9] Chin also tells his followers to use violent action as the means for defending Hong Kong's autonomy. He once joined the group Hong Kong Autonomy Movement. After leaving the HKAM group, he set up his own autonomist group called the Hong Kong Resurgence Order.

Another group inspired by Chin's idea called the Hong Kong Nativism Power was set up in 2011. They protested against the inclusion of non-Hong Kong permanent residents in the HK$6,000 cash handouts program as demanded by new immigrants support groups and called for a revision of the current immigration policy.[14]

Hong Kong–Mainland conflict

The highly controversial advertisement paid for by Hong Kong citizens, depicting Mainlanders as locusts on Apple Daily

At the same time, many conflicts between Mainlanders and Hongkongers also occurred due to the influx of the tourists and immigrants, such as the Dolce & Gabbana controversy, the Kong Qingdong incident, birth tourism, and parallel trading among mainland tourists, among others. These incidents and issues intensified the anti-Chinese sentiment among the Hong Kong public. Some of them published an advertisement on local newspapers, calling Mainlanders "locusts" who steal resources from Hongkongers.[9]

At the same time, the localists are hostile toward the pan-democracy camp, as they disagreed with the pan-democrats' unrealistic universalism and their wish for a democratic China at Hong Kong's expense. They are also dissatisfied with the ineffectiveness of the pan-democrats as the opposition party for the past 20 years. On the other hand, the right-wing populist tendency of the localist movements was condemned as "xenophobic" and "nativist" by mainstream activists and the government.[12] The conflict between the left and the right wings of the movement resulted in great disunity of the whole democratic cause.

In the 2012 Legislative Council election, some pan-democrat candidates, including Claudia Mo of the Civic Party and Gary Fan of the Neo Democrats, both claiming to be moderates, expressed some localist ideas and raised concerns on tourist and immigration policies. For that, they set up a parliamentary group called the Hong Kong First. Legislator Wong Yuk-man, a strong critic of the Communist Party and former member of People Power and his protégé Wong Yeung-tat, leader of the activist group Civic Passion, switched to the localist cause.

Criticising the annual vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen Square crackdown held by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China for having a Chinese nationalistic theme, Civic Passion organised its alternative 4 June rally in Tsim Sha Tsui. The alternative event attracted 200 people in 2013 and 7,000 in 2014, compared with 180,000 and 150,000 respectively for the main event.[15][16]

Hong Kong Nationalism

The Undergrad, the official publication of the Hong Kong University Students' Union (HKUSU), from February 2014, published a few articles on the subject of a Hong Kong nation. Articles entitled “The Hong Kong nation deciding its own fate” and “Democracy and Independence for Hong Kong” raise the localist discourse to the level of political autonomy for Hong Kong, which in effect would be tantamount to Hong Kong independence. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying used his 2015 New Year’s policy address to direct harsh criticism at the magazine for promoting Hong Kong independence, fanning both the debate and sales of the book Hong Kong Nationalism which featured the articles.[17]

Umbrella Revolution

In 2013, legal scholar Benny Tai, considered a moderate democrat, advocated a civil obedience plan to pressure Beijing to implement genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong. The plan matured into Occupy Central. The localists were largely against it, mainly because they believed it was a plot by pan-democrats to hijack popular support.[18] Localists participated in the protests, many of whom advocating a more "militant" approach as opposed to the strict principles of non-violence advocated by the three promoters of Occupy Central. Localists gathered at the Mong Kok site, as opposed to the main site in Admiralty which was led by the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS). They blamed the HKFS leadership for failure of the protest.[19]

Post-occupy localist movements

The localists' disaffection toward the HKFS resulted in a great split in the student federation. The localist launched a campaign quitting the HKFS. By the end of 2015, four of the eight student unions consisting the federation, the Hong Kong University Students' Union (HKUSU), the Hong Kong Polytechnic University Students' Union (HKPUSU), the Hong Kong Baptist University Students' Union (HKBUSU) and the City University of Hong Kong Students' Union (CityUSU), broke up with the HKFS.

After the occupy movement, several organisations named "Umbrella organisations" by the media were set up, in which many of them carried certain degree of localist discourses, notably Youngspiration and Hong Kong Indigenous. Youngspiration took part in the 2015 District Council election with many other newcoming "Umbrella soldiers" and eventually won one seat out of nine candidates.[20] Hong Kong Indigenous is notable for its protest style, in which it calls for a "militant" approach with "some kind of clash", as opposed to pan-democrats' "gentle approach" of non-violent civil disobedience.[3]

The Hong Kong Independence Party was formed in April 2015 advocating an independent Hong Kong within the British Commonwealth.[21]

Anti-parallel trading protests

"Liberate Sha Tin" with the British Hong Kong flag raised.

The localists including Hong Kong Indigenous and Civic Passion also mobilised on the Internet and launched several "Liberate campaigns" in districts such as Tuen Mun on 8 February, Sha Tin on 15 February and Yuen Long on 1 March where parallel traders were active. Protesters were not only against the parallel traders, but also the overcrowded environment in Hong Kong caused by the multi-entry permits issued to mainland tourists.[22] They scolded the mainland tourists, aggressively picketed the alleged shoppersand and clashed with the police, in which many of them turned violent.[23] After the third demonstration, the central government said it would restrict Shenzhen residents to one visit a week.[24]

Siu Yau-wai case

In July 2015, localists including Hong Kong Indigenous and Youngspiration marched to the Immigration Department to demand deportation of an undocumented 12-year-old Mainland boy Siu Yau-wai, who lived in Hong Kong for nine years without identification.[25] Siu, whose parents are alive and well in mainland China, stayed with his grandparents after having overstayed his two-way permit nine years ago. Pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Chan Yuen-han advised and assisted the boy and his grandmother to obtain a temporary ID and pleaded for compassion from the local community.[26] Some called on the authorities to consider the case on a humanitarian basis and grant Siu permanent citizenship while many others, afraid that the case would open the floodgates to appeals from other illegal immigrants, asked for the boy to be repatriated. The boy eventually gave up and returned to his parents in mainland China.[27]

Mong Kok unrest

In February 2016 during the Chinese New Year, Hong Kong Indigenous called for action online to shield the street hawkers, who sold Hong Kong street food in which they saw as part of the Hong Kong culture, from government health department's crackdown. The protest escalated to violent clashes between the police and the protesters. The protesters threw glass bottles, bricks, flower pots and trash bins toward the police and set fires in the streets which the government condemned as riots.[28] The Chinese Foreign Ministry for the first time labelled the involved localists as "separatists", claiming that "the riot [was] plotted mainly by local radical separatist organisation."[29]

New Territories East by-election

Election result of Edward Leung by District Council constituency.

The Legislative Council by-election in New Territories East on 28 February 2016 was a milestone of the localist movements, as it was the first attempt for them to contest for the Legislative Council under localist banner.[30] Youngspiration was initially considering fielding a candidate and called for a primary with the pan-democratic Civic Party. It later dropped out due to the lack of time for holding a primary.[31]

Hong Kong Indigenous nominated Edward Leung Tin-kei who would later rise to prominence by his involvement in the Mong Kok clashes and arrest by police. Localist groups and figures who campaigned for Leung included Youngspiration, Civic Passion, Chin Wan and Wong Yuk-man.[32] Leung finished in third place, with 15 per cent of the vote, behind the moderate pan-democrat Civic Party Alvin Yeung with 37 per cent and pro-Beijing DAB's Holden Chow with 34 per cent.[33] Leung claimed localism had gained a foothold as the third most important power in local politics, standing side by side with the pan-democracy and pro-Beijing camps.[34] The better-than-expected result was considered to further boost the localists' morale and their ambition of running in the September general election.[35]

Hong Kong independence

The University of Hong Kong student magazine Undergrad published an article in March 2016 headed “Hong Kong Youth’s Declaration” argues for Hong Kong independence on expiry of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 2047. It demands a democratic government be set up after 2047 and for the public to draw up the Hong Kong constitution. It also denounces the Hong Kong government for becoming a “puppet” of the Communist Party, “weakening” the city’s autonomy. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying dismissed the claim, stating that “Hong Kong has been a part of China since ancient times, and this is a fact that will not change after 2047.” University of Hong Kong council chairman Arthur Li Kwok-cheung described the idea of independence as nonsense, saying that “I don’t think any wise person would listen.”[36]

Hong Kong National Party, the first party openly advocates for Hong Kong independence and a Republic of Hong Kong established on 28 March 2016, drew attacks from the Beijing and SAR governments. The State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office issued a statement through the official Xinhua News Agency on 30 March 2016 condemning the party: "The action to establish a pro-independence organisation by an extremely small group of people in Hong Kong has harmed the country’s sovereignty, security, endangered the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong, and the core interests of Hong Kong... It is firmly opposed by all Chinese people, including some seven million Hong Kong people. It is also a serious violation of the country’s constitution, Hong Kong’s Basic Law and the relevant existing laws."[37] The Hong Kong government issued a statement after the formation of the party, stating that "any suggestion that Hong Kong should be independent or any movement to advocate such 'independence' is against the Basic Law, and will undermine the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong and impair the interest of the general public… The SAR Government will take action according to the law.”[37]

Localist parties and groups

Localist leaders

See also


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