Localism: Why is support for the political perspective growing - and who's behind it?

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A pro-democracy activist waves the colonial flag at this year's June 4 vigil 

Localism isn’t new, but it’s making news. Shirley Foo explores why more people are identifying with this radical political perspective and what it is they want. Additional reporting by Anna Cummins

A Hong Kong flag billows in the wind as a crowd surges forward during a protest, one of many that have filled Hong Kong’s streets in recent months. But this flag isn’t red, it’s blue. The colonial flag of Hong Kong, used before the handover in 1997, has come – in large part through its appearance in the media – to represent a faction now popularly referred to as ‘localists’. 

The word is an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of outlooks and is often used synonymously with ‘nativism’. It refers generally to groups that call for universal suffrage in Hong Kong and, more importantly, a rejection of the growing influence of the Mainland.

Localist groups are making waves through protests that, given their often small size, attract a disproportionate share of media and police attention. For example, back in February, members of a group called Hong Kong Indigenous gathered at a shopping centre in Sha Tin to express anger at the crowds of shoppers arriving from the Mainland over the Chinese New Year holiday period. The ensuing altercations resulted in several arrests.


 Last year's July 1 march

More recently, the symbolic colonial flags were out for protests linked to the case of undocumented 12-year-old Mainland boy Siu Yau-wai, who lived in Hong Kong for nine years without identification. The furore over the suggestion he could be allowed to stay was immediate. Groups including Hong Kong Indigenous and Youngspiration – recently formed by Occupy protestors – marched to the immigration department to demand the child’s deportation.  

Then, on June 6, around 20 members of HKLP and Civic Passion gathered outside the HHCKLA Buddhist Wisdom Primary School in Sheung Shui as parents from the Mainland arrived to find out whether their children had been allocated a place at the school. Metal barricades and police separated parents and pupils from the activists, who used loudspeakers to heckle parents and held banners reading ‘Go back to the Mainland, locust children!’

When did localism first stir? Some groups, such as Hongkonger Front, have been campaigning for Hong Kong’s independence for a decade or more, whereas others, such as Hong Kong Indigenous, have sprung into action only this year. Many observers look back to 2012, when the Hong Kong government attempted to insert ‘moral and national education’ into the curriculum of local schools as a turning point. The effort to introduce what is widely perceived as a set of pro-China, anti-democracy ideals into the school system saw activists, localists and non-localists alike spill on to the streets and sign petitions in outrage, resulting in the fresh politicisation of thousands of people.

However, many point to the 2011 publication of the book On the Hong Kong City-State by Dr Horace Chin Wan-kan, an assistant professor in the Department of Chinese at Lingnan University, as kick-starting the localist movement. Dr Chin’s timely book rode a wave of public sentiment, asking questions about Hong Kong’s identity and who the city belongs to. It was one of the best selling books of the year and many now refer to Chin as the ‘godfather’ of localism in Hong Kong. He is the founder of the group Hong Kong Resurgence Order and leader of Hong Kong City State Autonomous Movement, which aims to revive the ‘golden age’ of Hong Kong. 

Based on the burgeoning number of localist groups and recent survey results, this refusal to identify with being a part of China appears to be a growing trend among the city’s disaffected youth. The Hong Kong Transition Project (HKTP) is a research organisation linked to Baptist University that has been tracking the attitudes of Hongkongers from pre to post-handover. A HKTP survey of students, released in June, found that not one respondent wished to be identified as just ‘Chinese’. All respondents preferred to be known as ‘Hong Kong Chinese,’ ‘Hong Kong person,’ or ‘Chinese Hongkonger’.

“The general portrayal of localists is that they are radical, young and possess a lot of hate towards Mainlanders and the Chinese government,” says Ma Ngok, an associate professor and chairman of Chinese University’s Department of Government and Public Administration. “Part of the reason for the resistance, or resentment, against the Chinese government is due to China’s control over Hong Kong’s democratic future.”


Protesters take to the streets at last year's July 1 march

Localism, with all its connotations of masked flag-waving, is generally portrayed as radical in both belief and action. Alice Lai, organiser of the Hong Kong-UK Reunification Campaign eschews being labelled a localist. “We don’t want to agitate people. We want to make peaceful progress,” she tells us. “Our message is different [to that of localists] because we don’t want universal suffrage as part of China. If we choose our Chief Executive while we’re occupied by China, it’s like we’re accepting China. What we are working towards is reunification with the UK. We have protested against the Sino-British Joint Declaration at the British Council,” Lai informs us.

Despite Lai’s hopes, Professor Ma says there is ‘zero possibility’ of this situation occurring. His opinion is backed by Marcus Lau, editor-in-chief of The Undergrad, the Hong Kong University Students’ Union’s news source, who believes reunification with Britain is ‘absolutely unlikely’. “Britain doesn’t have any responsibility to take back Hong Kong under the 1984 Joint Declaration,” adds Lau.

Lau’s publication at the University of Hong Kong has been called localist but he, like Lai, believes the term is extreme. The editor-in-chief believes his content demonstrates a more ‘objective standpoint’. “I think localist views are not fully manifested or demonstrated in local media,” says Lau. “It’s distorted [...] even localist groups haven’t formed very clear, feasible plans to present to the public as a political party.”

Things took a very sinister turn in mid-June when 10 people were arrested after bombs were found in an abandoned TV studio in Sai Kung. The suspects are linked to a ‘local syndicate’ – possibly the newly formed and mysterious National Independent Party, according to authorities. This claim has been met with indignation by some localists, who suggested to news agencies that the alleged plot was a smear campaign timed to coincide with the LegCo vote on electoral reform.  

Whether people refer to themselves as localists or not, one sentiment is clear – Hongkongers are dissatisfied with the political climate in their city. “It seems like most of the HK politicians are pro-China,” says Lai. “I think this has actually created or augmented a sentiment of wanting to be free from China and refusing to identify with both the Chinese government regime and mainland Chinese people,” Ma elaborates. 

Back at HKU, there is guarded optimism. “The localism discourse has definitely been increasing recently,” says Lau. “It’s still not a very mature discourse that can lead Hong Kong to a brighter future. But I would say Hongkongers, especially after the Umbrella Movement, are starting to feel more like a community, given that the Chinese Communist Party is not fulfilling its responsibility to protect the rights of Hongkongers to govern themselves, which is clearly stated in the Basic Law. “[Localism] is not a far-right, fascist approach stating that only pure, ethnic Hongkongers can be counted. Anyone who embraces the values of Hong Kong and identifies themselves as being from Hong Kong can be counted as a Hongkonger.”

Find out more about Hong Kong Resurgence Order at hkresurgence.com.


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