A twist in the tale of a leader's warning

HONG KONG - The day after Hong Kong leader Leung Chun Ying delivered his annual policy address, another, younger, Leung is busy fielding calls from journalists and making arrangements for a new print run for a book called Hong Kong Nationalism.

Mr Brian Leung, 20, a government and law student at the University of Hong Kong, was editor of its student union magazine, Undergrad, which ran a series of essays last February on the theme of "Hong Kongers deciding their own fate", which were later compiled into a book and published.

One essay discusses if Hong Kong should have the right to debate the possibility of self-determination, with references to Catalonia, which will be holding an election in September on whether it should break away from Spain.

Another examines the rise of a unique Hong Kong identity and culture.

A third argues that "localism" - the idea that political power should be rooted in the local community - is the only way out for Hong Kong.

The book was published last September, with an initial print run of 2,500 copies, almost all of which have been sold.

After the older Leung singled it out for criticism in his policy address on Wednesday, netizens are now clamouring for more copies.

"We are looking at printing another 2,500 to 3,000 copies," Mr Brian Leungtold The Straits Times. "Thanks to the Chief Executive's 'promotion', we are experiencing unprecedented popularity."

The Hong Kong leader had, in an unusual move, lambasted the student publication, saying that "facts were mis-stated".

"We must stay alert," he said. "We also ask political figures with close ties to the leaders of the student movement to advise them against putting forward such fallacies."

The high-profile warning has since snowballed into a political kerfuffle, with charges from pan-democrat lawmakers yesterday that Mr Leung was stifling academic freedom and free speech.

The most colourful came from Labour Party's Mr Lee Cheuk Yan, who asked if Mr Leung was trying to become "Hong Kong's Mao Zedong and start a new Cultural Revolution by inciting class warfare" and "strike fear among students".

Addressing the Legislative Council yesterday, Mr Leung refuted such accusations, pointing out that in a society with freedom of speech, anyone - including himself - is free to express his opinion.

The episode has, unfortunately, overshadowed other aspects of the policy address, which many had looked to for how Mr Leung's government intends to address the aspirations and worries of the youth, especially in areas such as housing and social mobility.

This comes a month after the end of the student-led Occupy movement, primarily a fight for greater rights to directly elect the city's leader but which was also driven by unhappiness over income inequality and unaffordable homes.

As housing expert Edward Yiu Chung Yim of Chinese University of Hong Kong put it, "a large proportion of society will like to focus on local matters".

"We are trying to forget about the political debate and see if the government can move on urgent issues such as housing and population. I am not sure what the Chief Executive is trying to achieve with his criticism of the students."

For instance, a point in Mr Leung's address worth discussing is the proposed redevelopment of 300ha of brownfield land - disused industrial sites - which Professor Yiu says can accommodate 300,000 housing units and up to one million people.

"This is a positive response to public requests," he said.

Other initiatives that have come in for some praise include proactive measures to woo overseas talent and the scrapping of a scheme that gives mainland investors residency rights.

So why did Mr Leung choose to fire his salvo at the students thus?

Word is that he had anticipated the public furore, but felt it necessary to address a "fundamental issue". Those less charitable say it was aimed at strengthening his position with Beijing.

Any "splittist sentiment" in Hong Kong has long been on the fringe. At protest marches, for instance, the British colonial flag made appearances but was hoisted by very small groups of protesters. It was very rarely glimpsed at the Occupy movement, if at all.

There is concern, though, that such feelings could be gaining ground.

In the same February issue of the Undergrad, an informal poll of nearly 500 students found that 68 per cent supported the current "one country, two systems" framework.

Fifteen per cent called for independence and 9 per cent wanted Hong Kong to return to being a British colony.

The younger Leung, who says he himself does not advocate independence, acknowledges that the essays - which he says are meant to be argumentative and "provide theories" - are provocative to a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) testy about its restive border regions, such as Tibet and Xinjiang.

But by bringing such issues out in the open, the essays serve as a warning for Beijing, he argues.

"Why might there be such sentiments? A young generation has lost trust in the CCP when they found out that promises of genuine democracy were a complete lie.

"But there is still a long way to go before such (pro-independence) ideas become mainstream. And it will be so - if the central government treats Hong Kong as just another province of China."

For the Chief Executive, though, highlighting the matter works as a warning for a different audience - so that the Hong Kong public will be "alerted".

This, in turn, could bolster any future policy efforts, such as in the education system or national security legislation, to mitigate against "fallacies".

This article was first published on January 16, 2015.
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