A man holds a a banner saying 'Hong Kong Independence or mainlandization' during a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong on July 1, 2017. Photo: Asia Times
A man holds a a banner saying 'Hong Kong Independence or mainlandization' during a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong on July 1, 2017. Photo: Asia Times

In comparative terms, the inhabitants of virtually every developed economy enjoy a quality of life historically far better than ever before,  yet their level of dissatisfaction has reached epidemic proportions.

Americans elected a president who promised them the earth without telling them how he would pay for it. This, at a time when they had navigated their way out of a financial shipwreck and were hosting all of the world’s greatest information-technology companies.

Donald Trump complains about American manufacturing being outsourced to China, but the consequential decrease in prices meant that every American family could afford a full range of electrical white goods, TVs, players, computers and fashion clothing. Compared with the 1950s and 1960s, they had experienced a profligacy of riches.

Britain’s level of disquiet was so great that a significant number of its citizens took a blind leap into the unknown by opting to leave the European Union. Yet the economy was firing on all cylinders and unemployment was at record lows.

The craving for independence is widespread

Not so very long ago, Scotland demanded and was given the opportunity to vote on whether to leave the United Kingdom. This, despite Scots’ enjoying education and health systems significantly superior to those in England and a very large measure of self-government with their own parliament in Edinburgh.

Spain, having weathered the financial storm that resulted in 25% unemployment generally and 50% for the country’s youth and reached a point where its economy had become the most vibrant in Europe, faced a large percentage of Catalans demanding independence.

In India, the Gorkhaland movement wants to carve out of West Bengal a separate state within the Indian union.

In Hong Kong, a vocal minority of young people are openly seeking independence from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

All this has to be seen from the perspective that a mere 72 years ago the world was staggering out of a devastating war. The recovery was a lengthy, slow process for every country ravaged by invasion, occupation and liberation, a process marked by a minimum of 10 postwar years rationing of most basic necessities.

A world in which turmoil seems unending

Meanwhile, refugees of all categories are hemorrhaging out of the Middle East and Africa, most seeking a life worth living in Europe. There is a compelling argument that Africa is a failed continent and the Middle East an uncontrollable ferment of internecine death and destruction. Their problems are too complex to address in a short compass.

Dissatisfaction with their lot motivated a significant percentage of Americans to reject the received wisdom of their established political parties.

But relative to their respective histories, given the vastly improved quality of life of the Scots, the Indian-domiciled Nepalese, the Catalans and the Hongkongers, is there a common thread motivating this yen to break away from their political parents?

Put in the crudest possible terms, it is a yearning for a return to tribalism; more politely, it is village-pump politics.

What unites each of these aspirant groups is their sense of emotional attachment to a perception of an idealized time when, as an anthropological group, their community had not lost its identity or been submerged into a greater, more eclectic whole. They reject the interconnection of civilizations that we now term globalization. Put in the crudest possible terms, it is a yearning for a return to tribalism; more politely, it is village-pump politics.

Trump’s followers reject the idea of multicultural societies and blame the “foreigners” — that is, everyone who does not belong to their core community – for the decline in their living standards. Sadly, this ignores the irreversible march of technological progress that displaces manual labor with machines.

Similarly, the Brexiters long for a mythical golden age of British supremacy when “foreigners” were few and far between and their idiosyncratic cultural tastes could be tolerated. These Brits envisage a retreat into the monocultural towns and villages and the comforting certainty of a single civilization. What makes it doubly ironic is that they fear the changes they see all around them to such an extent that they walked the plank into a sea outside the EU about whose depth, force and quality they knew nothing.

The emotional appeal of narrow nationalism

The Scots who wanted to break from the UK were fired up by the mystique of their clannish history, clinging to their image of Bonnie Prince Charlie, “the auld enemy” and Bannockburn. It was an emotional appeal to a narrow concept of nationality. While the price of oil was high they could talk of financial independence, but once it crashed, so did any prospect of independence.

Catalonia presents much the same emotional appeal to historical identity except that it has never been an independent state; the highest level of independence it enjoyed was when the Count of Barcelona was a tributary of the King of Aragon.

Catalans have long aspired to independence, and as Spain’s strongest economic province they resent a sense of supporting the rest of the country. Yet aside from the false pride that would come from a separate nationality, there was no compelling justification for such a schism until Madrid suddenly adopted bully-boy tactics.

Marginalized peoples seek self-determination

The Nepalese in West Bengal are also a distinct group relying on their native ethnicity to coalesce support. They also have strong political arguments derived from their fear of their diminished status among scheduled tribes, castes and the Bengalis. They constitute a marginalized community seeking a large measure of autonomy as a separate state within the Indian union.

Compared with the foregoing groups, Hong Kong’s seekers after independence have no such call on perceptions of past glories or narrow-minded chauvinism. They are all ethnic Chinese. What sets them apart is that they are forward rather than backward looking.

The emotive element of their make-up is the perfectly rational wish to enjoy the benefits of a modern, liberal democracy under a common law system. Their fear is that Hong Kong’s constitution, artfully designed by Deng Xiaoping to evolve into a genuine democracy, is under a creeping process of subornation that will hollow it out until it is a mere mirror image of the PRC.

For all its impeccable logic, realizing an independent Hong Kong has less chance than a snowball in hell.

The evolution of progress demands patience

We all inhabit a world more interconnected than at any time, more interdependent as between people, countries and institutions than it has ever been. Nowhere is perfect and nothing conceived of by man ever will be. Progress is an evolutionary process that demands compromise and patience. The wheels of progress turn slowly if they are to remain in their tracks.

True democracy protects minority interests and requires that the greater power listens to and takes into consideration those interests. States are not dissimilar to the human body. Remove one vital part and the rest functions far less well.

Beijing would do well to ponder how much more useful Hong Kong would be to the mainland in its distinctively separate role as a fully functioning liberal democracy with Chinese characteristics. Xi Jinping should stop being afraid of zealous young Hong Kong Chinese but embrace them, who are the future of the Asian financial hub.

Neville Sarony QC is a noted Hong Kong lawyer with more than 50 years at the Bar.

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