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Politics

Split Hong Kong opposition looks unable to stop Chinese anthem law

Generational divide deprives pro-democracy parties of blocking power

The 2014 Umbrella Movement was the high point for Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement, but since its failure the pro-Beijing camp has taken greater control over the territory's politics.   © Reuters

TOKYO/HONG KONG -- Hong Kong legislators were set Wednesday to begin debate on a controversial law that would make it a criminal offense to disrespect the Chinese national anthem.

The bill is almost certain to pass as a deep divide among Hong Kong's pro-democracy parties has deprived the bloc of its previous ability to block major legislation. The split is partly generational, as reflected in the different perspectives of Emily Lau Wai-hing and Agnes Chow Ting, both leading activists in the city.

Lau, 67, is from the old school of pan-democracy activists in the city who wanted to believe that Beijing's "one country, two systems" formula for allowing Hong Kong to maintain the separate economic and political system built up under British rule could work. Chow, 22, is among a younger group of activists who feel the formula is increasingly meaningless.

A former journalist, Lau was popularly elected to the legislature seven times before her retirement in 2016. Attending a news conference in 1984 to mark the signing of a treaty to return the territory to China, she questioned then U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on whether it was "morally defensible" to deliver Hong Kong people "into the hands of Communist dictatorship."

Chow, 22, meanwhile, was less than a year old at the time of the 1997 handover. Now an undergraduate student, she got into politics in high school in 2012 as part of a successful student campaign to block a patriotic education program devoted to promoting the Chinese Communist Party. She said she belongs to a "self-determination faction" that does not advocate outright independence for the territory.

Long-time Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Emily Lau Wai-hing was in Tokyo in December to raise awareness of human rights lawyers detained in mainland China. (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

Chow announced she would run in a by-election in March last year for a Hong Kong island seat that had been vacated after the disqualification of Nathan Law Kwun-chung, the chairman of Demosisto, Chow's party. But her candidacy was blocked by the Hong Kong government on the grounds her party did not reject independence as an option for the city.

While Chow sees Legco as important, she laments the disqualification of six elected members as a consequence of a retroactive directive from the National People's Congress Standing Committee in Beijing against showing disrespect during the taking of oaths of office.

"No matter how many seats the opposition holds, it doesn't matter, as Beijing could do whatever it wants," she said in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review in Tokyo.

While Lau was surprised that not many people took to the streets to protest the government's unprecedented decision to bar the lawmakers, she told Nikkei that some voters "were not happy on how they took their oath [and that] did upset these people."

The former Democratic Party heavyweight also bemoaned that the opposition -- unable to unite behind a single candidate after ousted incumbent Liu Siu-lai was barred from standing for reelection -- lost another seat to the pro-Beijing camp in a November by-election in the Kowloon West district. Ultimately, two veteran activists in their 60s ran and lost.

"The fact that we, the pro-democracy camp, did not come up with a younger, more attractive candidate is part of our problem," Lau said.

Agnes Chow Ting was in Japan around the turn of the year to promote a DVD documentary on the Umbrella Movement . (Photo by Kenji Kawase)

Chow is skeptical about the result of the election, in which only 44% of eligible voters turned out.

"I understand why young people didn't want to vote," she said. "It's only the old democrats who were able to run, and they don't necessarily represent our views."

Despite only 40 of Legco's 70 members being elected by the general public, the opposition had long held over a third of the chamber's seats, enabling them to block major legislation. The disqualifications and recent election losses have destroyed this veto power.

"One country, two systems" is another major sticking point.

Lau said the principle is "under a lot of stress," but believes that the persistence of activists such as herself is "evidence" that the framework is alive and shows "we still enjoy personal freedoms and safety that people in the mainland do not enjoy."

With an independent judiciary intact, she said that Hong Kong people are freer, not only vis-à-vis mainlanders, but also compared with some Southeast Asian nations.

Chow sees "one country, two systems" as much more weakened. Though she said she has faith in the independent judiciary, she said that the National People's Congress Standing Committee "is powerful and could interpret our laws."

Toru Kurata, a professor of Chinese and Hong Kong politics at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, said the perception the territory was "business first" collapsed after the failure of Umbrella Movement of 2014, the 79-day occupation of key streets in the city by protesters demanding the genuine universal suffrage promised in the Basic Law, the city's constitution.

"There's been a shift in values between different generations in Hong Kong," Kurata said.

"The failure of the movement brought renewed tides of suppression from Beijing, but for the older generation, it was just a return to the past, where the British only allowed limited political participation at the end of their administration," Kurata said. The youth "felt as if the door was being shut in front of them, not only in terms of seeking political freedom, but also on the economic front as vested interests deeply took root."

Kurata added that the older generation, despite being deprived of political rights, still had enjoyed economic benefits from a period of higher growth in the past.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signs the Hong Kong handover agreement in Beijing on Dec. 19, 1984.   © AP

With the opposition camp divided, the pro-Beijing government is pushing on with its agenda. The latest move is the anthem bill, which if passed will enable people who insult the Chinese national song to be sent to prison for up to three years.

Jeffrey Ngo and Joshua Wong, young leaders of Demosisto, wrote this month in The Washington Post that the bill "represents Xi [Jinping]'s ambition to create a single, unified polity based on his vision of what 'One China' ought to be."

"There seems to be no effective ways to rival the mighty Chinese," said Tomoko Ako, associate professor at Tokyo University who separately hosted Lau and Chow at open forums on her campus.

Ako sees ways for both generations to work together against a common adversary, saying that both generations understand the seriousness of human rights abuses in China and commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

"I fully understand the passion of the young people," she said. "The big direction is the same, so they should cooperate on areas that they are able to."

But right now, the gap in the democratic camp looks like it cannot be bridged.

"I know it looks bad from the outside, but it is very difficult to put in practice," Chow said.

Lau concurred, saying: "You can only unite and work with people who are willing to work with you."

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