Can Hong Kong Secede? The Delusion of Self-Determination


In 1992, the International Commission of Jurists reported its findings on Hong Kong. The report concluded that “there [was] no evidence of any demand on the part of the people for Hong Kong to be fully independent”, and that “no one considered that China would tolerate Hong Kong becoming an independent state”.[1] Twenty-four years later, the situation has changed. There is now an emerging social movement that purportedly fights for the right to self-determination of the Hong Kong people. There has been a call for a referendum to determine the city’s political future; others go further and demand independence.[2] The response of the PRC government is expectedly dismissive, rejecting those calls as against the law, damaging Hong Kong’s interest and threatening national security.[3] This, however, does not seem to have allayed the urge of the people.

One cannot fully substantiate the claim to the right to self-determination without first understanding what this right actually is – in particular, what this right entails, when it is applied and to whom it is applied. This paper endeavours to examine these questions. It seeks to argue that Hong Kong is, at the very least, entitled to internal self-determination in the form of autonomy, the promise of which has unfortunately not been genuinely honoured. The justification for Hong Kong’s claim to unilateral secession under international law is weak. However, a successful secession is ultimately the result of political tugs-of-war and so the determinative factor of Hong Kong’s secession is not law but politics.

[1] International Commission of Jurists (1992), Countdown to 1997: Report of a Mission to Hong Kong, p. 28. The mission visited Hong Kong in June 1991 to take evidence and hear the views of Hong Kong people. This report made findings on a number of issues pertaining to the handover of Hong Kong.

[2] Undergrad, HKUSU (ed.) (2005), 香港民族論 (translation: Hong Kong Nationalism), Hong Kong, HKUSU, pp. 9-10, 16-21, 64-76.

[3] Cheung, G. & Cheung, T. (6th March 2015), NPC boss Zhang Dejiang blasts supporters of Hong Kong independence, South China Morning Post, retrieved 22nd May 2016 from

(Please click document image of top left corner to download full paper in pdf)

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