Hong Kong's Brexit ambitions: Could city ever be independent from China?

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Story highlights

  • Hong Kong has a great deal of autonomy from China
  • But some warn of increasing Chinese control over the city
  • This has led for calls for full self-governance or even independence

Hong Kong (CNN)Hong Kong has its own legal system, government, currency, flag and Olympic sports team.

So could the city -- officially a Special Administrative Region of China -- ever become fully independent? That's what an increasing number of people, frustrated by a stalled political reform process and perceived Chinese encroachment, are asking.
The city's leaders, and Beijing, have dismissed the calls out of hand -- with some commentators even suggesting discussion of independence could be a criminal offense. But in the wake of the UK's shock vote to leave the European Union and the increasing likelihood that Scotland and Catalonia will break away in the near future, is it so crazy to suggest that Hong Kong could go it alone?
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    Hong Kong and China

    According to a United Nations declaration, "all peoples have the right to self-determination."
    From 1960 to 1972, Hong Kong was listed alongside other colonies and territories such as Fiji and Kenya as a "non-self-governing territory" in which all steps should be taken "in order to enable them to enjoy complete independence and freedom."
    Today, Fiji and Kenya are independent republics, Hong Kong is not. In 1971, the People's Republic of China joined the U.N., and the following year Hong Kong (along with neighboring Macau, then a Portuguese colony) was removed from the list on Beijing's request. In 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the handover of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the UK to China was signed, and in 1997 Hong Kong officially became a Chinese SAR.
    The Joint Declaration and the city's mini-constitution, The Basic Law, guarantee Hong Kong a "high degree of autonomy" and "gradual and orderly progress" towards universal suffrage.
    Perceptions that progress on the latter point has stalled in the wake of a failed attempt by the government to pass limited political reform — in which people would vote freely for the chief executive, but only from a slate of candidates chosen in effect by Beijing — has led to a surge in support for so-called "localist" groups, that advocate for greater Hong Kong autonomy and even independence.
    At least seven new localist parties have been set up in the last year. In a recent by-election, Hong Kong Indigenous candidate Edward Leung won more than 15% of the vote, saying the result marked the arrival of localism as a "third power" in Hong Kong politics.

    How could Hong Kong go independent?

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    China is extremely protective of its territory, and even some that it doesn't officially control, and Beijing has reacted angrily to calls for Hong Kong independence, with one state-run newspaper saying it is a "fake proposition without any possibility of realization."
    Labour Party lawmaker Cyd Ho says whether it's independence or self-determination, "Hong Kong won't be able to achieve any of that if China doesn't become a civilized nation that respects human rights."
    With Beijing unlikely to play along, just how Hong Kong would go about achieving independence is unclear. The Hong Kong National Party calls for revoking Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration and establishing a new constitution, while another pro-independence party advocates for the UK to take back control over the city as a path towards stateship, according to the South China Morning Post.
    Others advocate for a Brexit-style vote on the city's future. Demosisto -- a political party founded by several leaders of the Umbrella Movement, including former student activist Joshua Wong -- has called for a self-determination referendum to be held in 10 years time, in which full independence from China would be an option.
    "We hope that in the future ... we can organize a civil referendum to bolster the consensus in society that Hong Kongers should have the right to decide their own future," chairman Nathan Law tells CNN.
    China is a signatory to, though it has not ratified, a U.N. treaty that recognizes the right of all peoples to self-determination, including the right to "freely determine their political status."

    How would independence work?

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    That's where it gets tricky. Hong Kong imports as much as 80% of its water supplies from China, as well as large amounts of electricity and food. Mainland China is also Hong Kong's biggest trading partner by far.
    While independence wouldn't necessarily mean an end to all imports from the mainland, it's unlikely Beijing would make it easy for the city to go it alone even if it was prepared to accept its legal right to do so, itself a seemingly impossible proposition.
    Advocates for Hong Kong independence usually point to Singapore as an obvious regional example of a small, self-governing city state.
    Singapore, while it produces huge amounts of water itself through desalination plants, is still dependent on supplies imported from Malaysia, and expects to be so for another several decades, according to the government.
    "We are not that similar to Singapore," warns Alan Leong, leader of the Civic Party, which advocates for full universal suffrage in Hong Kong but does not support independence.
    "We are connected to the mainland in so many ways, not only geographically, there are blood ties between Hong Kong people and our relatives and families in the mainland, we have business and trade connections (in the mainland)."
    However, he warns that "if Beijing is determined to continue with its very high-handed approach towards Hong Kong then I can bet you that the independence movement will flourish."