Friday 26 August 2016 06.11 BST
Tom Phillips and Eric Cheung in Hong Kong wrote:When Edward Leung closes his eyes and dreams of Hong Kong’s future he pictures a utopian metropolis of skyscrapers and social justice, “where people can do whatever they want as long as it isn’t harmful to others”.
“It’s an international place. A cosmopolitan state,” says the fashionable 25-year-old politics and philosophy graduate.
Is it part of China? “No,” Leung replies emphatically. “Not any more.”
Leung is one of the leaders of a small but increasingly visible independence movement in the former British colony that is setting the agenda before key elections for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council parliament on 4 September.
The movement was catapulted into the headlines in early August when the semi-autonomous city – which returned to Chinese rule almost two decades ago, in 1997 – saw the first pro-independence rally in its history.
Several thousand protesters took to the streets after six pro-independence candidates, foremost amongst them Leung, were barred from the upcoming election in what critics condemned as an act of political censorship designed to snuff out opposition to Beijing’s authoritarian rule.
“They try every means to oppress us,” complained Leung, one of the leaders of Hong Kong Indigenous, a so-called “localist” political group founded in the wake of 2014’s umbrella movement protests to combat what its members see as China’s erosion of the city’s way of life.
Beijing considers advocating independence subversion and its Communist party-controlled media has given “extremists” such as Leung short shrift.
In a recent editorial the editor of the nationalist tabloid the Global Times lampooned “the Hong Kong independence farce” as a radical fringe that would not be tolerated.
The former colony’s Beijing-backed government has claimed such ideas are a blatant violation of the territory’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which describes Hong Kong as an “inalienable part” of the People’s Republic of China.
Yet experts and activists say there has been a recent groundswell of support for independence among Hong Kong’s disillusioned youth who fear the “one country, two systems” formula – introduced after handover to safeguard its much-cherished freedoms – is no longer working.
A Chinese University of Hong Kong study, published in July, showed 17% of citizens backed splitting from China with that figure reaching nearly 40% among 15 to 24-year-olds.
“Compare it to a cancer if you like. It has spread from loony talk to universities, and now to secondary schools,” a columnist for the South China Morning Post admitted this week, arguing that interest in independence was here to stay.
Chan Ho-tin, the 25-year-old founder of the Hong Kong national party, one of several recently formed pro-independence groups, said he had been surprised how many people attended August’s historic rally, which he organised.
“Two years ago Hong Kong independence was a taboo. You couldn’t say that. If you said that … everybody condemned you: you’re nuts, you’re crazy,” said Chan, who was among the six candidates barred from running in next month’s election.
No more. Chan predicted that within five years the majority of public opinion would share such views.
“Hong Kong is still a colony in my eyes. Before 1997 it was a colony of Britain and after 1997 a colony of China,” argued the activist, who said he had given up his day job earlier this year in order to kick-start his push for independence and universal suffrage.
“Why don’t we just cut off the relationship?” mused Chan, who admitted that his decision to take on Beijing had left his mother, with whom he still lives, concerned. “Then we can have our own government, then we can have democracy. This is a very simple thought.”
Leung, who was born in mainland China but raised in Hong Kong, said the cause had been boosted by Beijing’s refusal to grant genuine democracy to the former colony, even after the 79-day umbrella movement, in which both he and Chan took part.
“Some of us realised that, well, as long as we are under Chinese rule there is no hope to realise democracy or real autonomy in Hong Kong.
“It is still not a mainstream idea – we are still a minority,” Leung admitted. “But we are getting more and more popular and the tendency is growing. And that is the most essential point of our movement – it is growing especially, among our generation.”
Hong Kong’s leader, Leung Chun-ying, has attempted to extinguish growing talk of independence, declaring the topic off-limits. “[Debating independence] is absolutely not a matter of free speech,” he said this week. “[It] is very clear that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of our country. What room for discussion is there?”
Hong Kong’s traditional opposition parties defend the right to openly discuss the idea but dismiss it, in practice, as an unworkable pipe dream.
“We don’t think independence is possible,” said Emily Lau, the chairwoman of the Democratic party, who is stepping down from frontline politics after the coming election. “We eat mainland food. We drink mainland water. How the hell [are we going to become independent?]”
The veteran lawmaker blamed worsening Chinese repression for the “surge” in interest in what she called a “nascent” political group.
Lau said she had warned Zhang Dejiang, one of China’s top leaders, that Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s liberties were fuelling support for independence when he visited the former colony in May.
Many locals felt Hong Kong was now facing its “darkest hours since ’97” following China’s alleged abduction of five local booksellers, Lau recalled telling Zhang, adding: “People want to find a way out and some opt for independence.”
Suzanne Pepper, a political blogger who has been following politics in the former colony since the 1970s, described calls for independence as Hong Kong’s answer to Bernie Sanders’ bid for the White House: ultimately unachievable but nevertheless an effective way to force key topics onto the political agenda.
“[Hong Kong independence is] a complete fantasy. Never. Never. Never. Hong Kong cannot ever be independent,” Pepper said. “But it’s very important that people in Hong Kong understand what is happening ... Beijing is trying to take over. Beijing is trying to integrate this political system with the mainland so it will become ‘one country, one system’.
“The message [from the independence movement] is: we want China to leave us alone,” she added. “And if enough people keep making this argument then Beijing will have to listen.”
Proponents of independence say they have no roadmap for what they admit will be an extremely long and unpredictable hike to freedom.
“I don’t know the exact time. I don’t know how. But it is going to happen. It’s inevitable,” claimed Chan, vowing to use “any means necessary” to achieve his goal. “I don’t limit myself to only peaceful rallies or just limit myself to riots.”
Baggio Leung, another umbrella movement alumnus who backs independence, was also vague about how it might be achieved but hinted it was only likely to happen if the Communist party collapsed.
“What we need to do is to strengthen ourselves and wait for a chance,” said Leung, 30, one of three candidates from the Youngspiration party running in September’s election. “It is somehow like a revolution – no one will have a plan for a revolution.”
On a recent evening, Edward Leung and a group of fellow activists gathered outside a metro station in Hong Kong’s New Territories to lend their support to a Youngspiration campaign event.
Baggio Leung, who is no relation, said Beijing’s bullying meant many young Hong Kongers now felt their only option was to break away from China after 2047, when the 50-year “one country, two systems” model expires.
“We are losing our freedom – freedom of speech, freedom of publishing,” he said, pointing to the case of the missing booksellers. “Can you imagine Hong Kong without freedom? I don’t think that we can still survive.”
Many young Hong Kongers now viewed authoritarian China as a foreign country, Leung added.
“We think that Hong Kong people are somehow different from other nations, like Chinese. We have different cultures, we have different languages, we have different currencies, and our economic system is different from theirs”.
As commuters rushed past, activists waved flags in the sticky night air and erected tall blue and white banners urging them to join the struggle for self-determination.
“Liberate Hong Kong,” read one. “The revolution of our times.”