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News analysis

Hong Kong's young radicals a bigger thorn in Beijing's side

It was touted as a "black mask" protest in which 1,000 demonstrators would besiege the China Liaison Office in Hong Kong for 48 hours and start fires in objection to Beijing's increasing influence in the city.

In the end, no one turned up for the protest that was to start at 7pm on July 1, the 19th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China after more than 150 years of British rule.

The area was heavily guarded by hundreds of policemen, and the young organisers from the Hong Kong National Party, Hong Kong Indigenous and Youngspiration - radical localist parties calling for a stronger Hong Kong identity and even for separation from the mainland - decided to call it off.

But these and other similar groups, small and marginal though they are and mostly made up of young people, have made their presence felt by their willingness to resort to violence - including the Mongkok riot during Chinese New Year in February - and their radical views.

They have also made the pan-Democrats - traditional "enemies" of the Chinese authorities for advocating greater democracy for the city - more acceptable to Beijing.

The young radicals have pushed Beijing to make a conciliatory gesture towards the pro-democracy camp, recognising veteran opposition parties as part of the establishment, said political analyst Willy Lam.

The rare gesture was made in May when National People's Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang hosted four pan-Democratic party leaders to a reception during his visit to Hong Kong.

This is part of Beijing's efforts to improve the political environment by cultivating a relationship with the opposition, noted Professor Lau Siu Kai, vice-chair of the Beijing-backed Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies.

Political observer Ching Cheong, commenting on Mr Zhang's move to meet the pan-Democrats, said this is because Beijing saw the pro-independence groups as more "dangerous political forces".

He added that Mr Zhang, China's third-highest ranking official, "adjusted his tactics to include the pan-Democratic legislators in the 'friends' group and not the 'enemies' group".

Indeed, Mr Wang Guangya, who heads the Beijing government's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, has said pan-Democrats are "part of the establishment" in the eyes of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-Constitution, and Beijing hopes they would become "a constructive force".

Analysts said the change in attitude towards the mainstream opposition parties is an attempt by Beijing to marginalise the radical separatists. Even the Hong Kong media that toes the government line has taken on the same conciliatory tone.

A recent report in pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao called the pan-Democrats "among those who are patriotic", and "people with different opinions, but they should still be considered among friends".

Mr Alan Leong of the Civic Party, who was among the four pan-Democrats to meet Mr Zhang, agreed that without the rise of radicalism in Hong Kong, the state leader might not have met them. But this change of heart by Beijing may not be all positive for the pan-Democrats. Analysts said some Hong Kongers may associate the pan-Democrats' "acceptance" by Beijing as their going soft on the central government, so that they might risk losing their appeal to voters in the September Legislative Council (Legco) elections.

In a sign of what might come, Mr Edward Leung, 25, the leader of Hong Kong Indigenous and an active participant in protests, stunned older politicians when he garnered 66,000 votes or 15.4 per cent of the vote at a February by-election in the New Territories.

Sounding a cautionary note, Mr Leong said that if the friendly gesture by Beijing is a "strategic move" to try to sway voters in the upcoming Legco elections, then "it is not very promising".

But for now, the rise of localism is seen as a good thing as it has brought about a sea change in the central government's attitude towards Hong Kong, which some hope could lead to some kind of political reform in the city.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2016, with the headline 'HK's young radicals a bigger thorn in Beijing's side'. Print Edition | Subscribe