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FieldNotes

'If you love China, you hate Hong Kong'

A young generation of Hong Kongers, fed up with the central government's encroachment into the territory's affairs, is embracing a more militant form of 'localism' to push for independence, to the consternation of Beijing as well as Hong Kong's established political leaders.

When Mr Lee Kuan Yew died in March last year, the clip of him tearfully announcing Singapore's uncoupling from Malaysia 51 years ago went viral in certain circles in Hong Kong.

Since Singapore could secede from Malaysia then, so too can Hong Kong do the same from China now, goes the thinking of those who shared it on social media.

"If Hong Kong and China can separate, as Malaysia and Singapore did in 1965, this is good for both sides," says Mr Martin Oei, 38, a commentator from the localism movement.

The idea of Hong Kong as an independent state is not as far-fetched as it seems, he argues.

He draws parallels between the current discord between the two sides of the Shenzhen River today, and the tensions across the Johor Strait in the 1960s.


Chinese University of Hong Kong student union president Chow Shue Fung (right), 19, and undergraduate Jocelyn Wong, 20, who is part of Mr Chow's team. Localist activists like Mr Chow now appear to be on the rise in the city, advocating greater autonomy - even independence - for Hong Kong.  ST PHOTO: LI XUEYING

When Singapore finally extricated itself from Malaysia, it became free to become the developed country it is today "because Mr Lee could fully implement his manifesto without Kuala Lumpur's intervention, and there were no racial conflicts in Singapore again", Mr Oei says.

Meanwhile, with an independent Hong Kong, Beijing sidesteps having to deal with a fractious populace and the prospect of conflict, he adds.

Such chatter about Hong Kong's independence has sprung up online, on Facebook, news sites and blogs popular with youth, and is also often heard on the streets, in universities, and on the campaign trail.

On a recent Sunday, social science undergraduate Eva Leung , 21, is distributing campaign leaflets in Shatin, a major suburb in New Territories East. She and other students are helping Mr Edward Leung, 24, a spokesman for localist group Hong Kong Indigenous, who is running in a Legislative Council (LegCo) by-election.

She speaks plainly about what she believes in. She says: "We should not be part of China; it does not care about Hong Kong's well-being."

And like many localists who say violence is necessary to achieve their goals, she says it should be wielded especially in "self-defence", such as in Mongkok.

Mongkok was the site of a bloody melee over Chinese New Year last month, when protesters, led by Hong Kong Indigenous, clashed with police in an ostensible bid to defend illegal hawkers against a raid.

The episode did not hurt Mr Leung at the election two weeks later. Hitherto an unknown, the undergraduate placed third among seven candidates, with a respectable 15 per cent of votes. Analysts say they expect localists to make further headway in the full LegCo polls in September.

In other arenas, too, localists appear to be on the rise.

In universities, student leaders advocating greater autonomy - even independence - for Hong Kong, are taking the helm. Among them, the Chinese University of Hong Kong's student population has just voted in a localist student union team.

Its president, Mr Chow Shue Fung, 19, aims to promote localism on campus via talks and seminars. In the long run, he hopes, this will help localist politicians gain a critical minority in the LegCo.

Specific goals include mandating that all overseas students learn Cantonese. He also wants all signage and documents in simplified Chinese to be removed from campus and replaced with the traditional characters used by Hong Kongers.

"I am a Hong Konger, not a Chinese," he says simply.

At its broadest level, localism - the idea of putting Hong Kong front and centre of everything - is uncontroversial, earning plaudits even from establishment figures.

NOT TRUSTWORTHY

We don't trust Joshua Wong because he is an opportunist. He previously said he considers himself a Chinese but, now, he is changing his tune and saying he wants a referendum on self-determination.

MR LEWIS LAU, 26, who runs news site Local Press, which pushes the localism agenda, on the 19-year-old Scholaris leader.

It could be a "positive" force, harnessing "a strong passion and pride in... identities, traditions and cultures", Financial Secretary John Tsang said in December. This was how the movement started a decade ago, when heritage activists lobbied for preservation of Hong Kong icons such as the Queen's Pier.

A more political wing emerged after a 2011 book by academic Chin Wan made the argument for Hong Kong as a city-state. At rallies, a ragtag band of protesters waved the Union Jack, calling for a return to British rule. But it remained firmly on the far fringes, and was not taken seriously by mainstream society.

The latest surge seems more potent. The failure of the Occupy movement in 2014 - which stressed the use of non-violence - to achieve its goals of greater freedoms for Hong Kong radicalised a wide swathe of youth.

"It showed that moderate ways do not work," says undergraduate Jocelyn Wong, 20, a former member of student group Scholarism, which had helped lead Occupy. She is now a member of Mr Chow's team.

LOCALISM AND ITS OBJECTIVES

So, how big is this new wave of localists, what do they want, and how do they intend to achieve it?

It is hard to pin any of this down. It is an amorphous movement with a loose network of factions and individuals. There are few studies on this nascent movement.

Journalism academic Francis Lee says: "The tide appears to be moving towards pro-independence. But how strong the tide is, we don't know yet."

A University of Hong Kong survey found that more people are identifying themselves as Hong Kongers rather than Chinese.

Overall, localist supporters could number in the low hundreds of thousands (in the New Territories East poll, Mr Leung received 66,500 votes).

Second, independence remains a radical cause that many people steer clear of. Knowing this, localists are not giving "a clear road map" of how they hope to achieve their aims, says Mr Lewis Lau, 26, who runs news site Local Press, which pushes the localism agenda.

But interviews yield some common threads.

On one level, it is about ring-fencing Hong Kong's identity and resources.

Says Dr Lee: "Localism is very strongly grounded in the differences between Hong Kongers and the 'invading' mainlanders'. Localists hate tolerance; they focus on Hong Kong's identity as a distinctive ethnic group, whose interests are being damaged."

Thus, for instance, rowdy localist protesters heckle mainland day-trippers as "locusts who deprive locals" of goods like formula milk. The entry of mainland immigrants, subject to a daily quota of 150, is also a festering issue. The mainland authorities decide who gets to come in.

Mr Lau underscores the unease, saying: "They are here, not just as tourists but residents, speaking putonghua (Mandarin). And you wonder, am I in Hong Kong or China?"

IT manager S. C. Lam, 40, says he supports localism. "We have lost too much to the Chinese - our economy, social welfare, our water. Traditional ways have not worked, so let's give localism a shot."

More incendiary is the issue of Hong Kong's political status. There is a wide spectrum of opinions on this, even within the camp.

Mr Edward Yau, 39, a popular writer on localism, says some people want "full autonomy" under the "one country, two systems" formula. This means the freedom to elect their leader and a fully hands-off approach by Beijing in Hong Kong's affairs.

Other scenarios sound like pure delusion. Some want Britain to take back the city. Hong Kong, they say, could be like the Falkland Islands, an overseas British territory. A variation of this is to have Hong Kong come under the protection of the United Nations or the United States. Yet another idea is a regional confederation like the European Union. Hong Kong could also band with some Chinese provinces to form a federation, others suggest.

The underlying premise is the collapse of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in China, which many localists reckon is a possibility in the future, says Mr Yau.

"Some think that if the CCP faces a political or economic crisis, it may not be able to control Hong Kong. China may, then, also need Hong Kong as a final economic or diplomatic gateway, and so will give it what it wants."

MAKING HK 'UNGOVERNABLE'

Before this happens, says Mr Chow, what the localists can do is to "make Hong Kong ungovernable" - hence the use of violence.

He explains the thinking as such: "If I am CY (Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying), why should I listen to you if you do no harm to me or my government or the economy? Instead, we need to use more practical ways to get them to listen to us. We will not obey the principles of peace or non-violence."

After all, "if Hong Kong becomes ungovernable, there is no point for China to hold on to it", Mr Chow says.

In preparation for this scenario, there are ruminations about how Hong Kong can be "another Singapore", self-sufficient in food and water, and able to handle its diplomacy and defence, which is now under the aegis of the central Beijing government.

Entering the LegCo will help activists win resources in the form of allowances and office space, which they could use to get organised, says Mr Lau.

More importantly, by becoming a force in the political field, it forces the moderate pan-Democrats to "radicalise", says Mr Yau. "We will not get half (the support), but we can influence the centre."

Beijing's reaction to all this has been expectedly thunderous - it has branded the Mongkok rioters "separatists" - a label Mr Chow says he accepts "with honour".

Asked whether localism will simply cause Beijing to tighten its grip on Hong Kong, such as by ramming through an anti-subversion law, Mr Lau says: "It will happen anyway."

JOSHUA WONG 'NOT TRUSTED'

But localism could well implode before gaining further traction.

A lack of organisation is its Achilles' heel, says Mr Lau.

Mr Yau terms it "cyber balkanisation". There is plenty of in-fighting, he says.

He himself has been dismissed by activists as being "too moderate".

He is critical of Mr Edward Leung's organisation, saying it was "dishonest" about its agenda behind the Mongkok riot, which he believes it kick-started as a form of campaigning for the LegCo election.

Localists are also unlikely to build outside allies, being scornful of pan-Democrats and even Occupy leaders.

"We don't trust Joshua Wong because he is an opportunist," says Mr Lau.

Mr Wong is the 19-year-old Scholarism leader who was the poster boy for the Occupy movement.

"He previously said he considers himself a Chinese but, now, he is changing his tune and saying he wants a referendum on self-determination," Mr Lau adds.

On the old-school pan-Democrats who have said they are Chinese patriots who "love China but hate the CCP", he says: "To us, if you love China, you hate Hong Kong."

Dr Lee says: "The degree of venom towards the pan-Democrats is even higher than towards the pro-Beijing establishment because localists see them as selling out."

How major a force the localists can become remains to be seen. Many older Hong Kongers, say Dr Lee, might have desired independence in the run-up to 1997, but would be against it now because of their fear of Beijing's reaction. "So, an absolute majority will not have any interest in this."

Retired university administrator Terry Chan, 65, embodies such thinking. "We may have wanted independence but it's futile as Hong Kong is part of China." About Mr Edward Leung, she adds: "He has idealism but is young and a bit extreme. When he starts working, I'm sure he will come round to reality."

Will he - and will they?

In the belief that improving the lot of young Hong Kongers is key in defusing their anger, Beijing and the Hong Kong government have stated that this is a priority.

But will affordable housing and good jobs mitigate against the hankering for what many have said is their ultimate goal: to be masters of their own destiny? Mr Yau's declaration may provide the answer: "I am a Chinese - just like a Chinese in Singapore, Taiwan or the US."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2016, with the headline 'FieldNotes 'If you love China, you hate Hong Kong''. Print Edition | Subscribe