Beijing needs to listen to and engage HK's radicals

The battle lines have been drawn.

While reaching out to the moderate pan-democrats of Hong Kong, Chinese President Xi Jinping has declared war on the mostly young, more radical pro-democracy activists seen as separatists or pro-independence.

In a speech at a ceremony last Saturday to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to the Chinese fold from British colonial rule, Mr Xi made clear the central government was willing to engage with any Hong Konger of any political stripe, so long as he or she "loves the country, loves Hong Kong and genuinely supports the principle of 'one country, two systems' and the Basic Law", Hong Kong's mini-Constitution.

"One country, two systems" is the principle through which Hong Kong is allowed to have a high degree of autonomy through self-rule and to maintain its capitalist system and way of life for 50 years from the handover in 1997. However, many Hong Kongers feel that their city's autonomy and the people's freedoms have been eroded through increasing interference in the city's governance by the central government.

Later on the same day, at a meeting with the newly inaugurated Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her government, the Chinese leader exhorted them "through legal means" to "strike at and contain independence activities".

Mr Xi also served notice that he wanted an anti-subversion law, allowed for in Article 23 of the Basic Law, passed.

In his speech at the ceremony, he had also said: "Any attempt to endanger China's sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government and the authority of the Basic Law of the HKSAR (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible."

Many in Hong Kong say this will exert pressure on Mrs Lam to pass the anti-subversion law which the city's government, under first chief executive Tung Chee Hwa, had tried to pass in 2003 but gave up after facing strong opposition from Hong Kongers. More than half a million took to the streets on July 1 that year to protest against the Bill because they were concerned that it would curtail their political freedoms.

Mr Xi also wants national education taught in Hong Kong schools, something the city's residents have been opposing vehemently as well, for fear of "brainwashing" young minds with pro-mainland propaganda. Thousands had taken to the streets in 2012 to protest - successfully - against the attempt to introduce compulsory national education in the schools.

Hong Kongers fear "mainlandisation" - the acceptance of values and norms of the mainland. To the Chinese leader, however, national education is needed to draw the city's people closer to the motherland.

Hong Kong "needs to enhance education and raise public awareness of the history and culture of the Chinese nation", he said in his July 1 speech.

At the same time, recognising the grievances of the city's young people over the unaffordability of housing and the lack of social mobility, he called on the city's government to tackle the housing problem and its elites to look into the needs of young people, helping them to solve practical problems and to make something of themselves.

Mr Xi and the central government seem to believe that resolving the economic problems of Hong Kongers - particularly those of young people - would reduce political discontent and give a measure of stability to the city riven by political differences and growing economic inequality. This and suppressing the separatist or independence forces, that is.

Lumped together with these forces are those who have not openly advocated independence but rather self-determination - a higher level of autonomy and a restoration of what they consider "real one country, two systems", as they see this principle as having been eroded by frequent interference in the city's governance by the central government.

This is evident in how the pro-Beijing newspapers, Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao, characterise these groups as pro-independence, said Mr Samson Yuen, 30, who teaches political science at the Open University.

Beijing sees the independence forces as a real threat, said political analyst James Sung of the City University of Hong Kong.

These mainly young, radical pro-democracy activists are still a small minority, even if they had won six seats in last year's Legislative Council, out of 35 geographical seats.

There is therefore no attempt to reach out to these groups, with Mr Xi calling for the city's government to strike at them and contain their activities instead.

Yet, many young Hong Kongers probably identify with or are in tune with the thinking of these groups.

The survey last month on identity by the Hong Kong University showed that only 3.1 per cent of young people aged 18 to 29 saw themselves as "Chinese" or "broadly Chinese", a historical low. Instead, 93.7 per cent of young people see themselves broadly as a "Hong Konger", compared with 68 per cent in 1997.

This year's July 1 march saw very few young people, noted Mr Yuen, adding that many university student unions stayed away.

Some young people blamed the failure of the city's democracy movement on the pro-democracy veterans and refused to cooperate with them. Instead, in recent years, particularly after the Occupy protests of 2014 that called for greater political freedoms, pro-independence and localist groups have emerged.

Groups like Demosisto that stress democratic self-determination will come under fierce attack from the government, alongside the pro-independence localists, because they have the highest political energy, said Mr Yuen.

Dr Sung is of the view that young people support the city's core values of democracy and freedom of speech and are suspicious of the mainland's socialist system and want to maintain a distance from the mainland.

They may not want outright independence, knowing this to be impractical. But they want to be able to determine their own future, he said.

As these young people become the main body of Hong Kong society, he warns, there would be greater ideological conflict.

With Beijing's strategy of economic development and political suppression, coupled with national education for schoolchildren, things are likely to get worse in Hong Kong before they get better.

There is a need to listen to the young radicals, understand them better and engage them if Beijing is to prevent things from sliding further.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2017, with the headline 'Beijing needs to listen to and engage HK's radicals'. Print Edition | Subscribe