Hong Kong Independence Goes From Fringe Cause to Contender

Wong Yueng-tat

Wong Yeung-tat.

Photographer: Xaume Olleros/Bloomberg
  • So-called localists lament city 'changing into mainland China'
  • Sunday election to test movement seeking break with Beijing

On the sixth floor of a commercial building in Hong Kong’s semi-industrial Kowloon East is an office stuffed with the paraphernalia of protest. Megaphones lie on the floor next to piles of pamphlets, backpacks and leftover red and gold Lunar New Year decorations.

In a corner is a makeshift radio-and-television studio with chairs lined up facing a camera. A white backdrop is festooned with the gold logo of Civic Passion, a party advocating independence for Hong Kong whose leader, Wong Yeung-tat, said he was beaten by police during a protest that descended into a riot earlier this month. Wong joined the fracas after police fired two warning shots to ward off surging protesters.

Wong and his supporters are among a small, but growing number of voices calling for Hong Kong’s independence, a position that could put the former British colony on a collision course with Beijing if it acquires broader support. Some of the so-called localists favor a more forceful response than the largely peaceful 2014 Occupy protests, shocking the city when they escalated a Feb. 9 confrontation with police into a riot that injured more than 90 officers.

“Hong Kong people feel there is no way out,” said Wong, a 36-year-old former film script writer who founded Civic Passion in 2012 to fight against what he sees as China’s growing encroachment. “We don’t have democracy or human rights.”

A test for the movement will come Sunday, when the leader of another pro-independence party, Edward Leung Tin-kei, competes for a seat on the city’s Legislative Council. Leung was arrested on a rioting charge after the clashes and released on bail.

“Some young people are being drawn to these groups that really want to push back at what they see as a threat to their way of life,” said James Rice, an assistant professor of philosophy and law at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University. They’re fed up with the inability of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy parties to stand up to the Beijing-backed local administration, he said.

Blamed for Riots

The riot involved more than 700 people and police have arrested more than 70 suspected participants. Beijing’s top representative in Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming, branded participants as “radical separatists” who were "inclined toward terrorism." That puts them in the same category as the most extreme dissidents of Tibet and Xinjiang, where reports of deadly clashes between Communist Party security forces and ethnic minorities are common. 

How much support Hong Kong’s localists command and how the riots have colored views about them is difficult to gauge. While their rallies usually attract a few hundred, they have strong support on university campuses, with a localist group winning more than 60 percent of the vote in a student union election at the Chinese University of Hong Kong this week. Localists helped organize protests against parallel traders from the mainland last year that led Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and mainland authorities to restrict cross-border trips.

A victory for Edward Leung, a leader of Hong Kong Indigenous, in Sunday’s election would shock the political establishment. His group has been blamed for inciting the riots with a Facebook post summoning supporters to Mong Kok with face-masks, water and protective gear to protest what was seen as a crackdown on street vendors. 

Legislative Election

"Take back our future and our Hong Kong," Edward Leung, who’s not related to the chief executive, said at a election rally last Saturday, according to the South China Morning Post. "We have no connection to the vested interest in the old system.”

A bigger test comes in September with the first full elections for Hong Kong’s legislative body in four years. Civic Passion is considering fielding three candidates in an alliance with Horace Chin Wan-kan, an academic, and incumbent lawmaker Wong "Mad Dog" Yuk-man, who’s unrelated to Wong Yueng-tat. Chin wrote a book in 2011 that advocates Hong Kong become a city state and has become a handbook for localists. Wong Yuk-man is known for his dogged criticism of the Communist Party and once threw bananas at the city’s chief executive.

Missing Booksellers

“A lot of Hong Kong people share their frustration, so you’ll probably see some support for them in the election,” said Michael Davis, a Hong Kong University constitutional law professor. “There has always been this Beijing-knows-best attitude in the government, so I would hope they would start to recognize that this might be a message.”

The sense of disenfranchisement has been underlined by inequality. Consulting firm Demographia last month identified Hong Kong as the most unaffordable housing market it’s ever measured in 11 years of global surveys. The wealth divide has fueled perceptions that the government is more concerned with the interests of local tycoons and rich mainlanders than those of ordinary citizens.

Another source of angst is a stream of events that seem to show China chipping away at the “One Country, Two Systems” concept that the U.K. agreed to before returning Hong Kong in 1997. The disappearance of Lee Bo, owner of a store that sells books critical of China’s Communist Party, has also heightened worries, with U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond calling it a "serious breach" of the country’s agreement with Beijing.

Chinese police confirmed Lee, who’s also known as Lee Po, was in China after vanishing from Hong Kong in late December, sparking allegations he was kidnapped. The police still haven’t explained how Lee crossed the border without travel documents or the knowledge of Hong Kong immigration.

Four of Lee’s colleagues have been also detained in China. One, an author and Swedish citizen named Gui Minhai, disappeared from Thailand in October and was shown on Chinese state television last month confessing to a 2004 fatal drunk-driving incident.

Protecting Identity

The case has prompted caution among activists like Wong. Leaving his office to pose for a photograph in the street below, Wong called his wife to join him. 

“I never go outside unaccompanied,” Wong said. “If the police take me, I can give her my iPhone. I don’t want them to have that.”

The localist movement was emerging before Occupy Central, its ideas gaining traction from what might seem like small slights. In 2012, Dolce & Gabbana banned pedestrians from photographing its Hong Kong storefronts, suggesting the policy was intended to protect rich mainland Chinese shoppers. The ban drew street protests.

“D&G was an event really important for Hong Kong localism,” said Wong, who founded his party the same year. “It was the first time Hong Kongers realized they had to do something to protect our identity, to fight for our identity.”

Language Wars

The localists took up other causes. They railed against the influx of Chinese shoppers and mainland mothers arriving to give birth in the city’s hospitals to obtain the right to permanent residency for their children. They joined protests against the displacement of Hong Kong’s Cantonese language by Mandarin and changes to the education system to promote China’s view of history. 

Last year, Civic Passion joined with Hong Kong Indigenous in the demonstrations against parallel trading, in which mainland shoppers buy up milk powder and other hard-to-get-in-China products, leaving Hong Kong shelves bare. 

“I smell something in Hong Kong -- Hong Kong is changing into mainland China,” Wong said. “Our culture, our lifestyles, our language and our beliefs are being destroyed by the Beijing government.”

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