Two years after China’s leadership slammed the door on political reform for Hong Kong, six young candidates running on separatist platforms won seats in the Sept. 4 election for the territory’s legislature. The rapid rise of a youthful political movement intent on gaining more independence for Hong Kong is a direct result of Beijing’s tightening grip on this former British colony.
The ascendance of separatists is a crisis not only for the Hong Kong government and Beijing, which already faces independence movements in Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. It also threatens the political power of aging leaders of Hong Kong’s democratic camp, who have been advocating political reform for decades and now find themselves outflanked by young radicals with little patience for Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian ways.
The six new separatist legislators, all under the age of 40, were inspired by the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the 79-day mass sit-in protesting Beijing’s refusal to allow democratic reforms in Hong Kong.
The Legislative Council has restricted powers, but it can block government initiatives. Thirty of the 70 LegCo seats are heavily stacked in favor of Beijing and picked by interest groups, while 40 are chosen by the general public from designated districts.
A gain of six seats by separatists, who didn’t run in every district, is remarkable in such a controlled election, considering that two years ago few Hong Kongers publicly advocated breaking from the mainland. The separatists have become a potent third force in the city’s political landscape, where the battles have long been fought between pan-democratic parties and the pro-Beijing government.
For all of their consistent calls for political reform, the territory’s older generation of democrats have been patriotic and willing to work with the mainland, an approach that is not popular among younger Hong Kongers. The youth, frustrated with Beijing and the failure of the Umbrella Movement, are pessimistic about the city’s long-term prospects and Beijing’s creeping influence. They look to the future with trepidation, despair and anger.
When the British handed Hong Kong over to the Chinese in 1997, China committed to 50 years of a “high-degree of autonomy” for the territory, where free speech and a vibrant civic culture have flourished until recently. No one knows what Beijing will do in 2047, but the fear is that Hong Kong will be completely absorbed into China.
Although the separatists are divided into distinct groups with different goals — among them, making Hong Kong a completely autonomous city-state or outright independence — they all want the post-2047 political arrangement put up for public debate. Most of them are aiming to build enough popular support to force Beijing to allow Hong Kongers to vote on a binding referendum on the city’s post-2047 future.
By contrast, the older pan-democratic parties have had little new to offer. The Democratic Party’s political centerpiece in the recent election amounted to asking Beijing to reopen the door to electoral reform. The pan-democratic leaders, in sticking to what is widely viewed by the youth as a depleted strategy, have lost the trust and respect of younger people.
The separatists still face many challenges. Ideological fights within their camp have been bitter and divisive. And leaving aside the possibility of a military crackdown or severe retaliatory economic penalties against Hong Kong by Beijing, secession of the territory from the mainland would be impractical: China controls the bulk of the city’s food, water and much of its energy supply. Meanwhile, much of the Hong Kong public is wary of the youthful radicalism.
China’s leaders appear to think that taking a hard line against the separatist movement can contain it. A stern postelection statement from Beijing said the Hong Kong government should punish independence activists.
This strategy will backfire. It was the heavy-handed behavior of Leung Chun-ying, the pro-Beijing Hong Kong chief executive, that has fueled the separatist movement’s growth in the last two years. Mr. Leung singled out a separatist publication for public reprimand last year, angering Hong Kongers with what they saw as an implicit threat to free speech. He banned a student leader who supported independence from attending his university’s council meetings.
Direct interference from Beijing in local affairs has made matters worse. Last year, five workers at a Hong Kong publisher of provocative political books were kidnapped and brought to the mainland where they were detained.
It may be too late for China to convince the hard-core separatists to back down, but there are steps the leadership could take to stem the growth of the movement.
Beijing should remove its central government staff from Hong Kong. The Central Liaison Office has been blamed for many of Beijing’s illegal interventions in Hong Kong affairs. Pro-Beijing politicians are regularly seen visiting the office, giving the impression they take orders directly from the mainland. Shuttering it is an easy gesture that would remove a source of conflict.
The process of appointing top officials to the city’s anticorruption commission and to university governing bodies should be reformed. The power to appoint these officials now lies with the chief executive, but Mr. Leung has shown that he lets his personal interests influence his choices. A deputy head of the office of the Independent Commission Against Corruption appeared to be forced to resign this year after she allegedly insisted on investigating financial irregularities involving Mr. Leung.
All mainland funding of politicians and unfair efforts to gain votes should be stopped. In recent elections, busloads of elderly people were brought to voting booths by pro-government supporters with the names of their preferred candidates written on their palms. After voting, they were often bused to restaurants.
But even if China’s leaders choose a policy of détente with the people of Hong Kong, Mr. Leung is not the right person to carry it out. His positions have been too overtly pro-Beijing, rankling much of the population. Replacing Mr. Leung when his term ends in March would help mend ties between Beijing and the separatists.
Without a change of the chief executive, we can expect the separatists to make more gains in the next election four years from now.
Lian Yi-Zheng is a political and economic commentator in Hong Kong.