As Hong Kong’s biggest protests in a generation raged around her, one 23-year-old Chinese student cut a calm but lonely figure.
Hong Kong students had poured out of her university to chant and sing for democracy on the streets but Ding Hui [not her real name], a graduate student from the Chinese mainland, decided to keep going to her classes.
“You cannot ignore the protests,” she said. “There are always people at the subway station handing out fliers urging us to take part.
“But I personally do not think it is necessary to protest on the street. Mainlanders understand this better than Hong Kongers. When Beijing makes a decision, it is basically impossible for you to change it by protesting and if you try, things can spiral out of control.”
Her willingness to accept the Communist party’s vast power is an illustration of the gulf that remains between Hong Kong, a pluralistic, global city driven by trade and ideas, and the mainland, where it remains dangerous to think too deeply about politics.
“A lot of commentators do not realise the boundaries: that there are big differences between Hong Kong’s political system and life, and mainland China’s system,” said Jean Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist at Hong Kong’s Baptist University.
Some of his mainland students have been drawn into the protests, and he believes there has been a gradual change of mindset among young mainlanders. “But it is true that the few who are not boycotting classes are mostly from the mainland,” he said.
Since the 1989 Tiananmen protests, the Chinese have been relentlessly drilled on the dangers of political activism.
“While people are reporting that the protest is peaceful, I think it is hard for people to control their emotions,” said Ms Ding.
“At a sit-in at my university, there were some radicals chanting about Tiananmen Square and the Falun Gong [a banned spiritual movement]. I think they were trying to incite the crowd. I generally do not think protests can remain peaceful indefinitely,” she said.
Besides, she added, mainland Chinese are charged such high fees to attend university in Hong Kong that “we joke we would be losing thousands of yuan for each class we miss”.
While many mainlanders understand that Beijing is trying to rig Hong Kong’s next election, and the simmering anger at how Hong Kong’s society has become more unfair since the handover in 1997, they view the protests as childish and ungrateful. “They feel that Hong Kong is just a bunch of spoiled brats,” said Prof Cabestan, laughing. “But this is a bit unfair, because a lot of people here are not that rich and they are struggling.”
“For Chinese who haven’t been to Hong Kong, they do not understand why they are protesting. They think it is a farce and it should not be allowed,” said Ms Ding. “And among my mainland student friends, the majority are against it. They think it will hurt the relationship between Hong Kong and China and that it is unnecessary.”
Protests involving thousands of people regularly occur on the mainland, but usually tied to a specific and concrete injustice – such as a polluting factory or an attempt by local officials to seize land unlawfully – rather than to challenge the political system.
In many ways, the protests are a rejection of China, an attempt to define Hong Kong as a special city with its own separate culture.
“What we want to demonstrate is that we have not given up,” said Joseph Cheng, a politics professor at City University, Hong Kong.
“We have not sacrificed our principles. It is not just about the election system, it is about our core values, our lifestyle, our dignity. We are very concerned that Hong Kong could become just another big city in China. People worry that if they do not speak out now, they will lose the chance to speak out at all in the future.”
Wednesday, a public holiday for China’s National Day, will be a major test. “It will be important, maybe decisive, because the movement will have an occasion to make a show of force and see whether it is supported by the mainstream,” said Prof Cabestan. If huge numbers flock to the protest zones, Beijing may have to reconsider and even perhaps negotiate again the terms of the 2017 election. China has a track record of flexibility in the face of public opposition from Hong Kong, even as its leaders remain wary of setting a precedent by backing down.
But if the numbers remain at their current levels, the protests are likely to lose momentum. Whatever happens, Beijing felt comfortable enough on Tuesday that it broadcast the protests on the main 7pm national news bulletin for the first time.
Additional reporting by Adam Wu.
Malcolm Moore is the Telegraph’s Beijing correspondent.