HONG KONG -- A protest movement opposed to integration with mainland China and undaunted by warnings from the Chinese government is straining Hong Kong's relationship with Beijing.
Zhang Dejiang, the third-ranking member of the Communist Party of China, warned delegates from the territory at the National People's Congress on Sunday that "a handful of radical elements is damaging Hong Kong's international image."
Zhang apparently was referring to the "localist" movement that is stirring youths to resist what they see as mainland encroachment on Hong Kong's autonomy. Fierce clashes between localist protesters and police in the Mong Kok area of Kowloon during last month's Lunar New Year holiday left scores injured.
Beijing called the unrest the work of "splittists," a label it applies to anti-government Uighur and Tibetan groups. A candidate belonging to the localist group Hong Kong Indigenous, who gained fame as one of the dozens of protesters arrested in Mong Kok, went on to place third in a Legislative Council by-election, winning a surprising 15% of the vote.
The Umbrella Revolution of 2014 -- weekslong sit-in street protests over proposed changes to the territory's electoral system -- failed to extract concessions from the Chinese government to advance Hong Kong's democracy. The feeling of powerlessness after the occupation ended has helped swell the ranks of localists, who make no bones about using violence, observers say.
Localism appeals to people's anger and frustration, Martin Lee, a veteran lawmaker known as the "father of Hong Kong democracy," told The Nikkei, predicting hard times ahead for moderates. Lee reckons this new element may split the pro-democracy vote in a Legislative Council election in September.
Unease over Beijing's reach here also has been stoked by the disappearances since October of five Causeway Bay Books associates who sold works critical of the Communist Party. Some of them are widely suspected to have been detained in Hong Kong for shipping banned books to the mainland.
Shortly before the National People's Congress convened last weekend, authorities across the border in Guangdong Province informed the Hong Kong side that three of the booksellers would be released soon. Two of them, Lui Por and Cheung Chi-ping, did return but have refused to give Hong Kong police a detailed account of their disappearance.
If they were apprehended by Chinese authorities in Hong Kong, the arrests would violate the "one country, two systems" principle of the territory's self-governance.
The Chinese government has been asked to comment on this matter but needs more time to respond, Michael Tien, a pro-China member of the Legislative Council and delegate to the National People's Congress, told reporters in Beijing.