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Hong Kong's electoral 'youthquake'

For many in this former British colony, China's vow to allow Hong Kong a "high degree of autonomy" is seen as a failure. The proof is the rise of pro-independence sentiment and a plethora of new political parties advocating the territory's split from the mainland.

Groups like Hong Kong Indigenous, Youngspiration, Demosisto, Hong Kong National Party and a score of others --  advocating self-determination or varying degrees of separation between Hong Kong and mainland China -- emerged from the 2014 "Umbrella Movement" protests and are now fielding young candidates for seats in the Sept. 4 Legislative Council elections. Nearly two dozen other separatist groups have also popped up in local high schools.

Most of those supporting independence, known as "localism" in the territory, either were not born during British colonial rule, which ended in 1997, or are too young to have more than a fleeting memory of the Union Jack flying over government offices. The growing lure of independence -- still considered a radical, minority view -- is a result of the Beijing government's heavy-handedness, a proliferation of mainland visitors and tourists to Hong Kong, and the perceived ineffectiveness of the established pro-democracy parties in standing up to  the mainland's meddling in local affairs.

During the run-up to Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese rule, the word "independence" was never mentioned and hardly even contemplated. The pro-democracy forces were sometimes referred to as the anti-China camp, but they were advocating something far more moderate. Their goal was a democratic Hong Kong where citizens could freely elect their local representatives and, eventually, their chief executive, through universal suffrage, and run their own affairs free of interference from Beijing.

While seen by all sides as an inextricable part of China, the territory was also regarded as decidedly different because of its long, British-inspired traditions of free speech, a free press, an independent judiciary and the rule of law.

Hong Kong, it was thought, might provide a model for what a future more democratic China might look like. It was believed that China would not so much change Hong Kong, but Hong Kong would likely change China. "It's a meshing in of two very divergent systems," a local tycoon told me at the time of the handover. He added optimistically, "Fortunately, they're coming around to our way."

Two decades ago there was a sense of hope in China that continued prosperity would bring more openness. The rise of the internet and the explosion of social media sites like Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, was seen as a new democratizing tool that was empowering citizens, freeing public debate, breaking the party's monopoly of information and making government more accountable to public opinion.

In 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton famously predicted that China's efforts to control and contain the internet were "like trying to nail Jello to the wall."

Receding democratic hopes

But China since then has not become more democratic. If anything, the Communist government in Beijing has become more repressive as it has tightened control and blocked all avenues of dissent. Non-government organizations have been harassed, human rights lawyers, bloggers and suspected dissidents have been jailed, and the once unruly, freewheeling Weibo has been largely curtailed to the point of irrelevancy.

Hong Kong has not been immune from the crackdown in the mainland. Hong Kong journalists have been jailed in China. Last year, the territory was rattled when five staffers of local book publishing house Mighty Current disappeared and were later found to have been spirited away to the mainland, where some gave heavily scripted "confessions" about illegally selling banned books in the mainland. One who later returned to Hong Kong gave a harrowing account of having been abducted, blindfolded and handcuffed by Chinese security agents.

Long before the latest political controversies, some Hong Kongers were becoming increasingly angry about the influx of mainland visitors. Some complained that women from China were coming here to give birth, taking up room in local maternity wards. There were complaints of Chinese shoppers hoarding infant formula and other supplies, causing scarcity and empty store shelves here. In 2012, a group of Hong Kong citizens ran a full page ad in the Apple Daily newspaper comparing mainland visitors to "locusts" and calling for an end to "unlimited infiltration of mainland Chinese couples into Hong Kong."

The simmering discontent boiled over in 2014, when Beijing rejected demands for a more democratic system for choosing Hong Kong's chief executive, the top administrative official in the territory. The standing committee of China's National People's Congress insisted on the vetting of prospective candidates, and limited the choice to just two or three pre-screened individuals. Students protesting the decision launched a 79-day demonstration that blocked major intersections in the city, sparking clashes with police and dividing local society.

The new pro-independence groups are a direct outgrowth of those protests. With separatist sentiment rising on campuses and in high schools, Hong Kong's Bejing-appointed government has been at a loss over how to respond.

Chief executive C.Y. Leung, who has declared that pro-independence talk is not a matter of free speech, said there was no room for such debate in schools and called Hong Kong "an inalienable part" of China. The territory's Education Bureau stoked the furor further when it warned that teachers risked losing their jobs if they did not tamp down the separatist talk in their schools.

The Electoral Affairs Commission stepped into the debate by demanding candidates in the upcoming legislative elections sign a pledge stipulating that they agreed to a statement in Hong Kong's Basic Law, the city's de facto constitution, that Hong Kong was a part of China. The commission then blocked six pro-independence candidates from running, including Edward Leung of Hong Kong Indigenous, who signed the pledge. An election official said she did not believe Leung was being sincere.

Deepening lines of division

Once again, Beijing's ham-fisted attempts at suppression may backfire, as other pro-separatist candidates could benefit from a sympathy vote. On other hand, the pro-China camp could rally against this new threat, and increase its seat count in the legislature -- which may make it easier for Leung to bid for a second term as chief executive next year.

Whatever the outcome, it is clear that the political debate in Hong Kong has shifted. The old moderate democratic center has lost credibility with a new generation of youth, now more radicalized and emboldened.

China's rulers, who may be wondering what brought on this state of affairs, can only look in the mirror. They had two decades to imbue a sense of patriotism and make Hong Kong's young people feel that their unique status living in China's freest, richest city would be protected and preserved. Instead, they are facing a youth rebellion, and it is one of their own making.

Keith B. Richburg, a former Washington Post correspondent, is professor of journalism at the University of Hong Kong. 

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