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Return of the angry youth: Hong Kong's protests leave umbrella of unity behind
Sydney Morning Herald - September 2, 2016
In less than two years, Alvin Cheng has gone from bespectacled Brisbane accounting student to one of Hong Kong's more recognisable political figures.
Nicknamed "Four-eyed Brother" by the Hong Kong media, he shot to prominence for his combative style during the Occupy pro-democracy demonstrations which swept the city of 7 million in 2014.
Still only 28, he is now running for public office, contesting a seat in Hong Kong's legislative council (LegCo) elections on Sunday. In the typically colourful style of Hong Kong elections, Cheng's campaign material shows him in sporting gear, sweat on his brow, racing forward at full stride.
"It's the critical time for Hong Kong people to take sides," Cheng says. "To identify whether you're a Hongkonger or a Chinese. It's a big difference."
The vote has laid bare divisions that remain in Hong Kong nearly two years after Occupy.
The student-led protests, which were also dubbed the Umbrella Revolution, saw hundreds of thousands occupy streets in key commercial areas for more than two months. They erupted after Beijing's insistence on vetting candidates for Hong Kong's next election of a chief executive in 2017, rather than an unadulterated free vote.
But the movement's failure to force through immediate change has seen a dramatic split among protesters who disagree on how to take the fight forward.
On one side of the split is a previously fringe "localist" movement which seeks to preserve the autonomy and identity of Hong Kong and to keep mainland influence at bay. Many localists openly call for independence from China.
"The turning point is the failure of the Umbrella Revolution because during the whole movement we still had a certain hope to realise democracy as promised," says Edward Leung, a 25-year-old philosophy student and the independence movement's de facto figurehead.
"It was like the last fight for democracy for us, we went to the streets, we initiated civil disobedience... but we failed. The government didn't listen to us. Nothing was achieved, nothing changed."
Previously an almost unspeakable taboo, university polls now show 17 per cent of people in Hong Kong support independence, with that figure rising to as high as 40 per cent among those under 25.
The calls for independence have only become louder after the city's electoral commission disqualified Leung and five other candidates from running ostensibly because their advocacy for independence contravened Hong Kong's Basic Law, the de facto constitution agreed upon the former British colony's return to Chinese rule in 1997.
Thousands marched in protest in what effectively was Hong Kong's first-ever pro-independence rally.
Leung, who had polled well at a by-election just six months ago, was considered a strong chance of securing a seat. He is now throwing his support behind allied candidates and political parties, including Cheng, but remains furious at what he says amounts to a removal of his political rights.
"It was my dream to be a representative for the people and to bring their voices inside the council and to fight for them, to protest inside," says Leung, talking over a bowl of taufufaa, a popular tofu-based dessert.
Antipathy toward the mainland has increased significantly in recent years and is particularly deep-seated among younger Hongkongers, amid a broader backdrop of concern over the city's economy, unaffordable housing and stagnant job prospects for university graduates.
While growing numbers of mainland migrants, students and tourists have been blamed for crowding Hong Kong streets, more insidious has been China's increasing influence in Hong Kong's media and the disappearance of the Causeway Bay booksellers who published books critical of the Communist Party's leadership.
And longer-term anxiety over what will happen when the current arrangement under Hong Kong's Basic Law expires in 2047 have not been helped by Beijing's refusal to allow an unfettered choice for the territory's chief executive.
"We are not extreme, we are idealistic," Leung says. "The source of the problem in political in Hong Kong is a structural problem. It's about our constitution being controlled, manipulated by an authoritarian regime in China.
"We need to think about our future after 2047 we need to allow the chance of self-determination and ultimately we want to promote the idea of independence."
Cheng says the spectre of increasing mainland influence means it is now or never for voters who want Hong Kong to have a chance of staying the same.
"There are 150 mainland Chinese immigrants coming to Hong Kong every day," he says. "They can become voters and most of them won't vote for the Hong Kong people, but vote for the Communist Party."
The design of Hong Kong's legislative council is such that it is stacked heavily in favour of pro-Beijing, pro-business and conservative legislators. Of the 70 seats, half are drawn from geographic constituencies, with the remaining "functional constituencies" made up of voters from occupations and industries like banking, legal services or fisheries, generally dominated by pro-establishment parties. (Pro-democracy legislators currently hold 27 seats.)
While the chances of overturning the pro-establishment majority in LegCo are remote, localists crave a platform and the chance to become a mainstream fixture in local politics.
Election analysts expect localist candidates to win anywhere between one and five seats; in a vote count not dissimilar to the Australian Senate's proportional representation system, minor parties can gain seats with a relatively small percentage of votes.
But the divisions between pro-democracy camps risk cannibalising their support, with prospective votes split between traditional pan-democrat lawmakers, localists and other more moderate young candidates who rose to prominence during the Umbrella Revolution and are desperate to keep fading momentum alive.
The face of those protests, Joshua Wong, is still too young to stand at 19. But his new political party Demosisto, formed with fellow high-profile student protest leaders Agnes Chow and Nathan Law, is running on a platform of self-determination rather than independence, which it considers impractical in the foreseeable future. Demosisto is also pushing for a referendum in 10 years' time to allow Hong Kong's voters to decide their own fate.
The 2014 Occupy protests were notable for the spirit, unity and overwhelmingly peaceful manner in which they were conducted.
But just as the original brains behind the movement, including academic Benny Tai, have increasingly faded into the background, so Demosisto's moderate voice risks being drowned out by louder, angrier ideas.
"Well, definitely, as the notion of self-determination is relatively new, it is quite hard for us to penetrate through a lot of other discussions," Law, 23, says. "But I am optimistic about our results. We hope that everyone who was inspired by the Umbrella Movement but went back to their daily lives – that those people could come out and vote."