After a month of student-led democracy protests in central Hong Kong in 2014, there was a moment when the students and Hong Kong’s government seemed to be on the verge of actually agreeing on something.
“At one important juncture, the student leaders asked me to talk to senior [Hong Kong] government officials to explore the possibilities of conducting a debate,” says Hong Kong University Political Science professor Joseph Chan.
With Chan’s coaxing, the Hong Kong government, which was pro-China, agreed.
“They had a pretty successful public debate televised, live,” Chan recalls. “Everyone was watching in Hong Kong because that was a turning point of the movement.”
But afterwards when the leaders of the Umbrella Movement took the stage in central Hong Kong and spoke to crowds of supporters, the goodwill seemed to vanish.
“They became extremely critical. They thought the government was wasting their time,” Chan says.
Six of those protest leaders are now part of Hong Kong Legislative Council. A record number of voters helped elect them to council in early September. But after election night celebrations, many in Hong Kong woke up wondering: What now?
“I’m not sure if they have such a thing as a plan,” says Hong Kong legislator Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, with a chuckle. “They’re very young.”
Cheung says these former protest leaders – now known as localists – don’t agree on how Hong Kong should assert itself with China.
“They’re very divided. They’re not together. They all belong to different organizations. Some don’t belong to anybody. So I think we’re not looking at a very concerted effort,” he says.
What many observers think they’re looking at instead are frustrated young people. Longtime Hong Kong journalist and media consultant David Schlesinger says their world has changed.
“If you look back 20 years, [Hong Kong] people felt very superior to their cousins in the mainland,” recalls Schlesinger. “They looked down on the mainlanders that came here with bad manners, bad language skills, bad clothes, and who didn’t really understand business.”
But then China’s government resumed control over Hong Kong in 1997, as Britain relinquished its colonial rule, and mainland China’s economy grew faster than any other. Hong Kong millennials suddenly had a lot to deal with.
“Now mainlanders come and often times they’re better educated,” says Schlesinger, “they have better English, they have better business skills, they have multiple degrees from prestigious institutions, and they get the best slots in law firms and banks, and it’s the Hong Kongers who lose out.”
When Britain ceded control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, part of the deal was that the model of “one country, two systems” was to remain in force for 50 years. The idea was that Hong Kong would be able to keep its style of government and its identity without being overwhelmed by China. And 50 years seemed a long way off.
But Hong Kong legislator Claudia Mo thinks the city’s new batch of elected officials will stir things up and try to fight for Hong Kong’s rights in the three decades before 2047 when China is set to do away with the “one country, two systems” model and assume full sovereignty over the city.
“I think Hong Kong will become even more vibrant on the political front. You could easily see Umbrella Movement, part two,” she says.
Her colleague Fernando Cheung agrees.
“The younger people are really fed up,” says Cheung. “The anger level is certainly growing. I don’t want to see anybody get killed, but we’re moving towards that direction.”
Cheung says what it means to be a Hong Konger has changed since China began taking control of the city nearly two decades ago.
“The older generation has family members back in China,” says Cheung, “and they identify themselves as Chinese. The younger generation doesn’t see the mainland that way. Everything they see about China is negative. (They see) mainlanders as dirty, impolite, and people who take away our resources.”
Cheung says many young Hong Kongers have begun to see themselves as a different ethnicity from mainland Chinese, something that disturbs him.
“To them, it makes a lot of sense, because we have a different history, a different civilization, culture, and even language,” he says. “There’s hatred. There’s anger.”
But not all young Hong Kongers are angry with mainland China. In Tamar Park, which was a rallying place for democracy protesters two years ago, millennials Kevin Leung and Teddy Lee, both auditors who work in the city’s financial district, say they’re tired of divisions in the city.
“Hong Kong is a part of China,” says Lee. “Hong Kong cannot really work well without China’s help, and I would call myself Chinese.”
“In general, Hong Kong people are not too involved politically,” says Leung. “I support people who fight for what they believe in, but I think I’m going to take the middle way, because the sides are getting polarized in a way. Getting polarized is not good.”
The two may be in the minority. A recent Hong Kong University poll shows that, for the first time, a majority of city residents call themselves “Hong Kongers” instead of “Hong Kongers in China.”
Professor Joseph Chan says the city has reached a turning point.
“If Beijing doesn’t change their tactics towards Hong Kong, there’s a high chance that China will lose the hearts and minds of Hong Kong people forever,” he says. “And does that matter to Beijing? I think so. It would show to the world that China and its Communist Party cannot rule a highly developed economy and a cosmopolitan society like Hong Kong’s.”