HONG KONG: A new brand of political activist is taking center stage in Hong Kong, pushing for violent protest and even independence for the city, where the case of disappeared booksellers has fueled mistrust of China.
A seemingly innocuous rally to protect illegal hawkers from health inspectors earlier this month descended into running battles with police in the worst clashes for decades.
Masked protesters hurled bricks, police fired warning shots and the streets were left ablaze in the commercial district of Mong Kok.
Leading the protest were young “localists,” a term coined for radical groups that grew out of the failure of massive pro-democracy rallies in 2014 to win concessions from Beijing on political reform.
They say the recent violence was borne out of frustration with authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing who refuse to listen to their views.
“Our way of protest is a forceful way and an effective way to put pressure on the Beijing government,” Edward Leung of Hong Kong Indigenous, created in 2015, told AFP.
“A war or a battle is inevitable.”
The Mong Kok violence also came at a time of growing fears among the population at large that the semi-autonomous city’s freedoms are ebbing away — an impression that has deepened with the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers known for publishing titles critical of Beijing.
Four of the men are now under criminal investigation on the mainland and the fifth says he is in China “assisting” authorities.
‘Hong Kong nation’
Protesters in Mong Kok drew the ire of Beijing, which branded them “separatists.”
Leung, a 24-year-old philosophy student, is unafraid of the label.
“Our ultimate goal is to build a Hong Kong nation,” he says, describing the group’s followers as predominantly 20-somethings, a mix of students, freelancers and the unemployed.
The localist movement is nebulous, mainly comprising small groups galvanizing support online, with activists keen to keep their identities secret.
But more established radical pro-democracy groups are also now aligning under the “localism” banner.
Veteran social activist Wong Yeung-tat, founder of Civic Passion, set up in 2012, says he does not want to see violence, but describes the riots as a watershed.
“Many protesters think it’s time to fight back,” says Wong, 37.
“In the end, maybe we have to face fighting the revolution.”
Leung was arrested during the Mong Kok street battles, which left more than 100 people injured, and faces a rioting charge alongside more than 30 other participants, with a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
He and other localist groups are also trying legal means to get their message across — Leung will stand in a by-election for a parliamentary seat at the end of February, though is unlikely to win.
“Localism has growing influence among young people but not to the extent that they can do something to upset the system,” says Chung Kim-wah, a professor of social sciences at the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong.
But if authorities remain intransigent they will fuel the fire, Chung adds, particularly if they use force against protesters.
The Hong Kong government faces a delicate balancing act between keeping the peace and satisfying Beijing.
“From Beijing’s perspective, even a minority of radical localists is unacceptable,” said Sonny Lo, professor of social sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.
“Beijing is eager to see a more hardline position adopted by the Hong Kong government.”