HONG KONG – Britain had its Brexit. Now some in Hong Kong are dreaming of their own version.
As the Asian financial center prepares for legislative elections in September, a new wave of radical political activists is planning to join the campaign, including some who advocate the once-unthinkable idea of independence from China.
Separatist sentiment is largely on the fringe but has gained momentum recently, fueled by public fears that Hong Kong's identity is being eroded by mainland China's growing influence. It has the potential to turn a normally humdrum vote into an embarrassment for Beijing by highlighting the challenges the Chinese Communist Party faces as it seeks to exert control over the freewheeling former British colony.
The Hong Kong government has tried to counter the activists. Over the past week election officers have warned candidates they must pledge to uphold Hong Kong's mini-constitution, including a section stating the city is an "inalienable" part of China. Some candidates have refused to sign that part of the nomination form because they say it amounts to political screening. Others have launched legal challenges but the High Court declined to rule before Friday's deadline.
Hong Kong became part of China in 1997 after more than a century of British rule. As part of the deal paving the way for Beijing to take control under a 50-year transition period, it guaranteed Hong Kong could have considerable autonomy and keep the rule of law and its own legal and financial system.
Beijing will never accept Hong Kong independence. During a visit earlier this year, Zhang Deijiang, the Chinese Communist Party official responsible for overseeing the city, warned groups "flying the banner of Hong Kong independence" against trying to "override the law." China's nationalist Global Times newspaper last month blasted independence as "a joke."
It's hard to gauge the true extent of support in Hong Kong for independence, which has become a serious political topic only this year, discussed on news sites, Facebook groups and at universities.
In a rare poll on the topic released Sunday by Chinese University of Hong Kong , some 17.4 percent of Hong Kongers support independence after 2047, with support strongest among the young. At the same time, less than 4 percent of the 1,010 people surveyed thought independence was even possible. The poll was conducted by phone July 6-15 and has a margin of error of 3.1 percent.
"The Hong Kong government and the central government in Beijing appear to be deeply concerned about the possible entry of the radical localists into the legislative chamber," said Sonny Lo, a political analyst at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.
The term localists refers to small, incipient factions that reject mainland China's rising influence, which they fear threatens the city's unique Cantonese-based culture. Recent mysterious detentions of five Hong Kong booksellers by mainland authorities have fed concerns about Chinese law enforcement's overreach.
Localists generally want full democracy, including a Western-style election for the city's leader, currently hand-picked by a panel of Beijing loyalists. Some push instead for full autonomy under China. A few even want to go back to Britain.
Some espouse taking radical action including violence to achieve their aims, and criticize traditional established mainstream pro-democracy parties who have pursued gentler means.
Such views remain far from mainstream and are unpalatable to Hong Kong's substantial middle class, who "crave stability and prosperity ... and who think independence is unrealistic," said Ming Sing, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
That isn't stopping the next generation of young political activists, who emerged after 2014's failed nonviolent street protests over Beijing's decision to restrict elections. One high-profile localist candidate, university student Edward Leung of Hong Kong Indigenous , was one of three people who filed legal challenges this week after an election officer questioned their political stance.
Leung, 25, was among dozens charged with rioting after a violent nightlong clash with police over illegal street food hawkers in February. Two weeks later he lost a by-election, coming third out of seven but garnering 15 percent of the votes and shocking Hong Kong's political establishment with an unexpectedly strong level of support.
Leung, who has advocated independence , said he decided to sign the nomination pledge after taking legal advice. He told the election officer he renounced some previous statements attributed to him that he called "hearsay," in what appeared to be a calculated effort to get on the ballot.
"This is the only thing I could do to in order to get into the election," Leung said. "I won't leave any room for them to declare my nomination is invalid."
Another candidate, Andy Chan of the Hong Kong National Party , said he declined to answer similar questions. His small party also demands independence although it hasn't detailed strategies.
Election officers have "no right to review our political stance, our political ideas," Chan, a 25-year-old recent university graduate, told reporters.
Analysts say that in the short term, Hong Kong's localist movement doesn't pose a big risk to the city's overall prosperity and stability.
"However, in the medium to long run, the risks can be multiplied," if authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong don't deal with the underlying factors that have fueled the movement, said Sing, the professor. Those factors include policies giving priority to mainland Chinese, sky-high property prices and poor job prospects for young people.
Weakening economic growth could stoke political alienation. Hong Kong's economy shrank on quarterly basis in the first three months of the year and could slide into recession when the latest quarter's data is released in mid-August.
"In economically bad times this kind of radical localism will have the potential of being translated into stronger anti-government sentiment and movement," said Lo, the analyst. "That's the real danger."
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