Tea Leaf Nation
Meet the Man Who Wants to Make Hong Kong a City-State
Amid fears of growing Chinese influence, a radical nativist movement wants to keep Hong Kong for Hong Kongers.
HONG KONG – Beneath an elevated subway station, with cars whizzing past, Ray Wong exhorted citizens on a recent Sunday to join a revolution – just not in so many words.
“If we allow communists to prescreen our chief executive,” the head of Hong Kong’s officially independent government, then “the chief executive will not represent us!” Wong boomed into a microphone. He scanned the tide of pedestrians sweeping past, searching for a receptive ear. The city, he said, must reject a Beijing-backed elections plan that’s up for a vote this spring and defy Chinese leaders from exerting more control over Hong Kong. Remember, Wang noted, that the nation silenced the last call for democracy in 1989. “If you do not want the slaughtering-unarmed-students communist government to prescreen our chief executive, we must stand firm and reject this arrangement!” Wong’s lanky frame was decked in a crisp, light blue tee shirt with white letters reading, “Hong Kong Indigenous.” Most shoppers scooted to a nearby mall without looking his way.
These are low days for democracy in Hong Kong. A few months back a massive street occupation sought free elections and beckoned everyone to debate the city’s political future. Since then, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, the university group that led tens of thousands of people to stand up to riot police, splintered, accused of being opaque and incompetent. Scholarism, another student group that led protesters, has been muted, focused mostly on posting objections to the election plan on social media. Old guard democrats are playing parliamentary games. Weeks from a vote that could give Hong Kong its first direct elections in history – albeit for candidates backed by Beijing – with the city split on the plan, the fire and heat of last fall has been doused.
Into this vacuum has stepped Wong and dozens of angry youth. Their friendships forged during the protests, many of them said they had wanted to provoke the police during the occupation to force government concessions, but lost out to more moderate voices. Since then, these activists have argued online and on the streets that Hong Kong, 17 years after Britain turned the colony back to Beijing, would be better off without China. For the city to self govern, these youth say, it must fight off a mainland “incursion” that threatens the city’s language, culture, and traditions that are distinct – and superior, they argue – from those of the People’s Republic. Their first step has been to discourage mainland arrivals.
Weeks after the police cleared the protest camps, Wong started Indigenous, a grassroots group with about 40 members, and headed to the city’s northern suburbs near the mainland border. There Wong, along with members of the radical political party Civic Passion, led hundreds of people to protest the illicit trade in powdered baby formula and other goods hauled off in suitcases by mainlanders. The gatherings were ugly and at times violent, with participants cursing at mainland tourists riding northbound buses. To a degree, the demonstrations worked. After the third gathering, the central government said it would restrict Shenzhen residents to one visit a week. It was the kind of concrete concession democracy protesters had failed to secure.
Wong’s brand of nativism has attracted working-class youth as well as elite college students and graduates frustrated by the slow drip of political change. Many agree with Wong’s message that preserving Hong Kong for Hong Kongers is the best way to fight for democracy. If residents strengthen the city’s identity, they will be ready one day to leave the mainland and form a city-state akin to Singapore, he said. But he cautioned that Hong Kong citizens aren’t ready for that yet. “We’re not creating trouble for nothing,” he said, speaking carefully in an interview with Foreign Policy. “Many Hong Kong people don’t want to see Hong Kong become just another Chinese city.”
Admirers and critics say Wong has tapped into the anxiety of modern Hong Kong youth who fret about their future under China in this hyper-competitive, uber-expensive city. According to the agreement forged between the mainland and Hong Kong’s former ruler, Britain, the city remains technically autonomous until 2047. Those freedoms seemed to have perished for many last June when the communists decreed in writing that the city was subservient. The report was seen as a betrayal by many and especially inflamed youth who didn’t remember the days of colonial subservience. “It’s fear of China, fear of the [Communist Party], fear of invasion, fear of losing our culture, our language,” said Raphael Wong, a 27-year-old member of the League of Social Democrats who’s critical of the tactics of Ray Wong (no relation). “And fear makes anger.”
The seeds of nativism sprouted in the massive fall occupation, sowed by members of the Civic Passion party, a theatrical group of radicals who spread the notions of self-governance to youth through a manga-filled print magazine, Passion Teens Weekly.
But the ideas, known here as localism, date back. In 2006, activists tried to save area landmarks as city bulldozers cleared paths for more skyscrapers and rail lines. Arguments made to preserve Hong Kong’s ferry pier and farmland – vestiges of the best of British colonialism and traditional China — were rooted in the writings of an ethnography professor at Lingnam University, Horace Chin Wan-kan, said Sonny Lo, a political science professor at Hong Kong Institute of Education.
In 2011, Chin asserted in a book that Hong Kong’s route to independence rested not on a future democratic China, but on the city’s re-birth as an autonomous city-state. Chin’s edgy theories made the book a hit, but his subsequent knock on democrats who have staged an annual vigil for victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre bruised his reputation. (Chin did not respond to requests for an interview.) Few advocates, though, have grappled with the inconvenient truth that Hong Kong depends on the mainland for much of its energy, water and food.
Chin’s theories primed the city for the 2012 battle against a proposed patriotic schools curriculum. After massive strikes led by school children, the then-new chief executive, C.Y. Leung, decided that schools could opt to use the lessons or not. Still, fears grew that communist notions were creeping into Hong Kong through the growing number of mainland residents arriving to give birth, attend school, and work. Far more Hong Kong locals told pollsters that they were Hong Kongese than said they were Chinese.
By last August, when a committee of the mainland legislature presented Hong Kong with an blueprint for the 2017 elections — rejecting the notion of public nomination and dictating that chief executive candidates would be screened — the city’s localists were primed. Some residents have said it’s a low-grade battle that could drag on for decades.
“The Hong Kong perspective is becoming stronger and stronger,” said Lo, who is publishing a book in July about prospects for Hong Kong democracy. “As long as Beijing is paternalistic in terms of Hong Kong, there will continue to be confrontation and arguments between the young people and the central government in Beijing.” If the number of nativists grow, he added, “the Hong Kong people will be divided, deeply divided.”
On his social media and his Internet radio show, Wong of Hong Kong Indigenous is busy building his case. A mainland “incursion” is stripping residents of their identity and rights, says Wong. He points to the increased use of standard Mandarin in Hong Kong schools instead of the native Cantonese. The growing number of mainland migrants, he says, will be “diluting the ratio of local people.” More mainland arrivals are “depriving us of resources,” he said, especially in primary schools, public housing and certain jobs. (A 2014 Hong Kong government study rejected such claims.)
In a city already teeming with competition, Wong’s speeches have tapped into the frustrations and angst of the city’s youth, said Cheng Chung-tai, a member of Civic Passion. He helped lead the winter baby formula protests against mainland traders. “We are facing a big and powerful invader,” said the university lecturer. “If you can feel that Hong Kong is facing a situation of re-colonization by the Communist Party, then you can call yourself Hong Kong indigenous.”
The fight for an independent Hong Kong will no doubt be long, perhaps violent, Wong says solemnly. But he says he’s prepared to lead, if asked. If brute force is the intended tactic, Wong hardly appears equipped. At 125 pounds, with his Harry Potter spectacles and a bed at his parents’ apartment, the lanky graduate doesn’t look like he could withstand one blow of a police baton. He described his several arrests during the fall and winter protests and showed a picture on his phone from the November night when he claimed to have helped a gang ram metal barricades into the windows of the city’s legislative chambers.
He then caught himself and countered that he doesn’t directly advocate violence. But it’s clearly part of the plan. During a March taping of his radio show, his voice clear and steady, Wong said that once Hong Kong citizens realize they’re facing a crisis — that their culture and community has been “infiltrated by the communists,” and they are being “oppressed,” then “they’ll gradually develop an antagonistic ideology. This,” Wong concluded, “can be our so-called preparation for the next mass fight.”
Drake Leung contributed reporting.