HONG KONG — On a recent Sunday night in the working class Hong Kong district of Mong Kok, a group of young, radical activists swore through loud-hailers and gestured rudely as they denounced mainland Chinese as “prostitutes” and “barbarians.”
The youngsters are members of a new front that is using increasingly aggressive tactics to demand an independent Hong Kong free from mainland China’s grip.
Their separatist yearnings have alarmed Beijing and the pro-Beijing Hong Kong government which are fighting back to win hearts-and-minds and forge a spirit of “love China, love Hong Kong” with multi-million dollar information drives and exchanges.
The animosity on display in Mong Kok was virtually unheard of until recently, despite resentment toward mainlanders flooding into Hong Kong, and follows unsuccessful protests to demand full democracy in the city late last year.
“I never call myself Chinese at school because it is a shame to be Chinese,” said 16-year-old “Gorilla” Chan, who, unbeknownst to his parents, founded a radical group with a 14-year-old friend.
He said violence was almost inevitable.
“That day will come sooner or later if Hong Kong remains like this,” Chan said.
Beijing sees national unity as sacrosanct and has ruled Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” formula, allowing broad autonomy, since the city returned from British rule in 1997.
But Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, spearheaded by fresh-faced youngsters, has shaken the assumption of cozy accommodation between the mainland’s communists and the capitalist enclave.
The protesters demanded full democracy in a 2017 election for the city’s leader. But Beijing insists the leader will be chosen from a list of candidates it approves.
The anti-China radicals were galvanized by the democracy protests and gained traction later during protests against mainland shoppers swamping Hong Kong and buying up various items, including formula milk, and pushing up prices.
Hong Kong’s leader has warned of a student-led separatist movement.
In response, the Hong Kong government has announced a record HK$124.5 million ($16 million) to bolster civic education and youth trips to the mainland. In February, it earmarked another HK$205 million over three years for exchanges and internships and said more than 19,000 youngsters would participate this year.
“Hong Kong students don’t have enough knowledge about the mainland,” Xie Ling, the director-general of a mainland exchange organization, told Reuters.
Some of the programs offer military-style physical education and some include meetings with senior Communist Party officials.
“They will find that the mainland authorities are not as closed and conservative as they thought,” Xie said.
One young man who went to summer camp run by Hong Kong and mainland authorities to build “national consciousness” said he felt caught between the two sides.
“It can be hard sometimes,” said Thomas Chan, 20.
“A friend broke off relations with me because I didn’t want to join Occupy,” he said, referring to the pro-democracy movement.
Bombs or Bridges?
At their height, last year’s protests drew more than 100,000 people and though rowdy at times, there was no serious violence.
But hopes for peace in the business hub took a knock last month when police arrested 10 people on suspicion of conspiracy to manufacture explosives. Police said some of the suspects belonged to a radical group but declined to elaborate.
No one knows how many radicals there are in Hong Kong but hundreds of people have turned up for some of their actions. One group member said he believed a lot of activists were keeping a low profile, for now.
The People’s Liberation Army is trying to help bridge the divide, recently holding an open-day at its Hong Kong garrison with ice cream, a marching band and displays. It also invited residents to watch a live-fire exercise.
China’s top government advisory body has been “strengthening youth work in Hong Kong and Macau” while Guangdong province—adjacent to Hong Kong—aims to bring in 40,000 youths from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan for mass exchanges.
Chinese technology company the Alibaba Group has set up internships and offered HK$1 billion for Hong Kong youth to build businesses to “serve as a bridge.”
Despite such efforts, more than half of Hong Kong people under 30 identify as “Hongkongers,” while less than 4 percent consider themselves “Chinese,” according to a Hong Kong University poll.
Student activist Ho Kwan, 21, said violence was no-one’s objective but might be unavoidable.
“If we have reached a stage where we are being hurt, we have no choice but to use violence to fight back.”