HONG KONG — Days after Hong Kong’s worst riot in years, the Chinese government’s top official in the city said the violence was the work of “radical separatists” — the sort of label the Communist Party has applied to its opponents from Tibet to Taiwan whose real motive, it says, is to divide China.
Chinese dissidents routinely deny such accusations. But at least one Hong Kong protester said he had no problem with those words, used by Zhang Xiaoming, director of the Central Liaison Office.
“Radical? Yes. Separatist? I have no objection either,” said the protester, Edward Leung, a 24-year-old spokesman for the group Hong Kong Indigenous. He is among dozens of people charged with rioting in connection with the Feb. 9 clashes.
The violence in the bustling Mong Kok district, which left more than 80 police officers and scores of protesters injured, was the most startling sign yet of the rise of a local movement with an appetite for confrontation — and the unlikely goal of a Hong Kong independent of China. Formed after the so-called Umbrella Movement protests of 2014, which failed in their goal to bring about more fully democratic local elections, Hong Kong Indigenous prefers aggression to peaceful demonstrations, which Leung said were tried in 2014 but failed.
Politically, the group’s long-term goal is ambitious in the extreme: It wants Hong Kong residents to be given a vote on the city’s future — including the option of independence — after 2047, when Beijing’s promise of civil liberties and a high degree of autonomy for the former British colony is set to expire. Analysts dismiss that as a fantasy.
More broadly, Hong Kong Indigenous, along with similar groups like Civic Passion, champions what has become known as “localism,” a reaction to mainland China’s growing influence here. Localists call for policies that favor Hong Kongers over mainland Chinese in areas like social benefits and school placement, and for defending Hong Kong traditions that they say are under threat. They have organized protests against shoppers from the mainland, and even against street performers who dance to songs in Mandarin Chinese, as opposed to Cantonese, the local dialect.
A Hong Kong tradition was a factor in the Mong Kok violence, which took place on the first night of the Lunar New Year holiday. In past years, the authorities had turned a blind eye to unlicensed street vendors who sold snacks like fish balls and stinky tofu to the holiday crowds. But this time, reports circulated that city inspectors were preventing Mong Kok vendors from selling their wares. (Officials later said that the inspectors had only been patrolling, and that no tickets had been issued.)
Using social media, Hong Kong Indigenous mobilized its followers to “protect” the vendors. Soon, some demonstrators were clashing with the police. At one point, an officer who was coming under attack fired live ammunition into the air — a shocking development in a city accustomed to peaceful protests. Before long, throngs of men in masks had set fires in the street and were hurling bricks at police officers, who struck back with batons and pepper spray and, in some cases, by throwing bricks themselves.
Leung, who was rallying protesters with a loudspeaker before his arrest, denied that Hong Kong Indigenous had orchestrated the violence, though city officials later noted that the group had carried plastic shields to Mong Kok. About 20 of the 69 people who have been arrested in connection with the clashes are affiliated with the group, according to Leung.
“If history decides we’re culpable for the violence, so be it,” Leung said, but “if we manage to achieve self-government, or even build a nation of our own, what happened in Mong Kok would be called a revolution.”
But analysts say the idea that China would grant independence to Hong Kong is preposterous.
“The courageous young people of Hong Kong need to read and understand the nature of politics and the political system in the People’s Republic of China if they want to get anywhere in defending Hong Kong rights,” said Steve Tsang, a professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham. “Politics is the art of the possible.”
Leung says he is taking the long view. He views a strong sense of local identity — and large numbers of protesters willing to fight — as future bargaining chips in negotiating the city’s fate. In that sense, he said, he welcomed the violence in Mong Kok.
“We have proved that we have the mobilizing power to put pressure on the government,” he said.