People & Power

Hong Kong’s Localist Revolutionaries

Why a new group of radical activists in Hong Kong are calling for greater autonomy – and even independence – from China.

They call themselves localists – a movement that wants semi-autonomous Hong Kong to split from China, amid concerns that Beijing is cracking down on political and cultural freedoms.

But throughout 2016, as pro-democracy activists (many of whom had previously aligned under the gentler coalition Umbrella Movement) became more radicalised, seasoned China-watchers began to wonder whether their calls for independence would prove a provocation too far.

People & Power asked filmmakers James Leong and Lynn Lee to follow events and find out.


By James Leong

We had heard the whispered asides, seen the wary glances. Just before the start of the Umbrella Movement in September 2014, before pro-democracy protesters occupied some of Hong Kong’s biggest roads, the movement’s leaders had asked participants not to wear face masks.

This was non-violent civil disobedience, they said, a movement of moral righteousness. If you had to hide your identity, what else did you have to hide? So when more radical, aggressive groups of protesters showed up in face masks to face off with riot police, many demonstrators viewed them with suspicion.

Were they Chinese Communist Party (CCP) moles? Infiltrators sent by the central government in Beijing to sabotage the movement?

By the time the last protest site was cleared on December 14, 2014, the mistrust between the radicals and those who still believed in non-violent civil disobedience had hardened.

The Umbrella Movement may have accrued – in the words of former colonial governor Chris Patten – enormous moral capital, but it hadn’t won a single concession from Beijing on democratic reform. The movement, said the radicals, had failed. Asking nicely didn’t work. The CCP would never hand Hong Kong real democracy. They had to take it for themselves.

As Ray Wong, founder of Hong Kong Indigenous, the most prominent of the radical groups to emerge from the Umbrella Revolution (as they styled it), explained: “Since rational, peaceful methods aren’t working … we need to find more radical methods to threaten this administration.”

Edward Leung, centre, a candidate of Hong Kong Indigenous, waves to supporters at an election campaign in February 2016 [Vincent Yu/Daylife]
Edward Leung, centre, a candidate of Hong Kong Indigenous, waves to supporters at an election campaign in February 2016 [Vincent Yu/Daylife]

Two months later, scores of protesters surrounded and berated mainland Chinese tourists as they wheeled suitcases full of shopping through a local mall. Hong Kong Indigenous had urged supporters to come out against the smugglers who were buying up daily necessities and sneaking them across the border.

The raucous, aggressive protest, peppered with X-rated language, was a far cry from the “love and peace” of the Umbrella Movement and made for ugly viewing. But it was also part of a strategy to highlight issues of local identity and livelihood, a calculated appeal to the resentment felt by many in Hong Kong at mainland encroachment, employing extreme tactics to maximise media attention. And it seemed to work: soon after, China cancelled a scheme allowing Shenzhen residents unlimited visits to neighbouring Hong Kong.

Post-Umbrella radicals began to flock to Hong Kong Indigenous (HKI) and similar entities, which now espoused an ideology they called “localism”.

These localists argued that Hong Kong’s language, culture and core values set it apart from mainland China, and that the people of Hong Kong alone should decide their city’s future, not the increasingly meddlesome central government and its local proxies. But they knew this would attract a hostile response. “The government is doing everything to repress such ideas because it knows we’ll eventually be masters of our society,’ said HKI’s Edward Leung.

A year later, Hong Kong Indigenous issued another call to action. Authorities had announced a clampdown on unlicensed hawkers selling street food during Chinese New Year, a much-loved local tradition. Hundreds of localists came out to support the vendors, and didn’t back down when police ordered them to disperse. The protest descended into some of the worst street violence Hong Kong had seen since the Leftist Riots of 1967 as protesters armed with bricks, sticks and homemade shields fought running battles with police.

The Hong Kong government was quick to condemn it as a riot, but the “Fishball Revolution”, as it came to be known among localists (after a popular snack sold by the hawkers), only seemed to increase the appeal of localism. When HKI fielded Edward Leung in a legislative council by-election just weeks later, he won more than 16,000 – or 15 percent – of all votes.

Localists had already rejected the pro-democracy camp’s decades-old position that the fight for democracy should encompass all of China. “Why”, they asked, “should Hong Kongers champion democracy for the mainland, when mainlanders themselves wouldn’t fight for it? Why not just focus on Hong Kong?” Now they took things further, arguing that so long as Hong Kong remained a part of China, and China remained a one-party state, democratic reform for the city could never happen. There was only one logical, and emotionally satisfying, solution: Hong Kong independence. 

Before the Umbrella Movement, advocates of independence had been confined to the odd academic or angry young man waving the colonial flag at protests.

But as more and more Hong Kong residents became convinced their government was looking out for Beijing’s interests and not their own, support for the idea grew. By July 2016, according to a Chinese University of Hong Kong poll, more than 17 percent of Hong Kong supported independence for Hong Kong after the “one country, two systems” arrangement, under which Beijing governs the city, expires in 2047. That figure was nearly 40 percent among 15 to 24-year-olds.

Pro-democracy protesters gather next to a banner which reads 'I need real universal suffrage', outside government headquarters in Hong Kong, China, in 2015 [Bobby Yip/Reuters] 
Pro-democracy protesters gather next to a banner which reads ‘I need real universal suffrage’, outside government headquarters in Hong Kong, China, in 2015 [Bobby Yip/Reuters] 

The Hong Kong government, tasked with upholding “one country, two systems”, acted. It barred six localist candidates – including Edward Leung – from running in the September legislative council elections. In response, HKI threw its support behind another post-Umbrella localist party, Youngspiration. Two of that party’s candidates, Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Leung Chung-hang, were voted in. Their electoral slogan was “Take back Hong Kong! A time for a revolution!”

On October 12, 2016, audiences around the world were presented with a piece of political theatre that would have been unthinkable just one year earlier: two young, would-be revolutionaries, graduates of the Umbrella Movement, pledging allegiance to the “Hong Kong nation” as they clutched a flag that read “Hong Kong is not China”, inside the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (as the official oath has it).

In an unexpected twist, the first blow by the localists fighting for Hong Kong independence had been struck, not in the streets, but within the system. Whether that system is strong or flexible enough to withstand such attacks in future remains to be seen.