By Day 65, even the most fervent followers of the Occupy protests of Hong Kong knew defeat was nigh. But student leaders had called on protesters to besiege the government headquarters in Admiralty in one last push. So on that autumn evening of November 30, 2014, having donned helmets and protective gear, undergraduate Edward Leung Tin-kei and more than a dozen classmates rallied thousands to march to the government compound.

As expected, clashes broke out between protesters and police, including members of the Special Tactical Squad in riot gear. The skirmishes continued overnight in a chaotic dance as the protesters advanced, only to be dispersed and diverted, and then onward again. “Some of my classmates were arrested. Others were struck by batons on the head and had blood all over their faces,” Leung said. “I burst into tears when I saw the bloodshed and will never forget those few moments.”

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Leung was then 23, a philosophy undergraduate at Hong Kong University. That was the night he lost his innocence. He lost faith in the “one country, two systems” promise, believing that China was bent on overwhelming Hong Kong’s distinctiveness. “Since then, I began subscribing to the ideas of localism and separatism. We Hongkongers need to turn our backs on China if we want to safeguard our autonomy and dignity,” he said.

Pro-Beijing newspaper reporter allegedly involved in scuffle with Hong Kong localist Edward Leung

That fateful evening also marked a break from non-violent civil disobedience. “I thought if we continue to persevere with moral dogmatism to not retaliate, we would only be at the mercy of others and it would not create any pressure on the government.”

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The Occupy protests had challenged Beijing’s ruling that only two or three pre-vetted candidates would be put up for the 2017 chief executive election. Nearly two years after Occupy, its dashed dreams have morphed into a more radical mission, appearing to take Hong Kong into new, and possibly dangerous, ground. The young are flirting with the idea of independence for Hong Kong, with some supporting violence as the only way to effect change. If Joshua Wong was the face of Occupy, Edward Leung is the poster boy of this nascent independence movement.

Last July, Leung joined Hong Kong Indigenous, one of the leading localist groups in the city. “Localism” is a novel term representing a desire for greater control over Hong Kong’s identity and destiny.

Since the Communist Party’s takeover of China in 1949, Hong Kong has seen itself as a haven from the upheavals on the mainland. In 1967, militant pro-communists sparked violence that killed 51 people, making many Hongkongers appreciate all the more the territory’s separation from the mainland.

But despite their antipathy toward Chinese communism, the majority of Hong Kong people born after the 1950s still identified with Chinese culture. Local politicians who rose to prominence in the 1980s and the 1990s, including those calling for a faster pace of democratisation in the city, felt pride in their Chinese identity. Veteran activists, such as late stalwart Szeto Wah and his protege Albert Ho Chun-yan, felt it was their duty to build a democratic China while fighting for democracy in Hong Kong.

Localist activist Edward Leung Tin-kei in talks with Dalai Lama

Leung and his ilk are not cut from the same ideological cloth. Leung declares he has never been proud of being Chinese. He recalls how, in secondary school, he and his friends once used the computer in the classroom to play national anthems from around the world. “When we played God Save the Queen, our teacher walked in. She scolded us, and asked us why we were playing this so loudly because it’s not our national anthem. I retorted, ‘Do you really identify with March of the Volunteers?’”

The March is China’s national anthem.

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Since the mid-1980s, traditional pan-democrats have used dialogue to press for change. In 2010, they worked with Beijing to create the super-seats that gave a direct vote for more Hongkongers. But after the 79-day Occupy movement failed to force concessions from Beijing to elect the chief executive by popular vote, young people like Leung have concluded dialogue is not the answer.

“Pan-democrats have been negotiating with the Chinese government for nearly three decades and what have they got so far? No result is possible from negotiating with this authoritarian country,” Leung said.

Localist leader Edward Leung between a rock and hard place

He has also turned his back on peaceful marches that pan-democrats believe in. In 2009, when he attended his first candlelight vigil in Victoria Park to honour those killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, Leung was impressed: “I was amazed people would still remember the June 4 tragedy after so many years.” But years on, doubts set in.

In March last year, Leung took part in a protest in Yuen Long targeting parallel traders, workers who buy goods in Hong Kong to sell across the border. The protests were spearheaded by Hong Kong Indigenous, whose members wore armour under their jackets. Intense clashes ensued with police and pedestrians, prompting police to move in with pepper spray. Four months later, Leung formally joined the group and became its spokesman.

The localist groups are not a monolith. Hong Kong Indigenous, formed last January, advocates secession. Another, called Youngspiration, refrains from doing so but is campaigning for a referendum in five years for Hongkongers to determine their own future beyond 2047, the year when Beijing’s promise of “one country, two systems” expires. Demosisto, led by Joshua Wong, advocates a plebiscite in 10 years’ time.

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Their discourse is similar. Some localist groups, including Leung’s, openly promote anti-mainland sentiments – critics say parochialism and even xenophobia – but he defines it as “love for Hong Kong” or determination to “defend Hongkongers’ dignity”.

Leung, who graduated this summer, says he is inspired by political scientist Benedict Anderson’s book, Imagined Communities. In trying to explain nationalism, Anderson argued that “a nation is a socially constructed community imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group”.

Leung and many localists draw strength from the ideal that a nation is not necessarily defined by ethnicity. Hongkongers meet the definition of a “nation” because of their common experience and values, they say.

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Leung was born in Wuhan ( 武漢 ), Hubei ( 湖北 ) province, in 1991. A year later, his mother migrated to Hong Kong, with little Leung in tow. Critics love to tout the irony of a mainlander’s tirade against the mainland. Hence Leung’s rebuttal and refuge in the idea of an “imagined community”, believing a person is a Hongkonger so long as he identifies with the core values of Hong Kong.

US AND THEM

The city’s young localists also draw inspiration from the manifesto titled Hong Kong Nationalism, published by HKU student magazine Undergrad in September 2014 and slammed by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in his 2015 policy address. Its premise: Hong Kong people make up a nation.

Another localist, Sixtus “Baggio” Leung, convenor of Youngspiration, says Hongkongers must think in terms of “us” and “them” vis-a-vis mainlanders. “Because without this distinction, it would not be logical for us to demand that 7 million Hongkongers determine our own future, but not the 1.3 billion people on the mainland.”

Cheng Chung-tai, a member of localist group Civic Passion who is running in New Terrorities West, said Hong Kong has what it takes to be on its own. “Our currency and political system and the fact that we participate in international affairs as a member state – all these make us like a country,” he said.

In trying to understand their stance, some have asked if socio-economic grievances might be the reason for their disaffection. But their backgrounds, based on available information, are too diverse to support such a conclusion. The only thing all have in common is their youth.

Indigenous’ members are aged between 18 and 25, all either students or fresh graduates from a mix of working and middle class backgrounds. Youngspiration’s founding members are mostly young professionals.

The fear of missing out on economic opportunities because of more mainlanders may well play a part but it is bound up ultimately with identity, say observers.

Steve Tsang, professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies with the University of Nottingham, says Hongkongers, particularly the young, increasingly feel this sense of distinctiveness. “They feel a much stronger sense of a national identity as they see mainlanders as so different from them that they might as well belong to two different nations. Nationalism is always based on a sense of ‘heroic us’ versus an undesirable ‘them’.”

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The sentiments spring from a clash of identity as well as the perception of a more overbearing Beijing being more hardline than before towards Hong Kong’s wish for “two systems”, said analysts. “Beijing’s new approach reinforces this distinction,” Tsang said.

In February, Hong Kong Indigenous was at the forefront of the riot in Mong Kok, allegedly over unlicensed hawkers being ticketed.

Leung and fellow spokesman Ray Wong Toi-yeung were charged with rioting, a crime punishable with up to 10 years’ jail. But Leung, a political nonentity before the riot, catapulted to prominence overnight and clinched 15.4 per cent of all valid votes cast in the Legislative Council by-election for the New Territories East constituency the same month.

Despite facing a rioting charge, localist Edward Leung garnered 15 per cent of Legco by-election votes. Who voted for him ... and why?

Until earlier this month, he was seen as the localist leader with the best chance to win a seat in Legco elections scheduled next Sunday. But he was banned from running because of his advocacy of independence. Another five pro-independence candidates were also disbarred. The decisions set off a chorus of complaints about political screening.

Leung has since decided to back Baggio Leung in New Territories East, where he had planned to contest. He also backs two other Youngspiration candidates in Kowloon West and New Territories West.

Last Monday, he stood outside Tseung Kwan O MTR station handing out Baggio Leung’s election flyers. Some residents treated him like a star, taking selfies with him.

“I feel Edward Leung has good intentions and is doing something for the betterment of Hong Kong,” said Simon Lee, a middle-aged businessman, after a chat with the activist. “Radicalism and calls for independence are gaining momentum because the government turns a blind eye to the public’s views, particularly those of young people.” Lee has previously voted for traditional pan-democrats but is frustrated with their “empty talk”. He is mulling over switching to Baggio Leung.

A CITY DIVIDED

But Cheng King-fai, 60, another resident, said he had reservations about the movement’s violent methods.

Hong Kong’s generational divide is clear from an opinion poll conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s journalism school last month.

Of 1,100 residents surveyed, 69.6 per cent said the “one country, two systems” principle should be extended after 2047. Another 17.4 per cent said Hong Kong should become independent after that date. Among those aged 15 to 24, nearly 40 per cent demanded independence.

The Beijing and the Hong Kong governments have issued a stern warning against advocating independence, saying it violates the Basic Law, which states Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China.

Qi Pengfei, director of Renmin University’s research centre on Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, said the central government had grown very concerned over the ever-louder calls for independence and separatism. “The central government believes there is no room to budge on Hong Kong independence because it’s a matter of principle,” said Qi.

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Leung’s disqualification from this Sunday’s election is one of the outcomes of this tough stand. He plans to file an election petition against the election watchdog’s decision. For now, he is on a tactical retreat, deferring his call for Hong Kong independence and playing the long game. He wants to cultivate support for the cause, and make the idea of independence mainstream by 2030, when discussions about post-2047 arrangements are likely to gather speed.

“I hope by 2030, Hong Kong people backing the idea will surpass those supporting ‘one country, two systems’. We should try our best to influence as many young people as possible in the years ahead, so by 2030 those who share our views will take up key positions in various fields in the city.”

He hopes Youngspiration candidates, if elected, will embark on community programmes financing football courses and providing offices for voluntary groups. Funding will come with more supporters. “We need to prove to [the public] that we can bring actual benefits to residents if we enter the legislature,” Leung said.

Experts remain sceptical. Dr Li Pang-kwong, director of the public governance programme at Lingnan University, said the activists lacked a workable action plan and it was impossible for Hong Kong to break away from China. He warned that political tensions would fester and called on the government to address the underlying unhappiness that produced the movement.

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“Beijing needs to find out the social soil for the phenomenon, which is Beijing’s growing assertiveness over Hong Kong and the poor governance of the Leung Chun-ying administration. Beijing should adopt a more pragmatic approach towards Hong Kong.”

History professor John Carroll of HKU believes the localists’ ability to expand will run against a more potent force in Hong Kong: pragmatism. “Most Hong Kong people tend to prefer the status quo over uncertainty.”

But for Leung and gang, defeat – unlike that night in November 2014 – is not in their vocabulary yet. For a start, they are eyeing victory next Sunday.

For a full list of Legco candidates, click here.