“Our freedom and our rights are fast disappearing,” says Clara, a 24-year university graduate and Hong Kong activist. “This wasn’t like the Occupy movement back in 2014. Back then, the general public weren’t so convinced. This time, it’s very different. Many people feel they have no choice; that they have to demonstrate in order to preserve our current way of life and our autonomy.” English is not Clara’s first language – she’s more at ease with Cantonese – but she speaks with a fluency and passion belying her age. It’s as if a spigot is suddenly turned on, the words gushing out of her. “We aren’t mainlanders,” she insists. “We’re Hongkongers.” For Clara, that is a self-evident, undeniable truth, final and non-negotiable. For the Chinese government in Beijing, though, such views are anathema. Beijing regards Hong Kong as an integral part of China. Yet Clara sees proof of Hong Kong’s separateness everywhere. “We are very civilised and disciplined,” she says. “For example, even though we were protesting, we respected public order.” According to Clara, last Sunday’s vast, 2 million-strong demonstration was underpinned by an existential fear the special privileges enjoyed by Hongkongers – and enshrined in the Basic Law – could be stripped away by the so-called extradition bill supported by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor . “In 2014, we fought for rights that we were already supposed to have,” Clara says. “These recent protests are more to uphold our original way of living. It has only been 22 years since the British left and they [the Chinese government] already want to take away our rights.” These anxieties are widely shared by the participants in this new Hong Kong protest movement, which has no clearly identifiable leader, unlike the 2014 Occupy/Umbrella demonstrations that galvanised around Joshua Wong. These protesters are organised bottom-up, rather than top-down. Nonetheless, they’re constantly in contact with one another, connected via encrypted messaging apps like Telegram to counteract the Chinese government’s reported mastery of digital surveillance. Scoffing in Singapore, praise in Philippines: Asia’s take on Hong Kong protests If Hong Kong residents once had a reputation for being apathetic and disinterested in politics, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s heavy-handedness – via his perceived proxy in Lam – certainly changed that. A younger generation of Hongkongers is now very much engaged. Indeed, for some, the fight feels existential. In February 2019, Hong Kong’s GDP reportedly grew by just 3 per cent to HK$2.85 trillion (US$365 billion), compared to 7.6 per cent growth in nearby Shenzhen , often referred to as China’s Silicon Valley. Many of the protesters claim Hong Kong’s freedoms are all that differentiate them from other Chinese cities. Hongkongers’ willingness to stand up for these liberties could also serve as a powerful reminder to the leaders and populations of Southeast Asia: these things are worth defending. It should also be a warning for China boosters in Southeast Asia: the so-called “Beijing Consensus” is not infallible or without its pitfalls. It is certainly not our destiny. And, since Southeast Asians love intrigue, it raises the question of how Xi’s Communist Party colleagues have assessed their leader’s strategies. Xi’s perceived invincibility has undoubtedly been dealt a blow. It wasn’t so long ago some were hailing him as “Emperor Xi”. China’s travails in the ongoing trade war with the US have also dented his reputation. The view from Singapore: Hong Kong is a city tearing itself apart A nascent internal opposition is allegedly coalescing around those who support the late Deng Xiaoping’s more guarded approach to geopolitics and diplomacy. Xi will need to respond accordingly. With that in mind, the Hong Kong demonstrators are hopefully willing to show Beijing some “face”. For China’s leaders, the protests are a challenge but also an opportunity: a chance to show not only the people of Hong Kong and the mainland – but also the world, particularly Southeast Asia – they have more in their arsenal than just hardball tactics, to prove that talk about China’s “peaceful rise” is more than just rhetoric. For the young Hongkongers like Clara who took to the streets, their zeal and idealism must be augmented with realism and pragmatism. The indefinite postponement of the extradition bill means they have arguably “won” their first “battle”. However, winning the peace with dignity will require wisdom and tact. Does either group have the imagination and flexibility? Cooler heads must prevail on both sides. We certainly hope and pray they do.