Wayne Chan is carrying a grey megaphone over his shoulder while he marches in the direction of one man and two women sitting close to a drugstore. “No sitting or lying is allowed in this area,” Chen says through his megaphone. The tourists from Mainland China stand up and move away.
Chan has come to Tung Chung on a sunny Sunday in November to protest against tour guides without a license. Chan says they are bringing Mainland tourists to the former fishing village in the west of Hong Kong. “We want to have our place back; we want to have our Tung Chung back,” he says.
The area close to the inner-Chinese border hasn’t been a village for some decades, but still, it was one of the quieter areas in Hong Kong. Today, thousands of tourists from the Mainland are strolling through the shopping malls and drugstores close to a new mega-bridge opened a few weeks ago.
The Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge connects the mainland with Macao and Hong Kong, which enjoy more freedom than the mainland. The bridge is a symbol for the so-called Greater Bay Area project, which aims to create an integrated economic hub for the area.
“The cities must integrate into the country’s development,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said in November. But Hong Kong and Macao would remain “their unique status and strengths,” Xi said.
Now Hong Kong is in the darkest time. Yesterday is Xinjiang, today is Hong Kong and tomorrow is Taiwan!
Joshua Wong, pro-democracy activist
However, not all Hongkongers trust these words; some are afraid of losing their freedoms. “Now Hong Kong is in the darkest time,” Joshua Wong says. He led the pro-democracy movement in 2014 when hundreds of thousands went on Hong Kong’s streets. “Yesterday is Xinjiang, today is Hong Kong and tomorrow is Taiwan,” Wong says, referring to the deprivation of freedoms in China’s western region Xinjiang.
During the past years and months, Hong Kong’s freedoms have been eroded, many Hongkongers say. Before the last elections for the Hong Kong parliament, pro-democracy candidates were disqualified, because they didn’t take a clear stance against Hong Kong Independence. Six pro-democracy candidates were elected to become a member of the Hong Kong parliament. Later, they were disqualified after they read their oath to slow or changed it. One of the six pronounced “People’s Republic of China” as “people’s re-fucking of Chee-na.”
In September, a pro-independence party was banned by the Hong Kong government. A month later, the visa of Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet was not renewed – probably because he hosted a talk with a pro-independence activist earlier. “No one has broken any law,” Emily Lau, a former Hong Kong lawmaker, says. “There is a difference between freedom of expression and using violence and arms to fight for independence.”
Pro-Beijing politician Holden Chow does not see that difference. Calls for independence “would easily trigger some sort of violence at the end,” Chow says, adding that they should be forbidden. “There’s a bottom line for the ‘One Country Two Systems’ principle,” he says. The “One Country Two Systems” principle guarantees Hong Kong a certain degree of autonomy and more freedoms although it is part of China. “You can’t simply try to remove the ‘One Country’ element from this principle,” says Chow, who is vice-chairman of DAB, one of the pro-Beijing parties in the Legislative Council (LegCo), Hong Kong’s parliament. Every advocacy for Hong Kong independence is illegal, he says.
Emily Lau is holding a seminar with the title “Is Hong Kong really dying?”
Wayne Chan, who is hunting illegal tour guides in the Hong Kong suburbs, is advocating for the independence of Hong Kong. “If we’re under the control of the Chinese government, we will never have real democracy,” Chan says. Almost every month Chan goes on the streets to protest for independence, together with around 30 other university students he founded the Students Independence Union.
The majority of youngsters in Hong Kong does not prefer a further integration of Hong Kong with the mainland, a study by a Hong Kong university found this year. 52.6 percent of Hongkongers aged between 15 and 24 said that they oppose the idea of mainland-Hong Kong integration. The legal and political systems in China were their main concern. Nearly 40 percent of Hong Kong youngsters want to have formal independence from the mainland, a 2016 study found.
“Some young people will talk about Hong Kong independence because they lose hope,” Brian Fong, a professor at the Academy of Hong Kong Studies says. “They lose hope about Hong Kong’s democratic future under China’s sovereignty,” he says.
Young Hongkongers have no one to vote for – because a lot of young lawmakers were disqualified or arrested, says democracy activist Joshua Wong. The 22-years-old was also jailed after the pro-democracy movement in 2014. Other activists are still in prison for different crimes. In 2016, Wong founded a party to advocate for self-determination of Hong Kong. “I have not advocated for Hong Kong independence, but I believe it should be an open option for people to choose – and for people to advocate,” Wong says. “I believe the political status of Hong Kong after 2047 should be determined by Hong Kong people.” In 2047, Hong Kong will not be governed anymore under the “One Country Two Systems” principle. Wong hopes for a referendum to decide Hong Kong’s future at that time or earlier.
"One Country Two Systems" is like sleeping next to a tiger.
Emily Lau, former LegCo lawmaker
“‘One Country Two Systems’ is like sleeping next to a tiger. And what you do is, you young people, you pick up your pen, and you poke the tiger in the eye. And the tiger will wake up and could kill you”, says former pro-democratic politician Emily Lau. She wants to safeguard Hong Kong’s freedoms but is not advocating for independence from China.
Whether these freedoms will be further eroded will largely depend on the international community, pro-democracy stakeholders believe. Hong Kong is important to Beijing, as it has a different custom status and a free financial center. In 2017, more than half of foreign investment in China came from Hong Kong, according to the Hong Kong government.
In the past, foreign government’s stance was to make money in Hong Kong, but not care about the political situation, says researcher Brian Fong, “They just simply said ‘One Country Two Systems’ works very good.” Now, this seems to change. The security commission of the U.S. Congress suggested to not treat Hong Kong separately anymore because of the erosion of freedoms in the city.
“I think it gave a warning sign to the government and for the business sector,” Joshua Wong says. If the suggestions would be realized, this could mean high tariffs during a Sino-American trade war will also apply to goods from Hong Kong.
Other governments and even the American Chamber of Commerce have criticized the recent developments. For Pro-Beijing politician Chow the harsher stand from foreign governments is a big misunderstanding. No rights have been eroded; only more explanation is needed, he says. “We only strictly adhere to the ‘One Country Two systems Principle,’ that’s all.”
Researcher Fong sees a chance in the new awareness of the international community toward Hong Kong’s freedoms: “If the U.S. government, if the UK government or the whole western world believe that Hong Kong should have a high degree of autonomy, then it, of course, will become a very effective check and balance mechanism towards China’s agenda.”
Independence activist Wayne Chan also hopes to pressure the United States to take a stand for Hong Kong’s freedoms. He hopes the U.S. can punish government officials who disqualify candidates. And his long-time goal is clear: An independent Hong Kong, without mainland tourists flocking into the city. In the suburbs on a sunny Sunday Chan says, “If we have our independent political power, then we have the power to control these things.”