Democratically elected legislators Yau Wai-ching, left, and Baggio Leung meet journalists outside the High Court after the court disqualified them from taking office as lawmakers in Hong Kong, Nov. 15, 2016.
Democratically elected legislators Yau Wai-ching, left, and Baggio Leung meet journalists outside the High Court after the court disqualified them from taking office as lawmakers in Hong Kong, Nov. 15, 2016.

HONG KONG - Over coffee, Baggio Leung, the new spokesman for pro-independence party Hong Kong National Front, talks with a quiet determination about the need for drastic political change in the autonomous Chinese city.

“Independence is the only way for Hong Kong to survive,” he said. “Without a democratic system we can never end the privilege class ruling in Hong Kong both politically and economically. And we cannot achieve or make a more fair and just society without this.”

It’s almost difficult to hear him at times, he keeps his voice low either out of habit or because much of what he says could make him the subject of a police investigation as ideas such as his have been ruled unconstitutional and a possible threat to national security by the Hong Kong government.

FILE - An activist holds a card at a protest near
FILE - An activist holds a card at a protest near the West Kowloon terminus of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link, Dec. 28, 2017. Some Hong Kong legal scholars say the "co-location arrangement," location where mainland customs and immigration officers from China will be stationed, is unconstitutional as it contravenes the city's Basic Law and "one country, two systems" way of governing Hong Kong.

Separation from China

But despite the specter of legal prosecution, Leung is the latest young politician to step into the spotlight and call for Hong Kong’s independence from China, which he says is a necessary first step for democratic reform. He sees the two as inextricably linked: There can be no change without separation from China, and he is not the only young person to feel this way.

Beyond the Hong Kong National Front, a handful of groups, filled mostly with young people and students, continue to call for either independence from China, self-determination or a referendum on the future of the former British colony.

Many of their political views were hardened from political events that have roiled Hong Kong since 2014’s Umbrella Movement democracy protests. Some like Leung initially tried to enter the political system and change it from within only to find themselves blocked. Leung was elected to the Legislative Council in 2016 but was later barred from office with five other pro-democracy legislators for modifying his oath of office as a political protest.

Agnes Chow, 21, a member of democracy activist Jos
FILE - Agnes Chow, 21, a member of democracy activist Joshua Wong's Demosisto party, attends a protest in Hong Kong, Jan. 28, 2018.

In the intervening years, other pro-democracy candidates like Agnes Chow and Lau Siu-lai have been barred from even running for office for supporting ideas like “self-determination,” while the leaders of the Umbrella Movement have been prosecuted by the courts.

Then in September, the city banned the Hong Kong National Party on the grounds that it was a threat to national security for its pro-independence stance. Many in Hong Kong saw the long arm of the Communist Party in Beijing behind these events, leading to a general consensus that the city’s autonomy, promised until 2047, is eroding much sooner.

But while independence may be a growing interest among young Hong Kongers, how to make it happen remains elusive. The Hong Kong National Front is currently focused on reaching out into the community, said Leung, while the pro-independence Studentlocalism and Student Independence Union are doing much the same with secondary school and university students. Online, discussion of independence continues on Cantonese internet forums like HKGolden.com and LIHKG.com.

Three protest leaders, from right, Chan Kin-man, B
FILE - Three protest leaders, from right, Chan Kin-man, Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chu Yiu-ming walk towards the police station in Hong Kong as they surrender to police, Dec. 3, 2014.

“Most of the students want freedom but they don’t know how to express their view of freedom,” said Wayne Chan, who founded the Student Independence Union in January. He said while many students do not explicitly support independence, many have localist-first views or would like to see a referendum on Hong Kong’s future.

The Student Independence Union is pushing for such a referendum as well as for the United States government to sign the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would, among other things, introduce penalties for anyone found responsible for detaining or surveilling Hong Kongers for exercising freedom of speech or association.

Most of these groups will likely continue on the fringes of Hong Kong politics, but Benny Tai, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong and one of the founders of the Umbrella Movement, said they are likely not going away any time soon.

“I think to young people in Hong Kong, independence is a choice that they will still consider now even though they may not talk about that in the open,” he said by email. “I do not think the idea of independence can be stopped just by banning political parties. As people get more and more dissatisfied with the Chinese Communist Party, they will naturally hope for independence even though they have no idea and no plan on how it will happen.”