BEIJING — In 2014, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents took to the streets in a defiant challenge to China. They called for full democracy, universal suffrage and the protection of their way of life.
But few spoke of independence — until now.
On Sunday, in the first election since the 2014 protests, a record number of Hong Kong voters chose several candidates who either support the idea of independence from China, or have called for far greater autonomy.
According to early results, the new faces include Sixtus Leung, a 30-year-old who has said he supports independence, and Nathan Law, a 23-year-old student leader who helped lead the 2014 protests and is calling for a referendum on “self-determination.”
The results will not immediately change Hong Kong’s governance. Only half of the seats of the city’s 70-member legislative council are directly elected through universal suffrage; half are “functional constituencies” that give corporations, associations and chambers of commerce actual votes.
Yet the strong showing by young, pro-independence and pro-democracy candidates means that those critical of Beijing’s influence will maintain the ability to veto policies proposed by the pro-China camp.
And it sends a clear message to Beijing: The battleground may have shifted, but the fight for Hong Kong is on.
Over the past four years, Hong Kong’s political landscape has been radically reshaped.
In 1997, the onetime British colony was returned to Chinese rule under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong would maintain certain rights and separate laws for 50 years but would be beholden, ultimately, to Beijing.
In the “two systems” framework, many in Hong Kong saw space for political change. And for the better part of 15 years, the city’s pro-democracy camp worked within the system for that goal.
When people in Hong Kong last voted in legislative elections, in 2012, independence was not on the agenda. But 2014 changed that.
In June of that year, Beijing issued a white paper that confirmed some of the democracy movement’s worst fears about the Chinese government’s plans for Hong Kong. “One country, two systems” does not mean autonomy, it said, but rather “the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership.”
By September, anger about the paper, combined with outrage about the arrest of student leaders, culminated in the peaceful occupation of one of Asia’s financial centers — for 79 days.
But thousands of people sleeping on a major thoroughfare did not secure a single concession from Beijing. And by the time the crowds dispersed and the tent city was torn down, many thought the movement was over.
Perhaps it could have been. But in the years since, Beijing has done little to ease fears. Last winter, five men affiliated with a Hong Kong publishing house that specializes in gossipy books about Chinese leaders disappeared — abducted, it later emerged, by Chinese security forces.
One of the men, Lee Bo, is thought to have been spirited away from a Hong Kong warehouse and smuggled across the border to the Chinese mainland — an act widely considered a violation of “one country, two systems.”
While missing, he sent strange, seemingly scripted letters back to Hong Kong claiming that he was not missing but “assisting with an investigation.” As the farce unfolded, Hong Kong’s government was either unwilling or unable to help.
This and other incidents have fueled a surge in anti-China sentiment and an interest in the idea of independence, especially among the young. Rather than address that anger, though, the government has tried to outlaw it.
In July, Hong Kong’s election commission said candidates in the legislative election had to sign a pledge accepting three clauses in the city’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, that say Hong Kong is part of China. Six candidates were later barred from running because of their views.
In August, Hong Kong teachers were warned that they could lose their qualifications if they advocated independence in schools.
Hong Kong’s leader, Leung Chun-ying, said that the city’s teachers should stop students from talking about independence — just as they stop them from doing drugs. Another official, Fanny Law, said on the radio that the topic is simply “too complicated” for school.
The interest does not mean that independence is likely, but it suggests how hard it will be for China’s leaders to win hearts and minds as the gap between Beijing and Hong Kong seems to grow.
In a poll published in July by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, about 17 percent of 1,010 Hong Kongers surveyed said they support independence after 2047. The survey found that less than 4 percent thought independence was possible.
In Beijing’s eyes, of course, it is absolutely not an option. In May, a top Communist Party official, Zhang Dejiang, dismissed independence out of hand, warning Hong Kong against moves to “resist the central government.”