HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong student activist Chau Ho-oi, born in the year the Asian financial hub returned to Chinese rule 20 years ago, recalls the sense of pride she once felt toward mainland China.
Sitting with her parents when she was 11, Chau watched the 2008 Beijing Olympics on television in awe and felt “excitement in the heart” as China’s athletes swept the board with 48 gold medals, more than any other nation.
“I thought China was great,” Chau said. “If you asked me back then if I was Chinese, I’d say yes.”
Fast forward nine years, however, and the former British colony’s first post-handover generation is increasingly turning its back on the mainland.
“Now ... I don’t want to say I am Chinese,” said Chau, who was arrested during mass pro-democracy protests in 2014. “It gives me a very negative feeling. Even if you ask me 100 times, I would say the same thing.”
According to a University of Hong Kong survey released on Tuesday that polled 120 youths, only 3.1 percent of those aged between 18 to 29 identify themselves as “broadly Chinese”. The figure stood at 31 percent when the regular half-yearly survey started 20 years ago.
In interviews with 10 Hong Kong youths born in 1997 including Chau, all of them, including an immigrant from mainland China, told Reuters they primarily identify themselves as “Hong Kongers” and their loyalty lies with the city.
The territory became a British colony in stages in the 19th century and returned to Chinese rule under a “one country, two systems” formula which guarantees it wide-ranging autonomy, including an independent judiciary and freedom of speech, for at least 50 years.
The 20-year-olds’ attitudes were hardened, they said, by a series of shadowy maneuvers suggesting a slow squeeze on those freedoms by Communist Party rulers in Beijing.
Graphic on public opinion: tmsnrt.rs/2sw6cDG
In 2012, a skinny 15-year-old student named Joshua Wong led tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents to protest against a mandatory national education curriculum they claimed would “brainwash” students by promoting Chinese patriotism. The curriculum was eventually shelved.
Two years later, the “Occupy” movement, with Wong at the helm, sought to pressure Beijing to allow full democracy in the election of its leader, demands that were ultimately ignored after 79 days of street protests.
The abduction of several Hong Kong booksellers by mainland agents and China’s efforts to disqualify two young lawmakers who support Hong Kong independence have also shaken confidence in the “one-country, two systems” arrangement.
Student Candy Lau fears Hong Kong will become more controlled.
“You see how mass surveillance is so pervasive in China. If Hong Kong gets worse, it may become that way, and it may not become safe anymore,” she said. “It’s an invisible fear.”
More and more youngsters are now pushing for the right to self-determination, and even independence, alarming Beijing.
Last month, Beijing’s No. 3 official, Zhang Dejiang, who also oversees Hong Kong issues, stressed the need to “strengthen national education and legal education to Hong Kong’s youth, and develop correct concepts about the country from a young age” so that they could be moulded into those who “love the country”.
Hong Kong’s incoming leader, Carrie Lam, speaking to China’s Xinhua state news agency, said she would seek to cultivate the concept of “I am Chinese” at nursery level.
More than 120,000 Hong Kong youths will join China-related exchange programs, some sponsored by the Hong Kong government, as part of the handover’s 20th anniversary celebrations, according to Xinhua.
But this patriotic push could trigger a greater backlash.
“How could the government not understand the more it forces Hong Kong people to love China, the more opposition this would draw?” asked 20-year-old Jojo Wong, no relation to Joshua.
Even more moderate students like Felix Wu, who says he’s apathetic about politics, chooses to identify himself first as a Hong Konger, before his Han Chinese ethnicity.
“China is a pretty big market and Hong Kong has a need to integrate with this market,” Wu said. “But politically they promised nothing would change for 50 years. I think they’re going back on their word a bit.”
Ludovic Chan, a business student hoping to join the civil service, sees himself first as a Hong Konger, but doesn’t think that identity is in conflict with being Chinese.
“The two different cultures can co-exist. They shouldn’t always say Hong Kong and China should integrate. But the two sides should try to understand each other more.”
Some mainland Chinese students studying in Hong Kong also look on the bright side.
“Twenty years is just a start,” said Yoshi Yue, a business student who has been in the city for three years. “Slowly they will develop a sense of belonging. It comes from culture, not politics.”
Editing by James Pomfret and Nick Macfie