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article imagePost-Umbrella Hong Kong opens explosive political chapter

By Laura Mannering (AFP)     Sep 28, 2016 in Politics

Two years after the pro-democracy "Umbrella Revolution" began, Hong Kong is entering uncharted political territory as former protesters prepare to take office, advocating a possible split from China.

The first major elections since the 2014 rallies saw rebel politicians win seats earlier this month as fears grow that Beijing is tightening its grip on the city in a number of areas, from politics to education and the media.

Hong Kong's new parliament
Hong Kong's new parliament
Laurence CHU, John SAEKI, AFP

Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 under a semi-autonomous "one country, two systems" deal, which guaranteed its freedoms for 50 years. There are deep concerns those liberties are under threat.

It was 2014 that shaped this key new group of lawmakers who will now promote self-determination or independence from Beijing inside the legislature when it starts its new term in October.

Wednesday marks two years to the day since the "Umbrella Movement" protests calling for democratic reform exploded onto the streets. Police fired tear gas on gathering crowds, galvanising tens of thousands more to join them in what became more than two months of rallies.

Despite huge numbers, the largely peaceful protests failed to win concessions from Beijing.

However, the momentum and consequent disappointment heavily influenced the young protesters who recently won seats in the Legislative Council (Legco) -- Hong Kong's lawmaking body -- in citywide polls.

Aged 23  Nathan Law (R) is Hong Kong's youngest-ever lawmaker
Aged 23, Nathan Law (R) is Hong Kong's youngest-ever lawmaker
Anthony Wallace, AFP

They say the failure of the protests forced them to turn to a more radical message which has gained support among voters demanding change.

At least five new legislators support self-determination or independence, which was not on the agenda during the 2014 rallies and is a departure from the traditional stance of the rest of the pro-democracy camp.

Former Umbrella Movement student leader Nathan Law is the best-known of the new breed -- at 23 he is Legco's youngest ever lawmaker.

Law's new party Demosisto, founded with fellow Umbrella Movement campaigner Joshua Wong, is calling for self-determination for Hong Kong in frustration at the intransigence of the authorities.

"We are not pushing for independence but Hong Kongers should be able to choose their own future. Independence is one option," Law told AFP.

Beijing has warned it will not tolerate any talk of independence "inside or outside" the L...
Beijing has warned it will not tolerate any talk of independence "inside or outside" the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong
Philippe Lopez, AFP

Fellow new lawmaker Eddie Chu, 38, who also participated in the 2014 protests, says it is time to "take back the right" of self-determination as previous tactics have failed.

"From changing the Basic Law (Hong Kong's constitution) to seeking independence -- all are acceptable to me," he told AFP.

- Chaos and confrontation -

Beijing has warned it will not tolerate any talk of independence "inside or outside" the Legco.

The Hong Kong government -- criticised as a stooge of Beijing -- banned the most vocal independence candidates from standing in the Legco polls.

And in a system skewed towards Beijing friendly groups, the pro-establishment camp still holds 40 seats against the pro-democracy camp's 30.

Nathan Law (L)  Hong Kong's youngest ever lawmaker  walks past fellow students at Lingnan Unive...
Nathan Law (L), Hong Kong's youngest ever lawmaker, walks past fellow students at Lingnan University
Anthony Wallace, AFP

But the new lawmakers have said they will not tone down their message, with observers predicting fireworks.

Political analyst Joseph Cheng says the first year of Legco's new term will be "chaotic and difficult".

"The pro-independence legislators will use every single relevant issue to articulate their position," says Cheng.

The pro-establishment camp will unite against any talk of self-determination or independence, while the new breed may also have to take on opposition in their own camp, where the moderate democrats still hold sway, Cheng adds.

Meanwhile, the public will be hoping the fresh crop of lawmakers will push a range of social issues that have stagnated in the deeply divided legislature, including supply of affordable housing in a city where rents are sky high.

But with faultlines starker than ever, progress will be tough.

Those frustrations may well drive some new lawmakers to campaign on the streets once more if they feel they cannot make headway in Legco, says political analyst Willy Lam.

"They have indicated they will use non-violent methods, but the possibility of ugly confrontation between these new young Turks and the police cannot be ruled out," says Lam.

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