Hong Kong (AFP) – It was only two years ago that thousands gathered near government headquarters in the heart of Hong Kong for an energetic rally in support of independence from China.
Today such scenes are unthinkable in the semi-autonomous city as Beijing ramps up pressure on any challenge to its sovereignty.
The crackdown on independence campaigners has seen activists barred from standing for office and ejected from Hong Kong’s partially elected legislature.
Universities have warned students not to advocate independence on campus, describing it as unconstitutional.
And with its most popular figure, 26-year-old Edward Leung, facing up to 10 years in prison over clashes with police in 2016, the movement is now leaderless.
But while morale is at an all-time low, clandestine pockets of campaigning persist.
Groups who spoke with AFP said they meet in secret out of concern for their safety. Some said their members had been followed and intimidated by men who would not say who sent them.
They use encrypted communication channels and security measures such as multi-factor authentication, and prefer to meet face-to-face for sensitive discussions.
At the Chinese University of Hong Kong, students are setting up an underground “research group” on independence.
Organisers say it aims to foster a sense of local identity and to remove taboos around the issue. Between 30 and 40 people have signed up and the membership list is closely guarded.
One CUHK student leader, who gave his name as Wilson, told AFP young people must be prepared for “revolution” in the face of a local government loyal to Beijing.
Promoting independence per se is not a crime under Hong Kong law and activists see the suppression of advocacy as a breach of freedom of speech guaranteed by the city’s mini-constitution, which grants rights unseen on the mainland.
“When this government keeps incriminating independence, we need to say even more that it is not a crime, but a way out for Hong Kong people in the future,” Wilson said.
– No answers –
The independence movement’s struggles come at a time of malaise and fragmentation in the wider democracy camp.
Calls for a split from China grew out of the failure of the Umbrella Movement rallies of 2014 to win political reform as some activists grew tired of peaceful protest.
Their message called for more drastic action, with some even speaking of laying down their lives for the cause.
Pro-independence group Hong Kong National Front, which says it has up to 30 members, organises weekly physical training including how to “quickly subdue” opponents in the event of confrontations, a convenor who gave his name as Louis told AFP.
But campaigners such as ousted lawmaker Baggio Leung — who has visited university campuses to discuss independence — admit they lack a cohesive strategy.
“(The students) all have a question in common: what can we do to push this thing? Everyone is seeking an answer but no one can give them that yet,” he told AFP.
Leung, 31, was elected lawmaker in 2016 alongside fellow independence activist Yau Wai-ching in a stunning victory for the movement, but both were dismissed after an intervention from Beijing for inserting protests into their oaths of office.
Traditional democrats have disavowed what they see as nihilistic young radicals, who in turn reject the mainstream opposition as ineffective.
Public sympathy has also waned: a poll conducted by CUHK last year showed support for independence had dropped from 17.4 percent in 2016 to 11.4 percent.
– ‘Total control’ –
There are some who accuse the movement of being an invention of establishment forces, designed to give authorities an excuse for a wider crackdown on political freedoms.
Activists call the conspiracy theories a smear.
At the same time, authorities are eager to lump together varied opposition figures and groups and label them pro-independence — and therefore unacceptable.
Pro-democracy campaigner and law professor Benny Tai, who says he does not support independence, recently earned an official rebuke from the Hong Kong government and Chinese state media for discussing the topic at a human rights forum in Taiwan.
Leading democracy activist Agnes Chow, who does not campaign for independence but whose party supports self-determination for Hong Kong, was recently barred from standing for office.
Activist Andy Chan, 27, banned from running in elections in 2016 for his pro-independence stance, predicts room for dissenting views will continue to narrow.
“In the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party, if you fight for democracy, you are fighting for independence,” he said.
“They want total control.”