Hong Kong Wrestles With An Identity Crisis : Parallels Two years after protesters shut down the city's financial center, a handful of the activists have won seats in the city's legislature. Now that they're in office, what does it mean for Hong Kong?

Hong Kong Wrestles With An Identity Crisis

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This is the sound of Hong Kong two years ago as thousands of protesters brought one of the world's great financial districts to a standstill.


MONTAGNE: Protesters, tear gas canisters - the issue was, who runs the city - its people or Beijing? What became known as the Umbrella Revolution fizzled out, but protest leaders are back as elected members of Hong Kong's legislature. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports on a city in the midst of an identity crisis.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Two years ago, after a month of protests in central Hong Kong, there was a moment when the two sides seemed to be on the verge of actually agreeing on something.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: The two sides agreed to a debate. Hong Kong University poli-sci professor Joseph Chan set it up.

JOSEPH CHAN: In the end, they had a very - pretty successful public debate televised live. Everyone was watching in Hong Kong because that was a turning point of the movement.

SCHMITZ: But afterwards, when the students spoke to crowds of supporters, the goodwill seemed to vanish.

CHAN: They became extremely critical of the debate, and they thought, you know, the government was wasting their time.

SCHMITZ: Those protesters - six of them are now part of that government. A record number of voters helped elect them in September.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

SCHMITZ: But after election night celebrations, many in Hong Kong woke up wondering, what now?

FERNANDO CHEUNG: I'm not sure that they have such a thing as a plan. They're very young.

SCHMITZ: Fernando Cheung is a longtime Hong Kong legislator. He says these former protest leaders, known as localists, don't agree on how Hong Kong should assert itself with China.

CHEUNG: They're very divided. They're not together. They all belong to different organizations, or they don't belong to anybody. So I think we're not looking at a very concerted effort.

SCHMITZ: What many observers think we're looking at are frustrated young people. Longtime Hong Kong journalist and media consultant David Schlesinger says their world has changed.

DAVID SCHLESINGER: If you look back 20 years, people felt very superior to their cousins in the mainland. They looked down on the mainlanders who came here with, you know, bad manners, bad language skills, bad clothes, didn't really understand business. Huh, aren't we great?

SCHMITZ: But then, mainland China's economy grew faster than any other, and China's government resumed control over Hong Kong. Hong Kong millennials suddenly had a lot to deal with.

SCHLESINGER: Now, mainlanders come. Oftentimes they're better educated. They have better English. They have better business skills. They have multiple degrees from prestigious institutions. And they get the best slots in the law firms, in the banks, in the businesses. And it's the Hong Kongers who lose out.

SCHMITZ: And that's why legislator Claudia Moe thinks the city's new batch of elected officials will stir things up.

CLAUDIA MO: I think Hong Kong will become even more vibrant on the political front. And you could easily see Umbrella Movement part two.

SCHMITZ: Mo says young legislators hoped to define Hong Kong's rights in the three decades before 2047, when China is set to assume sovereignty over the city. But not everyone is with them. In Tamar Park, two years ago a rallying place for democracy protesters, millennial Kevin Leung says he's tired of the divisions in the city.

KEVIN LEUNG: I think it's going to take the middle way because the sides are getting more polarized, in a way, and getting polarized is not good.

SCHMITZ: Leung, an auditor at Deloitte may be in the minority. A recent poll shows, for the first time, a majority of city residents call themselves Hong Kongers instead of Hong Kongers in China. Professor Joseph Chan says the city has reached a turning point.

CHAN: If Beijing doesn't change its tactics towards Hong Kong, there is a high chance that China will lose the hearts and minds of Hong Kong people forever.

SCHMITZ: And if China does that, says Chan, how can it show the rest of the world that it can legitimately govern a developed country at all? Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Hong Kong.

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