HONG KONG (Reuters) - Nearly three months after police cleared away the last of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy street protests, lingering anger is stoking a new front of radical activism that has turned shopping malls and university campuses into a fresh battleground.
While still relatively few in number, a cluster of outspoken groups have staged small but disruptive protests in recent weeks targeting mainland Chinese visitors - tapping a seam of grassroots resentment to call for greater Hong Kong nationalism and even independence from China.
More than 100 such activists descended on the New Town Plaza, a mega-mall a short train ride from the border, on a recent Sunday to harass the day-trippers who stream across daily to shop, eat and sight-see.
The mainlanders - 40.7 million of which visited the city of 7 million last year - spur the local economy, but also exasperate locals by clogging streets and emptying store shelves of cosmetics, baby formula and other essentials.
“Away with the locusts and barbarians,” read one banner as protesters roved through the bustling mall tailed by police.
“Go back to China,” protesters shouted at visitors, including an elderly Chinese woman who fled with her trolleyload of shopping. “We don’t want you!”
Shops were closed and police pepper-sprayed some activists amid chaotic scenes and made several arrests.
A pro-Beijing newspaper, Wen Wei Po, thundered that the “radicals”, some of whom waved a British colonial flag, were “inciting the foul culture of Hong Kong independence”.
The financial hub reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997, under a “one country, two systems” formula that gives it substantial autonomy and freedoms, with universal suffrage promised as an “ultimate goal”.
The idea of Hong Kong independence is anathema to Beijing, which fears any separatist or sweeping democratic demands spilling into China to undermine its rule.
The student-led “umbrella movement” that saw hundreds of thousands of people blockade major roads for 79 days last year in a push for full democracy, was one of the most overt challenges to the Communist Party’s grip on power since the Tiananmen Square protests that were bloodily suppressed in 1989.
The movement, named after the umbrellas used by protesters at early “Occupy Central” demonstrations to shield themselves from police pepper spray and batons, has given voice to a breed of younger activists taking increasingly provocative actions.
China’s Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, called on mainlanders to stand up to the “demonization” against Chinese shoppers, rather than to “remain passive and be silent”.
“We should rename Victoria Harbour, Mao Zedong Harbour,” wrote one user on Weibo, China’s popular social media service that has bristled at the treatment of Chinese shoppers.
As activists push back against Beijing’s growing attempts to tighten control of Hong Kong on national security grounds — some say the widening social divisions and groundswell of anti-China sentiment could weigh on its longer term prospects.
“If we don’t rectify the situation in 10 years...it will be the end of Hong Kong politically and economically,” said Elsie Leung, a former Hong Kong Justice Secretary and an advisor to China’s leaders.
Tensions have also sharpened on university campuses between Hong Kong students, many of whom participated in the protests, and their mainland counterparts, who now make up a sizeable portion of student bodies.
Elections for the student union at the elite University of Hong Kong turned into a slanging match, when a Chinese student was accused of being a Beijing spy and subjected to personal attacks.
A student at City University, Timson Kwok, gave up his student union campaign during last year’s demonstrations, telling Next magazine in an interview that two people who hinted they were working on behalf of Beijing, had offered him money and power to help “de-radicalize” the Hong Kong Federation of Students, a major force in the protests.
Kwok and City University declined to comment. China’s Hong Kong Liaison Office did not respond to a request for comment.
Hong Kong is now moving towards a crucial legislative vote in late June or early July on a new electoral package for a 2017 leadership election that could allow a direct vote, but only for candidates pre-screened by a pro-Beijing committee.
Democratic lawmakers who hold a one-third veto bloc in the 70-seat legislative have vowed to vote the package down.
Sources with ties to Chinese officials dealing with Hong Kong affairs say China remains unpersuaded of the case for granting greater democratic latitude.
“Even if there’s a 0.1 percent risk, Beijing won’t want to take that risk of having someone elected who is against the Central Government,” said one source.
A veto of the reform package would return Hong Kong to the status quo, with no direct vote for its leader.
“Unless we can resolve this conflict between Beijing and Hong Kong ... not only will we not get universal suffrage,” said Ronny Tong, a moderate democratic lawmaker. “But I fear that there will be an unhappy ending to one country, two systems.”
Meanwhile, on the streets, activists say the umbrella movement is far from over.
“More people will call for independence,” said Tony Lam, a 32-year-old at the New Town Plaza protest in a wheelchair. “Only Hong Kong people can save Hong Kong ... That’s why I keep coming out.”
Additional reporting by Lizzie Ko; Editing by Alex Richardson