HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong schools are becoming a new battleground in a nascent campaign for the city's independence, with some young activists starting the new term on Thursday by defying authorities with calls for a split from mainland China.
The free-wheeling business hub has been on edge over the past couple of years over a campaign by some residents to preserve and promote their city's freedoms in the face of what they see as a bid by Beijing to curb them.
The former British territory returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" pact meant to safeguard its ways but the refusal of Beijing to give ground on a demand for full democracy has sapped many people's faith in the formula.
"'One country, two systems' is just a lie so Hong Kong independence is our way out," said one 15-year-old student who is a member of an umbrella group promoting discussion of independence in schools.
As teenagers headed into the Munsang College on Thursday, one student dressed in its all-white uniform handed out stickers displaying a mock "Republic of Hong Kong Passport".
It was not long before a teacher led him inside. A vice principal told Reuters the boy's material had not been approved by the student council, though the school welcomed balanced debate.
Outside the gates of another school, Ying Wa College, a 17-year-old distributed leaflets urging students to think about alternatives to "one country, two systems".
Media reported such campaigning at at least six schools.
Debate on independence was once unheard of in Hong Kong and for most residents it remains a youthful dream rather than a serious proposal that Beijing will ever consider.
But the fact that it is being debated illustrates what many in the city consider a sea change brought about by 79 days of student-led pro-democracy protests in 2014.
Since then, many city residents have decried what they see as increasing Beijing interference in various sectors to stifle dissent, including in schools.
"We are doing what the Communist Party has been doing," Andy Chan, a leader of a pro-independence political party, told Reuters, referring to what he believes is infiltration into student groups by China's ruling Communist Party.
Chan, who was disqualified from running in a city legislative election on Sunday because of his views, said his group was targeting school children as they were future leaders.
Authorities have warned against the promotion of independence, saying classroom discussions should be confined to the boundaries set by Hong Kong's mini constitution, the Basic Law, which states the city is an "inalienable part" of China.
Hong Kong's Secretary for Education Eddie Ng told reporters after meeting Ministry of Education officials in Beijing last month he had raised the prospect of ideas on independence "invading" campuses.
"No pro-independence advocacy or activities should be allowed in schools," Hong Kong's Education Bureau said in a response to Reuters, adding that teachers should stick to the Basic Law as a framework and avoid "political indoctrination".
The bureau has said teachers who promote independence could lose their qualification.
Two major school groups, the Po Leung Kuk and Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, which run 34 schools, say they have told their schools not to promote political views.
Some teachers and students dismissed the suggestion independence talk was gaining momentum, saying teenagers were too busy with studies.
Some thought the government warnings were a preemptive move to head off trouble.
"The government is intentionally giving instructions to schools' heads in a high-profile way so they can shut teachers' mouths before things escalate," one teacher said.
(Refiles to amend headline to "term")
Reporting by Venus Wu; Editing by Greg Torode and Robert Birsel