On Saturday night more than 100,000 people descend upon Victoria Park in Hong Kong in remembrance of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. On the other side of town, thousands of students met to discuss the future of the Special Administrative Region.

For many, the June 4 candlelight vigil is a special event that peacefully reflects Hong Kong’s commitment to democracy. For others, particularly among students among whom an "anti China" sentiment is high, the event is another sign that the mainstream pan-democrat opposition is stuck in a failed mode of resistance as Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong tightens.

This year, a handful of counter-events were held, including a series of protests organized by Raymond Wong Yuk-man’s (黃毓民) Civic Passion Party. The Victoria Park vigil itself was disrupted when a pro-independence group rushed the stage.

At Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), in the city’s northern Sha Tin District, 11 student bodies held a joint forum featuring academics, columnists and young leaders of nascent political groups like the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP), Youngspiration and Hong Kong Indigenous.

An estimated 1,500 people, mostly young students, waited in a queue hundreds of meters long before packing the auditorium. The event was slickly run with busses carting people from the train station up the hill to the campus, a large contingent of local media, a live webcast and an on-site English translation.

One HKNP supporter told The News Lens International that the turnout was stronger than expected. Well-known columnist Chip Tsao (曹捷), one of the event's speakers, said Hong Kong’s pan-democrat politicians, who generally support universal suffrage under one-country, two systems and dominate the opposition benches in the legislature, “should pay attention” to the fact that so many people chose to attend the forum rather than the vigil.

While the students’ split from the main Tiananmen vigil has happened before — they say Hong Kongers should not focus on building democracy in China — the separate events reveal a deepening divide among Hong Kong’s pro-democracy factions. Some among the student groups say the traditional pan-democrats are trapped in an ongoing and outdated loop, symbolized on June 4 by the same annual vigil, the same speeches, slogans and protest songs. Some among the older generation say the "brash students" are chasing an unrealistic goal of full independence from China.

Clock ticking

HKNP leader Andy Chan (陳浩天) enjoyed a larger share of time on the microphone at CUHK and his statements earned him several rounds of applause. He told the crowd the party is not looking to “form an army,” but is prepared to use “different tactics” and “force” to achieve independence. He alluded to the Irish Republican Army’s use of guerrilla warfare in Ireland.

HKNP’s urgency is driven by a sense that the window for opposing Beijing is closing fast. The leaders believe a tipping point is just years away, when immigrants from the mainland start to outnumber native "Hong Kongers." There is a fear that as the shadow of Beijing creeps through the streets, local identity is being lost. They point to the increased teaching of Mandarin in schools, and to the use of simplified Chinese characters to cater to new Chinese permanent arrivals and tourists. They also mention the less subtle developments, namely the disappearance of booksellers and use of force against activists during the Umbrella and Fishball Revolutions.

As one pan-democrat legislator who spoke to The News Lens in Hong Kong termed it, a process of “Mainlandization” is well underway — the word is intended to conjure up Hitler’s “Germanization” tactics, where language and culture were suppressed as the Nazis spread German identity in occupied territories.

Another pro-independence campaigner told The News Lens that Hong Kong identity is simply “a consciousness that you are part of a Hong Kong nation that is being suppressed by China.”

Chan told the crowd on Saturday evening, “If awareness is not clear enough, then Hong Kong will fall into the hands of China.”

Despite the different views and approaches across the factions, everyone — including the pan-democrats — seems to agree that as the feeling of suppression intensifies, any small protest or event has the potential to spark another serious mass activist movement. The question now is how will China respond?

“The future hinges on what Beijing will do,” Hong Kong Institute of Education professor Brian Fong (方志恆) said at the forum. Further suppression, he said, “will cause more demand for independence.”

September looms

The HKNP says it seeks independence for Hong Kong “by any means necessary.” The apparent openness to using violence has alienated the group from not only the traditional pan-democrats, who say the idea of students hiding in the hills with AK-47s is laughable, but also other young leaders. The newly formed student-led Demosistō Party, which has long-term plans to work toward self-determination, has dismissed some of the bluster as “trash talk.”

Demosistō is led by 19-year old Joshua Wong (黃之鋒), one of the student leaders during the Umbrella Movement. The party says it will take years, decades if necessary, to build a large local support base, drafting a new charter for Hong Kong to replace the current constitutional arrangements, and gain the backing from the international community. These factors, it believes, are necessary in order to have the right conditions for Hong Kong to be in a position to determine its own future.

Where was Demosistō on June 4? It was at Victoria Park, fundraising.

Wong has impressed some in the older pan-democrat establishment. The pragmatic and diplomatic nature of Demosistō’s plan — Wong has already given talks in colleges in the U.S. and in Taiwan — appears to be more palatable than the brashness of some of the more radical pro-independence groups.

The HKNP, however, sees its own goal of independence as distinct from other ends: talk on anything less, such as holding a referendum on self-determination or gaining greater autonomy for Hong Kong under one-country, two systems, is just a concession to the "colonizing" Chinese Communist Party.

Speaking at the forum, Youngspiration leader Baggio Leung Chung-hang (梁頌恆) said he has not heard of an independent nation holding a referendum to see whether it is independent.

The handful of emerging parties and groups represented at the forum have been collectively dubbed “localist.” But the moniker does not sit well with all of them. Those who do not shy from talking about using force know they will be labeled as radicals, but they nevertheless see themselves as progressives.

Beyond the labels, what also sets the youth apart is a plain sense of optimism. One HKNP supporter pointed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. “No one saw that coming, not even the Americans,” he told The News Lens, alluding to the possibility of a similar fate for the authoritarian CCP.

Given that a number of fledgling parties were launched earlier this year, their levels of support are not clear. Hong Kong's upcoming September legislative election, therefore, looms as an important event for all the groups, including the establishment parties.