On Sept. 4, 2.2 million Hongkongers — a record 58% of the territory’s registered voters — went to the polls to elect their next Legislative Council, as Hong Kong’s congress is called. The elections came almost exactly two years to the day after the beginning of what was called the Umbrella Revolution: a three-month-long protest staged in the city’s most critical commercial districts to demand democratic reforms and stand up to Beijing, which has controlled the former British colony as a nominally semiautonomous territory since 1997.
Some critics would later call the protests a failure — the primary demand, the right to directly elect Hong Kong’s top official, was not met — but those who did so failed (or chose) not to acknowledge the movement’s most lasting consequence: the awakening of a new political generation that is brazen in its fight for Hong Kong’s autonomy and unafraid of an increasingly muscular Beijing.
This generation first stirred in 2012, when it rebelled against the government’s proposal for a mandatory pro-China curriculum at Hong Kong’s schools. The Legislative Council elections have now given it a mandate. Five young activists were voted into office, bringing political validation to a youth-driven movement dismissed by establishment elders as naïve, unschooled, and untenable.
The youngest, Nathan Law, who was a figurehead of the Umbrella Movement demonstrations, is just 23. But more unprecedented than the age of these new opposition legislators are their beliefs: several of them are self-described “radicals” who openly resent the notion of Hong Kong as a Chinese territory (they see it as a “colony” of Beijing) and are willing to entertain the drastic solution of Hong Kong’s outright independence.
On Sept. 21, TIME’s Asia editor Zoher Abdoolcarim, associate editor Helen Regan, writer-reporter Nash Jenkins and reporting intern Kevin Lui sat down for a conversation with three of them: Law, 30-year-old Sixtus “Baggio” Leung and 25-year-old Yau Wai-ching. (Thirty-eight-year-old Eddie Chu, a maverick who was elected on a bold anticorruption platform, had fallen ill the night before and could not attend.) Seated around a table in the gritty Mong Kok district — the site of some of the most violent clashes during the protests two years ago — these members of Hong Kong’s new political guard spoke frankly about their goals for office, their hopes for Hong Kong’s autonomy, and why they are committed to fight for the soul of China’s freest city.
What do your victories in the Legislative Council elections say about where Hong Kong is politically?
Leung: Hongkongers want change. They want some new faces in the Legislative Council and in the whole political system.
Law: People are feeling that the democratic movement is … stuck in a place where we follow an agenda provided by the central government but we gain nothing out of it. People want change. A lot of the new participants in this election want to uphold self-determination and [set] a new agenda for the democratic movement. We provide a new vision.
The Umbrella Revolution failed to achieve concrete political reform. How do you manage the disappointment?
Law: In terms of leading to concrete political change, it failed. But on the other hand, it left behind a huge political heritage. A lot of people were enlightened politically, and we can see that in the turnout rate in this election. Many people came out to vote. You can see that Hong Kong’s civic society is getting stronger. Having had quite a relatively important role in the movement, I think I have the responsibility to sustain that spirit, and to sustain people’s hopes.
You’re all relatively young. How has Hong Kong changed in your lifetimes?
Leung: We are losing our freedoms. The new generation is looking for a new solution.
Yau: Since the handover, the values and collective memories that Hongkongers treasure have disappeared. All the Hong Kong government and Chinese Communist Party want is to [take over] Hong Kong, with no regard for Hongkongers. In my primary school, I was taught that China was the motherland of Hong Kong and we would have a good future, but what I’ve experienced is that Hong Kong is getting worse under Beijing’s control — or, as I would describe it, colonization.
Law: Other than on military and diplomatic issues, the Chinese government [is not supposed to] intervene in Hong Kong. But Hong Kong’s [autonomy] is being eroded because a lot of things we uphold are in conflict with the mind-set of mainland China. For example, we might uphold democracy, but they might see it as a channel for hostile foreign forces to interfere in internal Chinese issues.
The use of power by the Beijing government is [also] arbitrary and vague. And many of our primary and secondary schools are using Mandarin instead of Cantonese — we’re almost losing a generation of fluent Cantonese speakers.
Some people have said that the first turning point for the freedom movement in Hong Kong was the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, when the Chinese army killed thousands of pro-democracy student protesters in Beijing. What are the differences between you and those who were politically active back then?
Law: The 1980s was China’s most liberal decade, and [those in Hong Kong who saw it] put their hopes in the opening of a new liberal China. But the generation that didn’t experience that has never put much hope in mainland China. I don’t have that Chinese national sentiment. For me, a Hongkonger, the most important thing is to defend our system. I care about and want to know more about the human-rights movement in China, but I realize that it is very difficult for me to be part of that.
Leung: There are some differences between the elder generation and us — like in the discussion about whether we should call it the Umbrella Movement or the Umbrella Revolution. One reason why some people preferred the word movement was that they feared the Chinese Communist Party would send tanks to kill us.
China is now the second biggest economy in the world, or even the biggest by some accounts. Isn’t it better to be part of China than not to be a part of China?
Leung: There’s this saying: “China needs Hong Kong, but it doesn’t need Hong Kong’s people.” It means that, because Hong Kong is still a financial center, they need our law and our banking system. But Hongkongers are asking for freedom and changes to their political system. I am a Hongkonger, and what I’m facing now is that China needs my homeland, but it doesn’t need me.
When was your political epiphany?
Leung: If there were no Umbrella Revolution, then I probably wouldn’t have formed [the political party] Youngspiration. And no one would’ve joined me in campaigning for such a crazy idea without the Umbrella Revolution. [There was also] the [massive] July 1 protest in 2003. I could feel the anger of Hongkongers.
Law: My political enlightenment came in 2010, when [mainland dissident writer] Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize. On the day following the announcement, the president of our school, which had pro-China sympathies, publicly denounced Liu Xiaobo. His comments made me curious about what was happening, about why Liu couldn’t attend the award ceremony, so I looked for information online. That made me curious about the justice and human-rights movement and what’s wrong in Hong Kong and Chinese society.
Yau: [The official attempt to impose patriotic] national education in 2012 was an awakening because, when I was in secondary school, I thought that such brainwashing would not occur in Hong Kong. But it wasn’t until 2014, and the Umbrella Revolution, that I actually came out and fought against the government with my friends and colleagues. That was the start of my real political life.
Is there anything about your backgrounds that led you into politics?
Leung: I have democratic parents, but they won’t go to street protests.
Law: I come from a blue-collar family. They’re afraid of China and don’t want to touch politics. The first time my mother really watched the news about politics was on Sept. 26, 2014, when I was arrested by police and she was looking for her son. My family are definitely not fully supportive.
Yau: My family have a lot of questions about my political standpoint. Just this morning, my mum asked me questions about Hong Kong independence. So I had to explain to her how Hong Kong could be self-sufficient.
As legislators, what policies do you hope to push?
Leung: The first is to try to curb the power of police.
Yau: I would like a well-planned population policy and migration policy in Hong Kong [to curb mainland Chinese immigration]. Also, we think Chinese lessons should be taught in Cantonese and not Mandarin. I want to build Hong Kong identity.
Law: My own emphasis will be on higher education, because of my background and experience as a student organizer. There should be a decolonization in the power structure of the whole higher-education system. The democratic movement is another emphasis … Hong Kong people deciding their future.
The Legislative Council is still like a private club for the ruling class of Hong Kong. Are you going to be intimidated on the first day you walk into that chamber? Or do you not care?
Leung: I don’t care about what they think. The ones I care about are those who gave me their vote. We are here to challenge those in power.
Yau: People voted for me to get into the Legislative Council because I’m not one of [the ruling class]. If I were one of them, they wouldn’t have voted for me.
Law: I think there has been a change in what the council symbolizes. People have different expectations of legislators after the social movements of recent years. We see politics as our vocation instead of a job.
Do you dislike or even hate mainland Chinese? How do you see yourselves: as Hongkongers or as Chinese?
Yau: I’m a Hongkonger, and how I see Chinese people is that we are not the same. It’s because the history as well as the political and economic environment of Hong Kong and China are totally different, which creates two different kinds of culture. I don’t hate Chinese people, but I don’t think they are our family members — to use the claim touted by the communist government — or that they’re the same as us.
Leung: Actually I don’t think the majority of people in Hong Kong hate Chinese people. But if someone is hurting our interest, hurting our hometown, then they’re enemies. If you love this place, or if you think it is your homeland, and someone is hurting it, then you will be angry. If someone breaks into your home and try to make it a mess, you’ll feel anger.
Law: I consider myself a Hongkonger and I don’t build my identity on hatred. I build my identity on my sense of belonging and love towards this place, this city.
Would your ideal outcome be independence?
Leung: Political problems must be solved politically, and self-determination, how we change our form of government after 2047, is our answer.
Yau: [If there is no political reform,] Hong Kong will be fully occupied by China. [The public must decide whether] they want to be China, or have their own new path. [The latter] might lead to a change in sovereignty, but Hongkongers will enjoy a more stable life and economy — the things that they are most concerned about.
Law: For me, the goal of our political movement is to make Hong Kong more autonomous and democratic. “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” is the ideal, but it has failed to materialize with the system we have today. The reason why we uphold self-determination is that Hongkongers were deprived of the right to self-determination back in the run-up to [the resumption of Chinese sovereignty in 1997]. We don’t want to repeat the same mistake. We hope there will be a referendum on Hong Kong’s sovereignty.
Where do you see yourselves in 20, 25, 30 years?
Leung: What I want to have achieved by that time is that Hong Kong people are finally the ones who can decide Hong Kong’s future.
Law: Ideally, I’m no longer a legislator, and no longer an activist, because we have achieved the things [I have set out to do].
Are you optimistic about Hong Kong?
Yau: You have to be optimistic, especially as a lawmaker. We have to give a sense of optimism to citizens.
Leung: I don’t think we are really that optimistic, but then we’re not allowed to just sit here and do nothing, or else wait to lose our freedom or wait for the day when Hong Kong dies.
Law: I’m not really optimistic, but that is why we are here. If we were optimistic, then we wouldn’t have to devote ourselves to this kind of battle.