In this picture taken on March 22, 2018 pro-independence activist Andy Chan poses in Hong Kong.
ANTHONY WALLACE—AFP/Getty Images
By Casey Quackenbush / Hong Kong
August 14, 2018

Andy Chan knows not to confront his harassers. Sometimes they follow him on the subway. Sometimes they follow his mother. Sometimes they show up at his front door or across the street. At other times he’ll have no idea he was even followed until an article about him runs in a local tabloid.

Ha ha ha,” Chan says, dryly imitating his girlfriend’s reaction to front-page gossip of his alleged infidelities. The 27-year-old Hongkonger takes the last puff of a skinny menthol—a habit he’s regrettably picked up—and hurriedly jaywalks the intersection of the working class neighborhood of Sham Shui Po, rushing to make his weekly internet radio show. Tonight’s episode consists of updates on the Hong Kong government’s efforts to make his political party—the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP)—the first to be banned since Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony.

“They’re trying to provoke me,” he says. “They” being the notoriously intrusive Hong Kong media.

Or you could say that Chan, an easy target, has aroused their predatory instinct. And not just theirs but that of the governments of Hong Kong and mainland China, who have zero tolerance for the HKNP. It calls for this semi-autonomous region—the world’s freest economy—to declare its full independence from China, which resumed sovereignty over it in 1997. In a speech made during a visit to Hong Kong on the 20th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule, President Xi Jinping warned that, “Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security [or] challenge the power of the central government … is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible.”

After tolerating it for a couple of years, the Hong Kong government now says that Chan’s party poses an “imminent threat” to national security. “Freedom of speech is not absolute,” says Ronny Tong, a barrister and member of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing cabinet. “If you…start activities to overthrow the government, how else would it not affect national security?”

The city’s Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) came under intense pressure to cancel a luncheon address that Chan made to its members on Aug. 14, in which he argued that China was an imperialist power bent on erasing Hong Kong’s culture and identity. Shortly after the lunch, the Hong Kong government issued a statement calling it “totally inappropriate and unacceptable for any organization to provide a public platform to express such views.”

Chan has even provoked people who might have been expected to support him. Many Hongkongers who want greater autonomy for the territory fear that the HKNP will simply court Beijing’s fury and make things more difficult for the city’s democratic movement, which, in the main, is not campaigning for independence but simply for a system of genuine universal suffrage and for Hong Kong to be given the right to elect its leader. Some have even asked if Chan is an agent provocateur—or the dupe of agents provocateurs. (What better excuse could Beijing want to crackdown on political freedom, after all, than a separatist movement that reviles China as just another “colonizer” to be kicked out?) On the day of his speech at the FCC, Hong Kong’s newspaper of record, the South China Morning Post, referred to him as “public enemy no. 1” on its front page.

Separatism is not new in China. Beijing has made it clear that it will invade Taiwan should the self-ruled island ever declare formal independence, and China’s machinery of repression has long been brought to bear on Tibetans and Uighurs seeking freedom, or at the very least greater autonomy, from Chinese rule. To be sure, the 2016 inaugural rally of the HKNP was different. This was not a group of ethnic minorities in some far-flung province agitating for independence. This was a crowd of young Han Chinese, in one of China’s showpiece cities, listening soberly and calmly as speakers asserted their right to a nation state of their own. Nothing like it had ever happened within the sovereign territory of the People’s Republic since its foundation in 1949.

But then, it is difficult to say how large the independence movement is. Chan refuses to divulge the number of members in the HKNP. Thus, while the police put it between ten and a hundred, for all anyone knows it could simply consist of Chan himself. Police estimates put the number of people at the party’s inaugural rally at just 2,500. The results of a local university poll, published a couple of weeks before the rally, found that 1 in 6 Hongkongers supported independence, but whether they would be prepared to take to the streets in defiance of Beijing is, of course, a very different matter.

Interest in independence grew during pro-democracy protests in 2012 and 2014 (the latter a 79-day occupation of downtown streets dubbed the Umbrella Revolution) and flared again in 2015 when the New York Times published an essay by Chin Wan, a professor of Chinese at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University advocating for a “Chinese confederacy,” in which Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau would be considered “federate entities” on an equal footing with a democratic China. The poster boy of Hong Kong’s democratic movement, Joshua Wong, wrote an essay for TIME that same year, calling for self-determination for the territory.

“From the perspective of Beijing, once there is a spark, then the spark has to be extinguished,” says Dr. Sonny Lo, veteran political commentator on China-Hong Kong relations. “Otherwise it can spread into a bigger fire.”

A statement party

It has to be said that the flames of Hong Kong separatism are not likely to be sparked by a man like Andy Chan. The HKNP infuriates pro-Beijing figures but local activists deride it as a “statement party,” because it mostly issues communiques instead of taking action. Neither has the charisma-free Chan made any substantial impression on the public or the media—at least not until the Hong Kong government’s attempt to cancel his FCC speech shoved him into the international spotlight.

Indeed, he appears unable to make a strong case for an independent Hong Kong. His prepared remarks at the FCC were very short on specifics, revealed a populist antipathy for mainland Chinese immigrants, and painted an apocalyptic vision of Hong Kong’s future in which the city’s identity is crushed by sinister communist apparatchiks. It also featured a curiously affected preference for the term “Peking” instead of Beijing. Afterward, he gave off-topic and evasive answers to questions from the floor, much like he did on the warm Thursday morning when he sat down with TIME in the lounge of the Mandarin Oriental hotel.

He arrived for his interview in spectacles and a white shirt, looking like any young office worker on the streets of Hong Kong’s central business district—except that he is jobless save for the occasional gig in interior design. Over the course of two hours, the business and engineering graduate was unable to describe the roadmap by which Hong Kong could achieve independence or defend itself against China. He offered no picture of what an independent Hong Kong might look and feel like, who its international allies might be, who would lead it, or how that leader might be chosen. He could not name an author or a historical Hong Kong figure who inspired him politically. He spoke warmly but without notable zeal about the territory, its people, history and culture (“I don’t know, I just feel like Hong Kong is such a great place; it’s my home”). In fact, he became most animated when talking about the year he spent as a transfer student in Uppsala University. “Oh, Sweden!” he said, brightly. “Sweden is much better than Hong Kong.”

Neither could he offer any dramatic account of political awakening or the coalescing of a Hong Kong identity. When pressed about the former he says, fairly bloodlessly, that he attended the Umbrella Revolution protests, and could feel “something wrong with Hong Kong,” but described no eureka moment when he vowed to dedicate his life to the struggle and could not convincingly say why anybody should be expected to take such risks. When pressed on identity, he said that at Uppsala he began drawing a distinction between Hong Kong and China when other students asked where he was from. But thousands of young Hongkongers studying abroad make the same distinction without becoming revolutionaries and independence activists.

Chan, in short, is a strange individual to be leading a pro-independence party. His existence is a real-life Being There. But it gets weirder. Not only does he not disclose his party’s numerical strength, he won’t talk about the types of people in it, beyond a vague and unsupported boast of “Oxbridge graduates, lawyers and doctors.” He also makes the odd revelation that party members do not meet in person for security reasons, preferring instead to convene online—leaving, one imagines, a far more incriminating trail, all of it in writing, than if they had simply gathered together in a bar.

‘The concept of so-called independence is an illusion’

Chan’s quest may be a Children’s Crusade but none of this is to deny the Hong Kong identity. Call a Hongkonger Chinese, and they will be quick to clarify. A 2017 poll found just 3.1% of Hongkongers aged between 18 and 29 identify as Chinese, a 20-year low, compared to 65% who identified as Hongkongers (most of the remainder said they felt like a mixture of both). The Cantonese-speaking territory is linguistically and culturally distinct from the mainland, and 156 years of British presence has created a population that has come to expect common law, freedom of speech and a liberal education as its birthright.

“The concept of One China is really problematic because it’s a communist vision that wants Hong Kong to totally conform to their plans and their policies,” says Michael Ingham, a professor at Lingnan (the same university from which Chin Wan brought forth his confederacy manifesto) and the author of Hong Kong: A Cultural History. “Young people are not accepting that.”

But young people’s best approach may be to preserve existing political freedoms, or expand upon them, without making a declaration of independence. Were Hong Kong to do that, it would be impossible to defend it militarily from mainland China, and no world power would come to Hong Kong’s aid because it would mean making an implacable enemy of Beijing. China wouldn’t even need to seize Hong Kong back by force. It could simply turn off the taps and close the border: the territory, which depends on China for most of its fresh water and food, would be starved into submission. And this is to say nothing of the disastrous effects on business—multinationals and professionals would decamp elsewhere in their droves. Independence would be a catastrophe.

When put to Chan, this is, verbatim, the sum total of his response: “Hong Kong does not need to survive militarily. We need to tip the balance among different powers, like Switzerland, to become independent, so we can balance the powers in Hong Kong, and every power can gain what they want. Hong Kong is an international city, we are not just an ordinary city, like in Tibet or not in Mongolia [sic].”

Says Lo, the political commentator: “Hong Kong is historically a part of China. “The concept of so-called independence is an illusion.”

Curiously, even Chan accepts this. He says he is unable to find a real job or even open a bank account and admits that the work of his party is “definitely” an act of political suicide, conceding that the party is “doomed,” but that “someone has to [make a] sacrifice.” He floats the idea of fleeing to Taiwan.

“If fighting for freedom and dignity is criminal, let it be,” he tells TIME. “If I ask for democracy, human rights, and then I damage national security, let it be.”

But first there is another internet radio show to broadcast. Sitting in the studio, surrounded by cardboard boxes and beside a messy whiteboard, Chan settles in to address some 2,000 to 3,000 listeners.

Earlier, when asked by TIME why he has taken up such a difficult cause, he says: “I don’t want to waste my life.”

It might be too late for that.

Write to Casey Quackenbush at casey.quackenbush@timeinc.com.

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