On an overcast Thursday morning, twin red flags — one belonging to Hong Kong and the other to China — were hoisted at the Golden Bauhinia Square on Hong Kong’s picturesque harbor front. The raising was part of the celebrations for China’s National Day — the 66th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China, to be precise — but the two flags weren’t the only ones visible at the event.

About a block away from the square, small groups of protesters waved the blue colonial flag — a combination of Hong Kong’s coat of arms and Britain’s Union Jack — that was the territory’s emblem until the British returned it to China in 1997. The protesters — part of a marginal but growing localist movement that calls for greater autonomy, or even full independence — waved banners that read, “Hong Kong Independence” and “Hong Kong Is Not China.”

That sentiment was reiterated a little later across the harbor on the waterfront in Kowloon, where around 200 people gathered with yellow umbrellas — a symbol of last year’s pro-democracy Umbrella Revolution. The prevailing message, along with demands for a preservation of Hong Kong’s “core values” and “true democracy,” was much the same: Hong Kong is very different to China.

While many observers thought that the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 would see the city become culturally more Sinicized, the reverse has happened, with many Hong Kongers feeling sharply distinct from mainland Chinese. Over a century and half of Western-style education, along with free communications, relative affluence, metropolitan sophistication and pride in the regional Cantonese language and culture has seen to that.

Politically too there are unbridgeable differences. Currently, the chief issue is the manner in which the city’s top official, known as the chief executive, should be chosen and whether the incumbent should be an advocate of Hong Kong’s cause to the central government, or the servant of the Communist Party, imposing Beijing’s wishes on this freewheeling Special Administrative Region.

The issue of elections were central to last year’s far larger National Day protests. Then, thousands took to the streets, at the start of what turned into a weeks-long occupation, to demand that Hong Kong voters be given the right to freely nominate candidates for chief executive and to directly elect the same. Beijing, on the other hand, says that it will grant universal suffrage but insists that all candidates should be vetted for their acceptability to the party.

Although an electoral reform bill, laying down polls in the manner approved by Beijing, was voted down in mid-June by Hong Kong’s legislature, there is a growing concern among many democrats that the Chinese government continues to exert pressure and threaten Hong Kong’s freedoms in less overt ways.

On Tuesday, an academic named Johannes Chan was denied an appointment as the pro-vice chancellor of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) — the city’s flagship institute of higher education. Many suspect that the decision to prevent Chan, a former dean at HKU’s law school, from assuming the university’s second highest role was linked to his closeness with Benny Tai, who is also a professor at the university and a co-founder of the Occupy Central movement that played a significant role in last year’s Umbrella Revolution.

“It’s obvious that the decision was a political one,” Ip Kin-yuen, a lawmaker and head of an HKU alumni association, told Reuters. “Academic freedom will no longer exist after this.”

Officials from Beijing have also made controversial statements recently reminding Hong Kong of its place in the Chinese body politic. Zhang Xiaoming, the Beijing government’s top representative in Hong Kong, caused uproar a few weeks ago when he said the chief executive was the agent of Chinese authority and held powers superseding those of the city’s legislature and judiciary — existing, in effect, above the law.

A few days later, another Chinese official said Hong Kong’s political turmoil was largely due to a “failure to decolonize” after almost two centuries of British rule.

“I really hope that Hong Kong will not separate, but at the same time I also hope the Chinese government can trust the people,” said Oscar Cheung, a fresh university graduate standing at Golden Bauhinia Square on Thursday morning. “The citizens [must] also try to believe the Chinese government,” he added, echoing statements made earlier during the ceremony by Hong Kong’s unpopular current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying.

The problem — thrown into sharp relief at National Day celebrations and other enforced shows of unity — is that little trust, or belief, exists on either side.

 

Write to Rishi Iyengar at rishi.iyengar@timeasia.com.

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