HONG KONG — He has been locked up for more than a year in a secluded island jail, but the bespectacled 28-year-old inmate, Edward Leung, is the closest thing Hong Kong’s tumultuous and leaderless protest movement has to a guiding light.
He coined the protesters’ most widely chanted and, for China, most subversive slogan; he pioneered some of the movement’s rougher tactics; and he gave voice to the identity politics at the heart of Hong Kong’s struggle, now in its 10th week, to avoid becoming just another Communist Party-run Chinese city.
The protests were ignited in June by anger at plans by the Hong Kong government to allow extradition from the former British colony to mainland China. And they have been freighted since with a host of other complaints about prohibitively expensive housing, unfair elections and alleged police brutality.
But at the movement’s root is a dramatic shift in identity since Britain pulled out in 1997 that has left a large majority of Mr. Leung’s generation rejecting ties to mainland China and asserting what they see as their own distinct and entirely separate identity.
“I’m a Hong Konger, not Chinese,” said Kapo Chen, a 20-year-old student who joined protests at the city’s airport, “Of course, my blood is Chinese, but I can’t control that.”
Pinned to her back was a piece of paper printed with the jailed Mr. Leung’s biggest contribution to the protest movement, a slogan now daubed on walls across Hong Kong, screamed by black-clad protesters who plunged the airport into chaos on Tuesday and chanted at orderly gatherings around the city.
Mr. Leung coined the slogan “Retake Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” in 2016, shortly before he was arrested over his role in a street brawl with the police, while running for election to Hong Kong’s legislature.
But starkly different interpretations of what Mr. Leung’s words mean — an incendiary call to break up China or simply an appeal to defend Hong Kong’s core values — highlight a gulf that has opened up in the former British colony. The city’s Beijing-backed government is struggling against its foes not only for control of the streets but over what Hong Kong means as a place, a culture and a political entity.
Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, and Beijing officials have repeatedly denounced Mr. Leung’s slogan as a treasonous call for the city to split from China and overturn the formula of “one country, two systems” under which Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule.
But young protesters and their supporters note that the word they are using for “retake,” in Chinese, literally means “return to the light.” They insist that it is an appeal for Hong Kong to recover the freedoms and impartial system of justice that they believe have been steadily eroded.
Chu Hoi-dick, an elected member of the city’s legislative assembly and a protest activist who has visited Mr. Leung in prison several times, said the activist was never as recklessly militant as portrayed by China’s propaganda machine and has moderated some of his more radical views while in jail.
All the same, he described Mr. Leung as “the Che Guevara of Hong Kong’s revolution.” He added: “He has this aura about him and is an icon for the young.”
Mr. Chu, also known as Eddie Chu, 41, is also an early champion of Hong Kong’s “localist” movement, a cause focused on preserving the city’s sense of identity. He never agreed with Mr. Leung’s tactics, which sometimes veered into violence, but shares his view that Hong Kong must preserve its different identity rooted in the rule of law, generous freedoms and local traditions.
The view that Hong Kong residents are not Chinese has dismayed not only the Communist Party but also some of its critics, who gather each year in Hong Kong for a candlelit vigil to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen massacre in Beijing.
Many student groups have voted in recent years to stay away from the event “because they want absolutely nothing to do with mainland China” and are “focused on their own identity politics,” said Bao Pu, a Hong Kong publisher who is the son of a senior, liberal-minded Beijing official purged in 1989.
After a brief surge of patriotic feeling during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, affection for and even interest in the mainland has fallen sharply, particularly after Xi Jinping became China’s paramount leader in 2012.
China’s harsh crackdown on Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the nominally autonomous western region of Xinjiang has added to a grim sense of foreboding among many young people in Hong Kong.
“It is clear that since Xi got in power, China has been moving further and further away from all ideas of liberal democracy,” said Alan Tse, an anthropologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who has studied the “localist” movement. “People in Hong Kong know that. They know that genuine democracy is very unlikely to come, so there is a wide sense of despair among young people.”
A June survey by the Hong Kong University Public Opinion Program found that 75 percent of people from 18 to 29 years old identified themselves as a “Hong Konger” rather than “Chinese,” “Hongkonger in China” or “Chinese in Hong Kong.” That is a big rise from the 23 percent of this group who chose Hong Kong as their identity during the 2008 Olympics, and the 45 percent in 1997.
Older residents, many of whom were born on the mainland or have parents who were, identify slightly more with China. But of those 30 or older, 49 percent still identified themselves as Hong Kongers.
Chinese officials have long recognized they have a problem and have demanded that schools in Hong Kong introduce “patriotic education” classes to instill pride in China and sweep away what they see as a legacy of colonialism.
The British colonial authorities, worried about Hong Kong becoming embroiled in Chinese political battles, particularly the long feud between Mao Zedong’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party, tried to promote a sense of loyalty to the city rather than China.
These efforts increased after Communist-orchestrated riots and bombings in Hong Kong in 1967, when the colonial government began a campaign built around the slogan: “Hong Kong is my homeland.”
The post-colonial government has tried various ways to make Hong Kongers identify more with China, including a 2012 attempt, strongly backed by Beijing, to introduce “national education” in schools. But it backed off after street protests.
Until Beijing dug in its heels against concessions to the protesters, however, Mr. Leung’s call to “retake Hong Kong” was “the slogan of an irrelevant and infinitesimal minority,” according to Geremie Barmé, the editor of China Heritage, a journal focused on Chinese culture. The “obduracy of Hong Kong and Beijing hard-liners,” Mr. Barmé added, “turned it into the rallying cry of a generation.”
While Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong have revived a stiff lexicon last deployed during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, denouncing protesters as a “tiny handful of ruffians” who must be “resolutely stopped,” young activists have followed the advice of Bruce Lee, the Hong Kong martial arts legend, to “be water, my friend,” constantly shifting their tactics and message.
In tandem with pleas since 1997 to accept their new masters in Beijing, Hong Kong authorities have tied the city ever more closely to mainland China through infrastructure projects. But the increased flow of goods and people across the border has, if anything, only driven people on each side further apart.
Mr. Chu, the legislator and “localist” activist, led a series of doomed campaigns to block projects aimed at integrating Hong Kong physically more tightly with China, including a high-speed rail link that opened last year to the Chinese city of Guangzhou.
With new transport links came huge crowds of mainland visitors — 51 million last year — many of them speaking Mandarin instead of Cantonese, Hong Kong’s principal language. They irritated many locals by buying up supplies of baby formula and other products because they did not trust the quality of goods sold on the mainland.
A group called Hong Kong Indigenous, in which Mr. Leung was a leading activist, began harassing mainland shoppers in what it called “retake” actions. Hong Kong’s colonial-era flag became a banner of resistance in what at times became an ugly xenophobic campaign against mainlanders, with some Hong Kongers dehumanizing them as “locusts.” (Some pro-China activists have responded in kind, with one group this week spraying insect repellent on protest leaflets near Hong Kong’s Star Ferry pier.)
Support for declaring Hong Kong an independent country has remained a tiny, fringe cause. It exists largely as a trope in Communist propaganda, which has used it to tar protesters as traitors and curb any sympathies people in mainland China might have for the protests.
“Many think independence would be desirable, but 99 percent of Hong Kong people do not think it is feasible,” said Lam Cheuk-ting, a legislator for the Democratic Party who was injured during the July attack by gangsters.
“We are all Chinese here, but our culture, traditions and system are totally different from on the mainland,” he said. Young protesters “just don’t trust the central government and its puppets in Hong Kong.”
“They are very angry,” he said.
The standard-bearer for this anger, he added, is Mr. Leung.
Resembling an earnest young accountant more than a fiery revolutionary, Mr. Leung cemented his stature as a youth icon during his trial last year. He won widespread sympathy when the court handed down what many saw as an unfairly harsh six-year jail sentence for his role in what became known as the “fishball revolution.”
It began as a scuffle between street hawkers and officials trying to enforce a tough new policy cracking down on unlicensed traders and escalated into a violent melee.
Instead of denying any involvement, Mr. Leung admitted to throwing things at the police and apologized, saying he had only wanted to help the hawkers but “could not suppress his anger.” His admission struck many young residents as brave and honest.
His organization, Hong Kong Indigenous, never gained much traction beyond a fringe of disenchanted radical youth. But its warnings that Hong Kong was losing its special identity and must fight back have now found a new and far wider resonance as the authorities’ often tin-eared response to the unrest inflames the public mood.
“This movement is not about independence. It is about returning Hong Kong to a free place,” said Emma Chan, a 20-year-old protester at the airport. Mr. Leung, she added, “is not a hero but he inspired a lot of us to be interested in politics.”
“Many thought that politics do not matter,” she said. “They do.”