The incoming chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, has said she will fight "pro-independence forces" in the city and begin fostering a sense of Chinese identity among very young children, sparking fears that she will try to brainwash them into loyalty to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Lam, who takes office formally on the 20th anniversary of the July 1, 1997 handover to Chinese rule, said her administration would "strictly" enforce existing law, which she said bans "pro-independence behavior."
"I believe most people in Hong Kong never consider independence to be feasible," Lam told Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.
"The next Hong Kong government will strictly carry out its duties according to the law, because all pro-independence behavior violates local laws. We must strictly enforce the law," Lam said.
She also unveiled proposals to begin the "education" of Hong Kong's children as early as kindergarten, saying that the city's young people must learn of the "dangers" posed by pro-independence thinking.
"In future I think we should make Chinese history a compulsory part of the curriculum from the first year of secondary school, and we must do more to encourage children to experience Chinese culture," Lam said.
"Outside of the schools, we need a diverse range of activities aimed at making sure our youth ... understand the latest developments in our country," she said.
Former top Beijing official for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Chen Zuo'er accused "localist" groups that insist on a Hong Kong focus, as well as groups open to greater autonomy or independence for the city, of being "hostile forces."
"These hostile forces have created all kinds of straw men with which to distort and attack the real principle of 'one country, two systems'," Chen told local media. "[They do this] in order to disguise their own anti-China and anti-communist stance, which opposed Hong Kong's return to the motherland."
He dismissed suggestions that the city will be able to choose its own direction when the 50-year period of the handover agreement elapses in 2047.
"The so-called notion that if we don't like the way things are going in 2047, we can change them, is dangerous nonsense," he said, warning that Hong Kong must legislate to enshrine China's deeply unpopular national security and subversion laws in its separate legal jurisdiction.
Attempts to pass such laws through the city's Legislative Council in 2003 sparked a mass popular protest on July 1, 2003, and the attempt was dropped for the time being.
"This can't be put off forever," Chen warned. "But until [that time], we will use existing laws to pursue independence activists with criminal investigations."
A hardening line
Current affairs commentator Li Ruishao said Beijing's line appears to have hardened following recent ties between pro-independence activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
He called the city's independence movement a kind of "straw man."
"Why is Beijing going after pro-independence activists in such a fake manner, when it is pretty obvious to everyone that that independence will never enter the mainstream in Hong Kong?" Li said.
"And yet they set up this straw man and continually attack it. I don't know what they'll attack once it has been destroyed."
"Perhaps ... then, even the slightest, most trivial thing will be turned into a watermelon to fire at," he said.
Chan Ho-tin, convenor of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, said Lam's warnings make no legal sense.
"She said that pro-independence behavior is in breach of our own laws ... if so, she should immediately detain me, rather than just saying I have broken the law," Chan told RFA.
"But I don't think she would be able to tell us exactly which of our laws I have broken," he said.
Former Occupy Central student leader and lawmaker Nathan Law accused Lam of trying to reintroduce Beijing's highly unpopular "national patriotic education" proposals, which also sparked mass student protests in 2012, by stealth.
"This just shows that Beijing hasn't yet given up its proposals for patriotic education in Hong Kong," Law said. "They are continuing to harp on endlessly about patriotic brainwashing."
"People should be warned that this so-called national identity education idea is just patriotic education in a new guise, something they have been trying to impose for the past 12 years."
He denied suggestions from Beijing that Hong Kong and Taiwan independence activists are plotting to endanger national security.
"In all of our time in Taiwan, even in our informal chats, not once did the issue of sovereignty come up," Law said. "They are just trying to label us. This is a divisive attack that has no basis in reality."
Joshua Wong, former Occupy Central student leader and general secretary of the fledgling political party Demosisto, echoed Law's comments.
"It proves that Carrie Lam is just following the hard line of the Beijing government and would like to introduce this kind of patriotic education in the future," Wong told government broadcaster RTHK.
Hong Kong identity
The row over the identity of Hong Kong's young people comes as the percentage of young people identifying as Chinese reached its lowest point since the handover, according to an opinion poll by the University of Hong Kong.
The poll found that 37 percent of respondents identified as Hongkongers, and 21 percent as Chinese, while others chose more ambiguous options like "Hongkongers in China" or "Chinese in Hong Kong."
But only 3.1 percent of the 18-28 age group said they identified as Chinese, the lowest result since the poll began in 1997.
Overall, more than 73 percent chose Hongkongers as their strongest identity, followed by Asians at just over 70 percent, "members of the Chinese race" at 64 percent, and "Chinese" at 62.5 percent, the survey found.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.