By Venus Wu and James Pomfret
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong's once thriving pro-democracy movement, weighed down by growing pessimism among its supporters over China's ever-increasing control in the city, is facing a crisis of confidence about its future.
As China tightens its grip on Hong Kong, pro-democracy parties have been hit by the sidelining of key leaders and have been losing ground to a well-organized pro-Beijing camp.
Those troubles hit home last month, when the democrats suffered an electoral setback in a key legislative by-election, winning only two of three seats they were expected to take easily.
Critically, many supporters stayed home – and some switched sides to protest what they said were the confrontational tactics of pro-democracy groups.
"The opposition always argues for the sake of argument," said one democracy supporter who gave her name as Feng. In frustration, she cast her ballot for a pro-Beijing candidate in the March 11 elections.
"Confronting Beijing directly is not a good strategy," the 44-year-old government contractor said. "You have to go about it in softer ways." She said she did not want her full name published because she works for the government.
That sort of shift by voters like Feng is worrying leaders of pro-democracy parties in Hong Kong who fear an eroding public mandate, which they see as their sole weapon to counter Beijing's influence in the city.
"We have to make sure that our own people here in Hong Kong do not give up on us," said Alvin Yeung, a barrister and head of the pro-democracy Civic Party.
Over the past decade, resentment has deepened toward China's perceived growing encroachment on Hong Kong's autonomy.
In 2014, protests by pro-democrats calling for a greater say in how Hong Kong's leader was chosen engulfed large areas of the city for months. The collapse of those protests led to growing calls among young activists for independence.
The Chinese government has responded with an increasingly tougher line.
In 2016, it intervened in a Hong Kong court decision that removed pro-independence lawmakers from office for taking their oaths improperly – the action that led to the March by-elections. It has also deemed a Hong Kong train station to be under mainland authority.
On Tuesday, dozens of pro-Beijing groups took out advertisements in Hong Kong newspapers calling for the dismissal of a University of Hong Kong academic, Benny Tai, after he allegedly made comments advocating independence for China.
The growing reach of China's security apparatus is also worrying many in Hong Kong after instances like the 2015 disappearance of several Hong Kong booksellers who later showed up in Chinese custody, as well as the mysterious disappearance of a mainland Chinese tycoon from a luxury hotel in 2017.
Hong Kong authorities, meanwhile, have proposed jail terms of up to three years for those mocking China's national anthem, and there have been calls from pro-Beijing politicians for national security laws outlawing subversive acts against China.
The authorities have also started jailing protest leaders like Joshua Wong, a 21-year-old student.
The loss of the legislative seat last month was the first time that the pro-democracy camp had lost a head-to-head contest in a by-election, a significant defeat as it meant that the opposition failed to regain some veto powers.
The democrats will be vying for an additional two seats in by-elections whose dates have yet to be announced.
In addition to growing discontent over the democratic movement's direction, some voters have expressed concerns about a lack of charismatic candidates, as well as public infighting within the democratic camp.
Ben Wong, a 45-year-old office worker, said he was only voting against the establishment when he cast his ballot for Edward Yiu, a democratic candidate with whom who he felt little affinity.
"I was voting in distaste," he said. Yiu was the candidate who failed to take back his seat.
While by-elections generally attract fewer voters, pro-democracy parties saw their number of votes in the three contested districts fall 35 percent when compared to the full election two years ago. In contrast, the pro-Beijing camp saw votes drop 12 percent.
Crystal So, a 26-year-old club DJ, was one democracy supporter who said she did not bother to vote.
"I feel like Hong Kong is not a place to call home anymore," So said in a text message. She added that some people her age were considering moving to other countries. The jailing of Wong, who she said was "doing the bravest things compared to a lot of us", hit her particularly hard.
Wong, who is out on bail, told Reuters he believes Hong Kong will not be able to achieve genuine democracy in the short term. But he said it was important to defend Hong Kong's core values.
"You need to build a foundation, so when the critical moment comes, you would have bargaining power," Wong said of Hong Kong's democratic movement.
For the democrats, the next big tests will be possible by-elections ahead of local district council elections in 2019 and Legislative Council elections in 2020.
Joseph Cheng, a retired academic who advises the democrats, said he believes the moment has arrived for the camp to dive into "some serious soul searching".
"Not only do we have our own troubles, but we face an opposition machine that is now exceptionally sophisticated," he added.
The pro-establishment camp is backed by the United Front, a Chinese Communist Party-linked group that mobilizes supporters through social groups and business associations, according to scholars and diplomats.
The democrats, by contrast, lack a clear central leadership to unite a broad spectrum of supporters.
Funding is also an issue for the pro-democracy parties. Jimmy Lai, the founder of the NextMedia group, remains a significant funder of the movement, which gets positive coverage in his mass market Apple Daily newspaper. Lai could not be reached for comment.
But they have struggled to raise money from other large companies, who may fear retribution from China, and rely on small donations from individuals.
Pro-Beijing parties, by contrast, have an easier time raising money.
The largest, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, in 2016 fetched HK$18.8 million ($2.40 million) from auctioning off calligraphy by the top Beijing official in Hong Kong, according to local media.
"THE POLITICAL GAME"
When asked about the United Front's influence, Regina Ip, a prominent pro-Beijing lawmaker, acknowledged that some supporters of her New People's Party with roots in the mainland might talk to Chinese officials.
But Ip also stressed the hard work of her party, saying it mobilized about 1,000 volunteers to hit the streets and talk to voters face-to-face before the by-election.
"You cannot win by just flying a democracy flag," Ip said. She said the pro-democracy parties were dependent "on their old tactics of just relying on the appeal of democracy or stirring up anger against the government." She added: "Clearly these days these tactics are not good enough."
(Reporting by Venus Wu and James Pomfret; Additional reporting by Greg Torode, Pak Yiu; Editing by Philip McClellan)