Much to the chagrin of the mainland Chinese leadership, 20 years after Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule, the city’s younger generation has never felt more alienated from the motherland.

With the July 1 handover celebrations fast approaching and President Xi Jinping expected to be in the city for a spectacular pyrotechnic show of patriotism, the Chinese leader is clearly an unwelcome guest for many of the city’s young people, who view the reunion thus far with the mainland as a curse rather than a blessing.

Indeed, according to Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) study, nearly 40% of Hongkongers aged 15 to 24 support independence from China once the 50-year Sino-British Joint Declaration expires in 2047. Among the general population in the study, 17% showed support for an independent Hong Kong.

While that overall figure is also high enough to grate on the nerves of Chinese leaders still struggling to bring Hong Kong obediently into the fold, it is the widespread antagonism among the young that has the central government most worried about a lost generation that may never fully accept Chinese sovereignty over their city.

Lost generation

And it’s not just the communists in Beijing that the more radical elements of this younger generation repudiates. They are also rebelling against the once-honored older generation of Hong Kong political leaders who have long agitated for greater democracy in the city and stood against the central government’s increasing interference in Hong Kong affairs.

The list of shunned elders now dismissed as feckless has-beens includes Martin Lee Chu-ming, founder of the Democratic Party, and Emily Lau Wai-hing, the retired firebrand legislator and former journalist who, following the signing of the Joint Declaration in 1984, asked then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher if it was “morally defensible” to “deliver over five million people into the hands of a communist dictatorship.”

Hong Kong is now a city of 7.3 million people whose younger generation is using a different language to pose equally defiant questions – language, however, that clearly rejects the principles and methods of the pan-democratic politicians of the past, who were unrelenting in their criticism of the central government, but never proposed breaking away from the mainland to form a city-state like Singapore.

This older generation fought their battles with the quixotic belief that, under the “one country, two systems” formula agreed to at the handover, tiny, semi-autonomous Hong Kong could serve as a beacon of change for the 1.3 billion people living on the mainland rather than the other way around.

In that sense, Lee, Lau and other aging, now-sidelined pan-democrats who followed their lead – a coterie including Alan Leong Kah-kit and Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, founders of the Civic Party, and former Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan – were dissenting patriots of the Chinese nation.

They may have despised the Communist Party and all that it stood for, but they recognized that Hong Kong’s fate was inextricably tied to the mainland, and thus hoped and fought for a better, freer and more democratic China as the way forward for Hong Kong.

For a new generation of Hong Kong rebels, that bond, ambivalent though it always was, has been broken by a brash, go-it-alone mentality that may have some blustery rhetorical appeal, but ultimately defies history and even common sense. These newly branded radicals choose to deal with the Chinese behemoth by turning their backs to the north and pretending it doesn’t exist.

Candlelight vigil on June 4

A case in point: the refusal for the second consecutive year of student unions from the city’s major universities to take part in the annual candlelight vigil earlier this month commemorating the hundreds if not thousands of young people who died in the central government’s military assault on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

Organized by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, the vigil, held in Victoria Park, has been a peaceful and poignant staple of Hong Kong’s culture of protest against the brutality of the central government since before the handover, drawing tens of thousands of demonstrators who light candles of mourning, while also demanding that the central government reverse its condemnation of those who died as “violent counter-revolutionaries.”

This year’s vigil drew a crowd estimated at 110,000 – a substantial number but still 25,000 fewer than last year, 70,000 fewer than the year before and the smallest turnout since 2008.

Organizers now openly worry that, as the younger generation has become more insular and purblind in their thinking, the candle-carrying crowds in Hong Kong, the only city in China where a June 4 memorial is allowed to take place, will continue to dwindle and the world will soon forget the massacre of innocents that occurred in Tiananmen Square 28 years ago this month.

In the face of these concerns, the CUHK student union issued this remarkable statement: “The union believes the commemoration has come to an end, and June 4 needs to be marked with a full stop until the echo resounds.”

The statement went on to attack the organizing group for turning the event into an empty ritual intended to “build up its political capital” and to urge the people of Hong Kong to put their energy into local issues rather than futile calls for change on the mainland.

Explaining the union’s position in a radio interview the day after the vigil, union president Justin Au Tze-ho offered his perplexing rationale: “We don’t think that [promoting democracy in China] is a responsibility of Hongkongers because it’s the affairs of China, and we Hongkongers don’t regard ourselves as Chinese.”

Well, there you have it, the twisted logic of a new generation that is so angry and frustrated it can’t even think straight. But really, who can blame them?

After all, this is the generation that has grown up to the broken promise of self-government and democracy supposedly guaranteed in Hong Kong’s handover constitution, known as the Basic Law. They have also stood as disillusioned witnesses as the once-celebrated “one country, two systems” mantra, coined by China’s late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, morphed into a “one country, one system” mandate under the current leadership in Beijing.

Pity Hong Kong’s lost generation. They have nowhere to turn except away –away from their government, away from their elders and away from a reality they refuse to face.