HONG KONG — Wong Yue-kui watched with dismay as a live feed on television showed anti-government protesters peacefully occupying an airport terminal in his city, Hong Kong. This is not going to end well, he thought.
Then he saw his son, Kenny, a 38-year-old insurance agent, among the black-clad demonstrators. For weeks, he had been arguing with him in the hope that he would step back from the increasingly confrontational protests.
Mr. Wong, 65, a bald, tough-looking man, had told his son that it was useless and foolish to challenge China’s ruling Communist Party and the party’s handpicked local officials. He himself had fled the mainland nearly half a century ago, swimming for hours to Hong Kong after his father died while being politically persecuted by the Communists.
“Only politics can solve political problems,” said Mr. Wong, who runs a cellphone accessories stall at a local market. “We ordinary people can’t solve these problems on our own.”
As China marks 70 years of Communist rule, the semiautonomous territory of Hong Kong along its southern border is caught between two worlds. Many in Mr. Wong’s generation had fled the mainland during the excesses of the Mao Zedong era and found stability and a path out of poverty in Hong Kong. The memory of political turmoil and China’s startling emergence in recent decades as an economic juggernaut have served as reminders that learning to get along with an increasingly powerful and resilient Communist Party is key to survival.
[Here is how China is preparing to exalt President Xi Jinping as its unassailable leader on National Day.]
But others, like his son, Kenny, see the party’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s affairs in recent years as a threat to cherished political freedoms unseen on the mainland. And they reject the territory’s political elite of bureaucrats and tycoons they see as being more beholden to Beijing.
The protests, as many of them see it, are their last chance to defend the city for the next generation and challenge the party in ways that their predecessors had been unwilling. The protests have escalated in violence and increasingly target Beijing: On Oct. 1, the anniversary, the protesters will march to mark what they have called the “national tragedy” of the party’s 70-year “aggression against China.”
CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times
In tackling this, Mr. Xi may draw lessons from his father, a Communist revolutionary who faced a similar challenge in China’s south decades ago. But China’s top leader could find that the promises of economic development that his father made might have limited effect in the current crisis.
Last month, Mr. Wong sent his son a cellphone video of a fight between a group of protesters and pro-government supporters, and urged him to stay home.
Kenny responded: “I wish you would remember the reason why you risked your life to come to Hong Kong back then.”
Life is different now, his father explained; he was poor back then. “But you are in a different place,” he said. “You have your own family, a child. Think about it carefully.” His message was clear: They have more to lose now.
For his son, that wasn’t enough of a reason to stand down.
“What you did was for the sake of your mother and the future,” Kenny said. “It’s the same for me. I’m thinking about my son and the future.”
In 1973, Wong Yue-kui was desperate to escape China.
His father, a rice merchant, had died five years earlier in a labor camp where the Communists had sent him after they denounced him as a capitalist. Student militants known as Red Guards had ransacked their home in the southern city of Guangzhou and seized the family’s valuables, including a jade bracelet his mother had hidden in a rice tank.
Mr. Wong was 19 years old, the fifth of six children, and he needed to find better paying work to support his family. He prepared to flee to Hong Kong. His cousin taught him how to swim in a river, whacking him with a bamboo stick each time he reached out to the riverbank. One day, they were ready.
For 15 days, Mr. Wong and his cousin hiked in the hills under cover of night to prevent detection by the border patrol. He survived on five mooncakes and a bag of grape sugar.
At around 2 a.m. on Aug. 18, the two men stripped off their shirts — they had no other possessions — and plunged into the dark waters. Even from that distance, Mr. Wong could see the lights of Hong Kong’s buildings sparkling against the inky night sky. Hong Kong — and freedom — seemed so close.
He swam as fast as he could. Many escapees had been shot by border agents making the same crossing, their bodies washing up on the shores of Hong Kong. He forced himself to focus on getting there. Around five hours later, Mr. Wong crawled onto a muddy embankment. He had made it.
Scholars estimate that as many as one million people fled from China to Hong Kong during the Mao era. Risking death, some fled over the land border, others built boats and many — the so-called “freedom swimmers” — braved the waves head-on.
Villages in China’s south had been emptied, farmland abandoned. The party saw this exodus as a problem and plucked Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, out of political exile. His new task: to guard China’s “southern gate.”
Xi Zhongxun, then the party secretary of Guangdong Province, responded at first by ramping up propaganda in Guangdong. The party exhorted residents to sing patriotic songs and study Mao Zedong Thought. It spread messages depicting Hong Kong as home to evil capitalists. Still, people fled.
The elder Mr. Xi traveled around the province and found that in one border village, residents were making one-50th what their neighbors in Hong Kong were making. Elsewhere, the disparity was even greater. That was when, according to official party lore, he realized that economic development — not ideological education — was key.
“This was the lesson we learned from the facts,” Mr. Xi said when he reflected on that period, according to Chen Bing’an, the author of a book about the history of mainland escapees to Hong Kong, who interviewed the elder Mr. Xi in 2000.
The strategy was largely successful. By 1989, when another wave of mainlanders fled to Hong Kong following the crackdown on Tiananmen pro-democracy protesters in Beijing, gross domestic product in Guangdong had grown nearly sixfold and the number of illegal migrants fleeing from the mainland to Hong Kong had slowed to a trickle.
The Mainland Rises
In Hong Kong, Mr. Wong hopped from job to job, working stints at a denim factory and as a construction worker. He regularly sent money back to his family. “Use this to bring Dad’s bones back,” he told his mother in a note sent along with part of his first paycheck.
He met and married a woman from the city, and they had two children. He saved up enough to buy two apartments. For years, Mr. Wong was the envy of his siblings who had stayed in the mainland. He had more freedom and more money to buy higher-quality goods.
But about a decade ago, he noticed the dynamic changing. His siblings were starting to become wealthier. They bought bigger apartments. They had good government pensions. They were no longer so interested in visiting Hong Kong. Recently, when he asked them before the Mid-Autumn Festival if they wanted mooncakes from Hong Kong, he was stung when they said no.
“Now their lives are better than mine,” Mr. Wong said wistfully. “If I had known back then how developed China would become, I never would have left.”
Mr. Wong’s community of mainland escapees in Hong Kong remains closely connected. Many knew one another as children growing up back in Guangdong; others met later in Hong Kong, through friends or through work. Now in their 60s and 70s, most of them retired, they gather regularly for dim sum, Ping-Pong sessions and mah-jongg tournaments.
But the recent turmoil in Hong Kong has exposed a new fault line within this typically tight-knit community. Though most escapees initially fled to Hong Kong in search of economic freedom, many, like Wu Hay-wing, a retired truck driver, say they’ve come to wholeheartedly cherish the political freedoms they found once they arrived. Unlike Mr. Wong, the cellphone accessories seller, some in his group regularly join the protests.
“The essence of the Communist Party has never changed — it is a totalitarian regime,” said Mr. Wu, 68, who made it to Hong Kong in an improvised boat.
Mr. Wu said he feared that Hong Kong would soon become just another mainland city.
“If that happens, what did I escape here for then?” said Mr. Wu. “All my efforts would have been for nothing.”
Still, there is a certain degree of nostalgia for the motherland. Many, even those who identify now as Hong Kongers, still maintain close ties with relatives on the mainland and make regular trips across the border. Some made large fortunes by leveraging their ties with the mainland.
In contrast, many among Hong Kong’s younger generation of protesters reject being connected to the mainland and assert what they see as a distinct and separate Hong Kong identity. Others accept Chinese rule but hope to pressure the party to loosen its grip over Hong Kong.
Mr. Wong’s son, Kenny, was in his early 20s when he began to grow concerned over Beijing’s influence. Protests had erupted in 2003 over the city’s attempt to impose national security laws. Later, when hordes of mainland travelers swept through the city to empty its shelves of baby milk powder and vaccines because of safety scandals in China, his anxiety grew.
Unlike his father, though, his feelings about the mainland have not changed with China’s rapid economic development.
“You can’t judge a place by money alone,” Kenny said at a recent interview at a cafe in the city’s financial district. “There also needs to be freedom.”
Conscious of their already-strained relationship, the father and son have sought to avoid talking about the protests. Mr. Wong often grumbles that Hong Kong’s problem is a lack of patriotic education; children grow up without learning to be proud of all that China has achieved.
On that point, Kenny is in surprising agreement with his father. He referred in a separate interview to the Chinese term for patriotic — ai guo — which means, literally, “love country.”
“I can get behind loving the country,” he said, “but I cannot love the party.”