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Hong Kong left deeply polarised by protests

[HONG KONG] The demolition of Hong Kong's main protest camp ended a pro-democracy occupation that paralysed the city for two months, but the campaign has left the city deeply divided both politically and socially, analysts say.

With the world watching, Hong Kong was transformed from a slick financial hub into a hive of political activism in late September as tens of thousands took to the streets in support of the student-led protests calling for free leadership elections in 2017.

It was the biggest challenge to Beijing's authority since the territory was handed over by Britain to China in 1997, and ignited fierce debate about Hong Kong's future.

Activists occupied major traffic arteries in the wake of China's declaration in August that candidates for the city's chief executive would first be vetted by a loyalist committee, a move campaigners said would see a pro-Beijing stooge take power.

The struggle to reconcile the Western ideals of its colonial heritage with Chinese rule has long fomented an underlying division - but the protests have cracked the city in two, say analysts.

"The polarisation that we've had is now a much more passionate polarisation and a much more volatile one," Michael DeGolyer of Hong Kong Baptist University told AFP.

While the pro-democracy movement has seen the political awakening of the city's younger generation, it has also inflamed the pro-government camp, Mr DeGolyer says.

"The vociferous, extreme passion of the opponents has clearly been sparked." Opponents of the movement held their own rallies throughout the protests and voiced fears over the threat to Hong Kong's stability and prosperity - a line adopted by the city's leadership and Beijing.

The split extends beyond politics and into the fabric of society, said Sonny Lo, an analyst at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.

"Society has been deeply divided among families, between friends, between political parties, so the movement has had a destabilising impact," he told AFP.

With protesters vowing to fight on, analysts predict future confrontations in the face of Beijing's increasing influence on the semi-autonomous city.

"With the deeper penetration of the mainland Chinese political influence on Hong Kong, these social tensions will continue," says Mr Lo.

China has refused to budge on its template for the vote and the Hong Kong administration has not offered any concessions in the face of the protests, which both governments branded "illegal".

Pro-democracy legislators and campaigners are waiting to see the outcome of the government's second consultation on the election process - the first-round report angered the pro-democracy camp by playing down the depth of feeling over free elections.

But while analysts say there may be minor concessions - such as making the nominating committee for leadership candidates more representative - they are unlikely to change the bigger picture: that Beijing will maintain a firm grip on Hong Kong politics.

"(Chinese President) Xi Jinping is a hardline leader - since he came to power he has been stoking the flames of nationalism," said Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Though a threat to the city's economic prosperity might spur "a few minor concessions" from the central government, they will only go so far, says Mr Lam.

"Real democracy is just not possible," he says.

Analysts agree that Beijing is unlikely to employ harsh tactics to quash the pro-democracy movement, instead opting for a longer game through softer means.

Though plans to introduce compulsory "national education" promoting patriotism to the mainland were shelved after a massive public backlash in 2012, China will still try to influence education in the city, says Mr Lo, pushing for more "Chinese ingredients" in subjects already on the timetable.

"How to inculcate a deeper understanding of China into the Hong Kong youth, without giving the impression of brainwashing them, will be a huge challenge," he said.

The pro-democracy movement will have to be more coherent if it wants any realistic chance of negotiating with Beijing, analysts agree - public support waned over the weeks of protests as the campaign splintered.

Some experts say that could dent support for the democrats at legislative elections in 2016, though others predict a strong performance if the city's youth goes to the polls in force.

Whatever happens next, the impact of the rallies - symbolised by the umbrellas carried by protesters - will continue to resonate.

"While the umbrella movement has not been able to secure any tangible concessions on democratic reforms, it has galvanised a significant portion of Hong Kong's population around the ideas of freedoms and democracy," said Surya Deva, a law professor at City University of Hong Kong.

"The movement has changed Hong Kong forever, as people have sent a clear message to the Chinese government that they cannot steamroll everything." And that message has also reached further than Beijing.

"I am pessimistic about what Beijing will really let go, there will be a limit," says Sebastian Veg, director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC).

"What will remain is a political culture for a whole generation... (and) even a shift of Hong Kong's reputation, which before was just seen as interested in money, marked by political apathy."