Hong Kong (AFP) - With the defeat this week of the Beijing-backed political reform plan they slammed as "fake democracy", Hong Kong's young protesters are questioning how to take their fight forward as the gulf between them and mainland China widens.
The proposal would have allowed residents to vote for Hong Kong's chief executive for the first time -- currently the leader is chosen by a pro-Beijing election committee.
But the plan stuck to a ruling by Beijing that all candidates would be vetted, a decision that sparked mass student-led protests at the end of last year.
Ultimately the reform bill was voted down 28 to eight by lawmakers Thursday.
However while pro-democracy campaigners outside the legislature cheered at the result, young protesters are increasingly forging their own path.
In the wake of last year's street rallies, they say they identify less as Chinese and have little faith that trying to collaborate with Beijing will lead to the freedom they seek.
"When it comes to the discussion of democracy, voting rights, the right to be nominated, it is a kind of civil right in society," said Billy Fong, president of the Hong Kong University (HKU) Students' Union.
"This right only belongs to those citizens in Hong Kong, not people living north of the Shenzhen river," said Fong, referring to the waterway that divides Hong Kong from the mainland.
Under Fong's leadership, the HKU Students' Union broke away from Hong Kong's annual Tiananmen Square vigil this year.
Instead it held its own, smaller event, saying it no longer agreed with the organisers' strategy to push for democratisation in China as a way to win freedoms for Hong Kong.
"Hong Kongers will distance themselves from China. We don't share a consensus," said student Jamie Wong, 18.
"We need to mobilise more people to confront the authorities."
- Alienation risk -
Student Leslie Mak, 19, said she believed "there was still hope" for democracy, but felt an identity shift after the mass rallies.
"My feeling about being Chinese is blurring. I feel strongly about being a Hong Konger," Mak told AFP.
Mak agrees with a new call by younger generations to amend Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which they feel restricts democratic development.
Students at the main Tiananmen vigil in the city's Victoria Park this year burned copies of the Basic Law onstage.
There is also increasingly visible resentment towards China outside the political arena, from protests against traders in border towns to the booing of the Chinese national anthem when it was played to represent Hong Kong at a recent World Cup qualifying football match.
Fans at the match held up towels which read "Fight for Hong Kong".
That incident followed heavy criticism of a poster by the Chinese football association which warned against the "black, white and yellow" of Hong Kong's multi-ethnic team.
"This alienation from the motherland and focus on core Hong Kong values will continue and will win more supporters," predicted Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
"Now most young people realise they may not see a democratic China within their lifetime so they want to focus on Hong Kong," Lam said.
The mainstream democracy campaign risks losing the support of youngsters entirely after achieving no concessions from Beijing, added analyst Ma Ngok.
"There will be some groups, especially younger groups, who think that they need to be more radical, more confrontational. Mainstream political parties will find it difficult to mobilise young people for the next (district and parliamentary) elections," said Ma.
"Most of the older generation still see themselves as Chinese, but the young say 'we are Hong Kongese'."
But while they are keen to differentiate themselves, Ma says there is little genuine desire among the city's young to break away from Beijing.
"They feel they were promised harmony... but are seeing more control. It's like a very stringent father.
"They don't think: 'We are going to form an independent country, or an independent state'.
"They just want to be left alone.
"To put it very simply, they just want to be free."