HONG KONG — If there is one phrase that has come to define the protests that have swept across Hong Kong in the last week and a half, appearing on handwritten billboards and T-shirts, and heard in rally speeches and on radio shows, it is this: "Hong Kong People."

"I wouldn't say I reject my identity as Chinese, because I've never felt Chinese in the first place," said Yeung Hoi-kiu, 20, who sat in the protest zone at the government offices on Monday night. "The younger generations don't think they're Chinese."

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More than 90 percent of Hong Kong residents are ethnically Chinese. However, ask residents here how they see themselves in a national sense, and many will say Hong Konger first — or even Asian or world citizen — before mentioning China. The issue of identity is one that the Chinese Communist Party has grappled with since Britain turned over control of this global financial capital to China 17 years ago. But what the student-led protests show is that Beijing's efforts have backfired, helping turn the issue into an occasionally explosive problem as members of an entire generation act on their sense of alienation from China and its values.

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Officials in Beijing began recognizing the problem years ago and tried in 2012 to impose a patriotic education curriculum in the schools. By then it was too late. Mr. Yeung and his peers saw the move as China's mounting another assault on Hong Kong, a city of 7.2 million. They took to the streets in a prelude to the movement known as the Umbrella Revolution, the biggest challenge to the party's authority in years.

The current conflict has served only to bolster Hong Kong's identity, already strengthened in recent years by what many residents saw as intensifying attacks from China against its culture, political values and economic well-being. There was a growing sense in Hong Kong, especially among the young, that the city was being "mainlandized," whether through the migration of Chinese or through the party's insistence that judges must love China. Many of those who were proud to see 156 years of British colonial rule end in 1997 as Hong Kong returned to China now say they prefer to identify with the mother city rather than the motherland.

"We don't want to associate ourselves with Communist China," said Euler Cheung, 38, as he stood one night in the main protest tent in Mong Kok, surrounded by police officers and shadowy, hostile men. "They destroyed the Chinese culture."

The spark of the Umbrella Revolution is political: Demonstrators want Beijing to grant Hong Kongers a free and direct election of the chief executive in 2017. But the passions that have driven people into the streets are rooted in the desire to preserve a distinct identity from China — in areas like rule of law, freedom of speech and of the press, financial infrastructure, anticorruption institutions, education, Cantonese language and Western influence.

Many of those values and institutions are derided as subversive by the Communist Party and are not tolerated. It is an increasingly untenable contradiction that arises from the "one country, two systems" principle created to guide Beijing's governance after 1997, when Hong Kong was labeled a special administrative region. Under President Xi Jinping, many Hong Kongers have, to their alarm, witnessed the party's growing hostility to the values they embrace.

But the seeds of the identity crisis were planted before Mr. Xi. In the past decade, policy proposals by Beijing that aimed to impose the kind of party ideology and control familiar to mainlanders — including an antisubversion bill and the patriotic education curriculum — ignited large protests. That forced Chinese officials to shelve the plans. More recently, a ruling in August by Beijing on the 2017 election law and a report released in June that sought to redefine main elements of governance — for example, insisting that judges be patriotic — have inspired fiery criticism.

"People used to not care so much about politics, and they used to not think so much of Hong Kong as home before 1997," said Dennis Kwok, 36, a Hong Kong-born lawyer and lawmaker who returned in 2000 and renounced his Canadian citizenship. "But since 1997, the younger people want to have a greater say in public affairs, and they think of Hong Kong as home."

A June poll by University of Hong Kong researchers showed an increase this year in people identifying themselves as Hong Kongers, while those identifying as "Chinese" and as a "citizen of the People's Republic of China" dropped to the lowest levels since 1997 and 2007. Those last two categories ranked last among the six ways in which the respondents could choose to identify themselves. "Asians," "members of the Chinese race" and "global citizens" were all higher, and "Hong Kongers" was first. The university has conducted the poll every six months since 1997.

"We prefer to be ruled by a democratic country," said Jeff Leung, 23, who was in the besieged Mong Kok tent, wearing a black T-shirt with a Union Jack on the chest. "We don't want to be ruled by a country that massacres its own people."

It is not only Beijing's policies but also its alliances with local tycoons that alienate many Hong Kongers. People here also resent the growing presence of mainlanders, which has transformed the economic, social and even linguistic landscape.

The umbrella became the symbol of a movement rooted in a desire to preserve a distinct identity from China in areas like rule of law, freedom of speech and of the press, anticorruption institutions, and education.

Mainland businesspeople and party elites have bought real estate, driving up prices that were already among the highest in the world. That has made housing unaffordable for many in the middle class, especially for recent high school and college graduates. Mainlanders also take other coveted resources, like slots in elite schools and hospital beds in maternity wards, as women arrive to give birth so that their children can have Hong Kong residency and the related economic benefits.

Even the huge presence of Mandarin-speaking mainland tourists — derisively called locusts by some — reinforces the feeling among many Hong Kongers that the tide of another culture threatens to drown all that they say makes this city unique.

So incendiary are these issues that the chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, often criticized as a functionary of Beijing, has had to enact laws that impose restrictions on mainlanders. The anxieties of Hong Kongers are not unlike those of Tibetans or Uighurs in other Chinese borderlands, where the ethnic Han majority's migration is altering the local way of life.

But unlike a significant portion of Tibetans and Uighurs, Hong Kongers generally do not seek independence from China. Even Jimmy Lai, the pro-democracy media tycoon who is a strident critic of the Communist Party, said Hong Kong "can never be divided from China."

"What we have to keep is to keep our differences, the core values that are the legacy of the English colonial past," he said in an earlier interview. "We're an international city; we have internationally shared core values."

Because Hong Kong is a creation of the British Empire, many Hong Kongers have thought of themselves as apart from China for the entirety of the city's existence. The distinct identity has been reinforced by the enduring dominance of Cantonese and the Cantonese popular culture — film, music, television — that is not only beloved by Hong Kongers but also embraced by the Hong Kong diaspora, keeping their identities rooted more in their home city than in China. Overseas Hong Kongers have returned to join the protests.

After Mao Zedong and his comrades took over China in 1949, many Hong Kong residents felt anxious about the new Communist power but also developed a sense of superiority to their mainland counterparts, looking down on ordinary Chinese as bumpkins struggling under economic and political deprivations.

Even today, Hong Kongers are still seen as much more cosmopolitan than urban mainlanders, and their identity is shaped by their travels, language skills and sense of global citizenship.

"The reason why I really want to fight against the government to have more rights is because I lived in Denmark for six months and learned how good it can be in a socialist and democratic society," said Gemma Yim, 21, an art student and protester. "So I feel like we have the right to have a good life. We have the right to be protected by a government that is representative of the people."

For many Hong Kongers, one event — the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989 — casts a long shadow over much of what the Communist Party says and does, even today, and contributes to the sense of separation. Memories of that violence continually manifest themselves here — in the enormous candlelight vigil held in Victoria Park every June 4, one that draws many young people, and in the sense of dread over the past 10 days, as residents wondered whether Beijing would order Chinese troops to fire on the protesting students. The use of tear gas against students by the local police on Sept. 28 had already evoked 1989 for many.

That was the case with Rowena Leung, 32, a kindergarten teacher, who said in an interview at an antiviolence protest on Saturday that she remembered watching the television news with her parents on the night in 1989 that the shooting began in Beijing and other mainland cities. She recalled her mother and grandmother crying. "My mother came to my room and told me before I went to sleep, 'You are so lucky you are in Hong Kong, you are not in mainland China,' " she said.

"This week I have thought about that a lot," Ms. Leung said. "This week, I told my husband, 'I now know what my mother meant.' "