Q&A: 'The Ideology Won’t Die' — Ousted Lawmakers on the Future of Hong Kong Protest Movement

Q&A: 'The Ideology Won’t Die' — Ousted Lawmakers on the Future of Hong Kong Protest Movement
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

What you need to know

Hong Kong political activists Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus ‘Baggio’ Leung believe that they, along with other youth leaders, may be behind bars by the time the Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Hong Kong later this month.

On Oct. 12, 2016, young Hong Kong political activists-cum-lawmakers Yau Wai-ching (游蕙禎) and Sixtus "Baggio" Leung Chung-hang (梁頌恆) gained international notoriety.

Starting out as something of a political stunt during their swearing-in to Hong Kong’s parliament — donning a flag with the words “Hong Kong is not China,” and swearing and insulting China — the “oath-taking saga” became a major political issue in Hong Kong and made headlines around the world.

The event prompted Beijing to rewrite Hong Kong law to effectively bar the then newly-elected pair from taking their seats in the Legislative Council (LegCo), and their images continued to splash across screens in the weeks that followed.

Beijing’s “interpretation” of the Hong Kong constitution, which overrides the local judicial system and applies retrospectively, has drawn sharp criticism from many in Hong Kong and abroad. The Hong Kong Bar Association, which includes local and foreign lawyers, said the move was “unnecessary,” and “would do more harm than good.”

Yau, 26, and Leung, 30, who have remained outspoken in their condemnation of Beijing and its proxies in Hong Kong, challenged the ruling in court. Their efforts have so far been unsuccessful but a final appeal will be heard in August.

Meanwhile, trouble has continued to follow the duo. On April 26, they were arrested at dawn and charged over their attempts to re-enter the Legislative Council Chamber on Nov. 2, 2016 — police also rounded up at least nine other political leaders, including current lawmakers, on public nuisance charges related to the 2014 Umbrella Movement.

In an interview with The News Lens in Hong Kong, Yau and Leung discuss why they entered politics and the strategy behind the controversial oath-taking. They also canvass the future of the Hong Kong protest movement and their belief that they and many other young student leaders may be behind bars by the time Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) visits Hong Kong on July 1 for the 20th anniversary of the city’s handover from the U.K. to China.

Photo Credit: Bobby Yip / Reuters / 達志影像

The News Lens (TNL): I wanted to start by going back to why you first went from someone interested in politics to being actively involved?

Sixtus “Baggio” Leung Chun-hang (Leung): For me, it was simple, after the Umbrella Revolution a lot of Hong Kong people, especially the youngsters, felt hopeless. The road to fight for a democratic situation was broken already. We needed to find a new way, so I founded Youngspiration.

In the Umbrella Revolution actually, we failed; we didn’t get anything, except for many people getting arrested. After this, I decided to do what I could.

TNL: What separates you and your party from the other groups?

Leung: Before 2014, I think the world could divide Hong Kong into two political camps; the pro-democracy and the pro-Beijing camp.

After the Umbrella Revolution, we found that the existing democratic system was not the answer; we really needed to look at the problems in Hong Kong from the perspective of Hong Kong people.

The government is not doing this. The issue is that those who are in power are not looking at this from the perspective of Hong Kong people.

That is why after 2014 there are these so-called "localist" groups. There are a few different parties, but we share some similar ideologies. The first is a Hong Kong identity; we think that Hong Kong people, or Hong Kongers, are different from the Chinese. We also think that in this place, we should differentiate ourselves from Mainland China. We should have different systems, we should have our own culture, we should keep our core values — rule of law, freedom of speech — and we should have democracy. This is different from Mainland China.

So, at that time, I thought no party can say this and that is why I started Youngspiration.

Yau Wai-ching (Yau): Those so-called representatives betrayed the people. When you look at the Mong Kok incident last year, some Legislative Council members, including from the pan-democratic camp, they blamed the people instead of blaming the government. It is evidence they are walking on a different path from the people.

TNL: In your case Ching, was there a single event or an experience that took you from someone who was just interested, to putting your name forward and being involved?

Yau: At that time, after the Umbrella Revolution, I believed that the only way to bring change was to try to get into the political system. In the 2015 District Council elections, we thought if we could get into the District Council we could make some objections to the pro-Beijing camp policies, put forward our own ideas and make some direct changes. This idea made me want to participate.

TNL: Sixtus, was that the same for you? Did you think it was possible to actually change the system from within?

Leung: I would not say that you can change the system; be it in the District Council or the Legislative Council.

TNL: We know that now, but what about when you first got involved?

Leung: I didn’t even believe it [then].

Yau: And during the election, we could use the media coverage to spread our ideas. This is a reason why nowadays Hong Kongers know more about the idea of self-determination, the problems of the future, or the historical reasons why we have to take such actions in 2017. I think the election gave us a great help.

Photo Credit: Bobby Yip / Reuters / 達志影像
Security guards block pro-independence legislator-elect Baggio Leung from retaking his oath inside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, November 2, 2016.

TNL: You are both relatively young and new to politics, as are quite a few others in Hong Kong. How much strategy was there behind your actions on Oct. 12, 2016? Were you thinking, ‘We have this platform, this is our one chance to really draw attention to Hong Kong?'

Leung: I thought this was my only chance. Actually, I thought they would disqualify me before the election, because of the crazy stuff like [the pre-election disqualification of] Edward Leung.

TNL: So you mean because people who had supported Hong Kong independence were blocked from standing in the election?

Leung: Not just because of Hong Kong independence, but some other ideas that threaten [the pro-Beijing camp]. Like Edward Leung, he claimed he would not support Hong Kong independence in a letter by a lawyer, but the government did not trust it.

TNL: Ching, were you aligned with this view? There is this criticism — people ask why didn’t you both just wait until after the oath-taking, because once you were in parliament you could basically say whatever you wanted?

Yau: No. We have proof that this is not so. [Fellow young politician] Cheng Chung-tai just turned flags upside down in the Legislative Council chamber and he was arrested.

TNL: Again, we know that now, but beforehand were you confident this was the one chance you had?

Yau: After watching previous oath-takings from 2012 or 2008, many legislators treated the oath-taking as a performance for them to show their ideology. It is like a tradition in Hong Kong. After asking lawyers for their opinions, I thought it would be okay to do it and the government could take any actions against me. So, that is why I did it.

Leung: Logically, the law allowed us [to act this way]. Before the so-called interpretation, the law allowed it. Of course, the so-called interpretation created a new law in Hong Kong that you need to take the oath seriously.

TNL: Were you expecting such a big response to your actions?

Leung: No. Well, put it this way, from our point of view the Hong Kong government and the Beijing government don’t want us to stay in the parliament. We thought they will make trouble for us by any means they can, but because of the law, we didn’t see [the oath] as giving them this chance. That was not predicted.

TNL: I have heard you say before that you don’t regret your actions. You have made Beijing show its hand; everyone now knows Beijing is willing to intervene in Hong Kong. But do you have any regrets about the situation that we now have, that the space for the next generation of people that want to get involved in politics is smaller than what it was two years ago?

Yau: I think this is the agenda of the CCP government.

Leung: The opposition camp in Hong Kong is divided into two parts. One part believes that under the CCP control, you can have democracy, you can have freedom. The others, we simply don’t believe that under CCP control you can have this. We are the second part.

Yau: Or they believe that through some discussion we can get democracy from the CCP government. This is totally unrealistic.

Leung: My supporters would feel betrayed if I enjoyed the benefits of parliament — it is quite good actually, the salary — and stayed "good" in the eyes of the Beijing government.

TNL: So is that how you view the pan-democratic politicians who have been in parliament for a long time?

Leung: You know how the Chinese government describes the old “pan-dem” generation? They are the “loyal” opposition camp. In other words, they are part of the system, part of the establishment. Of course, they want democracy, I have no doubt about that, but in 2017 if you still believe we can have democracy under the CCP, either you are stupid or you are lying to yourself.

TNL: Combined, you won 55,000 votes in the LegCo elections — that's a large number of people who voted for you. You said you had to take this action otherwise you would be lying to your supporters. What has been the response from your local supporters on the stance you have taken?

Leung: Youngspiration supporters really understand what we are doing. If you ask someone who voted for us whether they agree with what we did, they would say “yes.” If not, they would not have voted for us.

Photo Credit: Tyrone Siu / REUTERS / 達志影像
Democratically-elected legislators Yau and Leung speak to media after a High Court disqualified them from taking office in Hong Kong, November 15, 2016.

TNL: After what happened to you both, do you think that young people will now be too scared to get into politics in Hong Kong?

Yau: I think the youngsters who want to get involved in Hong Kong politics or believe in Hong Kong independence have to hide their ideology. Maybe, they have to pretend they are conservatives to get into the system. They can’t tell the people what they actually want to do.

TNL: What other options do you see available to advance your cause? Particularly if you are unable to win your appeal, what will be the next step for you in this movement?

Leung: To me, it is the same as before. The final war should happen on the street, not in the system. When we look at the history of nearby countries — like Taiwan and South Korea, where people won power from the hands of the government — social movements on the street made that happen. If Hong Kong still has a chance, the war must take place on the street. I don’t know what the trigger will be. I really don’t know when this will happen, where this will happen, or what will happen.

Yau: It is always the government which provokes the people into these actions.

Leung: What we can do now is try our best to increase our power, or at least help the Hong Kong people survive.

TNL: If you look back at the Umbrella Movement and compare that to the feeling among young people in Hong Kong today, is there the same level of anger at the moment?

Leung: I think the anger is there.

Yau: There is more anger now than there was in 2014. In 2014, our rights to participate in an assembly were limited and during the struggle between the public and the police we could see how the police reacted to the public — that was one of the main points we were disappointed about. But nowadays we have lost our rights to publish our own books, make speeches or even have certain ideologies.

TNL: I may be wrong about this but I think in 2014 young people didn’t consider the consequences so much, but since then Beijing and the Hong Kong government or the police have appeared to have cracked down a lot further — like in the Causeway Bay booksellers case. I wonder even though there may be more anger now, whether there is more fear and therefore less likely you will see a major protest now?

Leung: Obviously it is [less likely]. We are just human beings. If you ask a normal Hong Kong person, are you afraid? They will answer yes, of course. When you go to the Court, when your opposition is the government, they will change the law during the court case. When you face the police, they have full riot gear.

Time is not on our side. China will think of new ways to control people — this is what I think is happening now.

Even [in April] more than 30 people have been arrested. Every day, I wake up — if I am not the one being arrested — I need to check Facebook to see who is being arrested and I might need to call a lawyer to give them help.

TNL: Your case got a lot of international attention. Do you see that as important? Does it matter here [in Hong Kong] whether people in the U.S. or U.K. care or know about what is happening here?

Leung: If we want to get the right to self-determination, then the support from outside is very important.

TNL: If you look at the Arab Spring, it seemed to be an underlying economic issue that really pushed people over the edge to start protesting, rather than it being political. Hong Kong obviously has this divide with the financial center and rich foreigners, and then also new Chinese migrants.

Sixtus: Hong Kong has a privileged class. There is a privileged class economically, but also a privileged class politically. They monopolize the chance and the opportunity.

TNL: But has this situation changed at all?

Yau: The case now is that the youngsters’ aims are very humble; maybe they want to get married and have a flat. But even after working for 10 years, they cannot afford a flat. They feel there is no hope; no matter how hard working they are, they can’t get enough money to achieve what they want to.

TNL: And you think people will associate that hardship with China?

Yau: When we think more about the issue, we will realize it is a problem of policy-making, and directly related to the CPP government. They don’t have a sustainable policy towards the Hong Kongers. That is the root cause for the situation now.

TNL: Moving toward the end, you were both arrested at dawn on April 26. How are you feeling? Are you still feeling energized for the cause?

Leung: I don’t think we have another choice. It is like the knock-out stage in a tournament: you need to take it as a final and fight to the end. If you lose you go back home. But we won’t have a home to go back to. So there is no choice but to try our best to win every single small battle in the short period of time we have.

We don’t know whether the government will open another battlefield to pull us into. Even if they do, we can still only try our best to win.

Yau: I feel it is rather ironic. Over the past few months, we had disappeared from the newspapers. But because of the government’s action, we are back in the newspapers again. I can’t understand what they are doing. To me, if the government considered the benefits, they shouldn’t give us opportunities to spread our ideas.

TNL: So what do you think is going on?

Yau: Maybe they have some plans related to July 1 [when Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit Hong Kong for the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from the U.K. to China]. I don’t know.

TNL: To be clear, you think activists may be locked up ahead of Xi’s visit?

Leung: If you are involved in a court case and out on bail you cannot do so much. You can easily be put in jail, without appearing before a judge. I think 200 activists are already in this situation [with similar legal issues]. How many leaders can we produce? How can we mobilize people to show we are not happy with the situation?

TNL: Will new leaders come through, if you are all behind bars?

Yau: It is hard to predict what will happen.

Leung: In each generation, there is a pool of people that can lead the group. But the pool is exhausted right now because of the past two to three years. Normal Hong Kong people feel very tired, even me, I feel tired, too, but I cannot say so. You can understand what they are going through. They don’t want to fight anymore. In the near-future, I am not that optimistic that a new generation of leaders will come through. But when you look longer-term, the ideology won’t die; the next generation will come up and play their role.

Editor: Olivia Yang