Political Risers: Gary Wong, the face of social mobility

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In the first of a new Harbour Times series on new Legco aspirants, Alex Fok profiles Path of Democracy’s Gary Wong Chi-him, a fan of social mobility whose rise has taken him from a childhood in public housing to a career in politics.

From public housing to Oxford to Hong Kong politics, Gary Wong Chi-him (黃梓謙) has an inspiring story. For this likely Legco candidate under the Path of Democracy (PoD) banner, other such examples are possible among the territory’s youth, provided the city promotes social mobility and treasures genuine dialogues.

On 27 May, PoD announced an ambitious plan to “revitalise” the legislature through a slate of three prospective candidates in September’s elections. Wong is one. The group’s co-convenor, Joseph Lau Pui-wing (劉培榮) and member Raymond Mak Ka-chun (麥嘉晉) are the others.

Wong is looking to run for the Hong Kong Island constituency. At 33, he represents a relatively moderate voice of a younger generation – an interesting contrast with the city’s highly vocal and more radical youth candidates.


East-West home run

Wong himself is a beneficiary of Hong Kong’s opportunities for social mobility and global networks. From a childhood spent between the drab walls of a public housing estate, he raised himself up through study, securing a place at Oxford University in Diplomatic Studies in 2013.

There he became friends with former Governor David Wilson, a collegemate of his supervisor. The two remained in close contact during the Umbrella Movement, when Wong took Wilson’s hopes for nonviolence to heart.

Eager to replicate his success story, Wong founded InspiringHK Sports Foundation, a charity that supports social inclusion for underprivileged young people through sports training. His enthusiasm for social issues can be traced back to his undergraduate studies at the University of Hong Kong between 2002 and 2006, when he was the president of AIESEC Hong Kong, a student-run organisation that offers leadership training for local and international students, in 2005. He also worked for Community Business, an NGO that celebrates corporate responsibility and diversity, as a university intern.

“Politicians and administrators should learn how to engage with the new generation and bring in young people,” Wong says. “Running a charity myself, I realised that NGOs can only affect a limited group of people. That’s why I joined PoD which really allows young people like me to achieve something big with the support of an intellectual team.”


A third way

Tony Blair’s New Labour has its “third way”, so does PoD. While Ronny Tong Ka-wah (湯家驊) has earned his fair share of fame as a veteran pan-democrat, the think tank he founded after leaving Legco and the values it represents are still new to the general public.

“The third way, as we promote it, is about bringing people together through encouraging cross-class, cross-generational and cross-industrial exchanges on policy issues,” Wong says. “A political party needs to be backed by a think tank with reputable scholars that conduct policy research and have politicians who can actually understand intellectual reports and then communicate with the general public in a comprehensible way.”

Wong speaking to a hawker in Wanchai (provided).
Wong speaking to a hawker in Wanchai (provided).

He argues that Hong Kong’s current problems derive from an administration that inspires little public confidence and a lack of a clear vision and consistent policy positions on the part of political parties.

To this end, PoD has set up six policy groups, each corresponding to a broad government portfolio, to highlight its policy research-oriented approach. In July, the think tank will also release HK Vision, a territorial policy blueprint.

“We have to expand our talent pool by providing more university spaces and adjusting education policy to facilitate the growth of technology and creative industries. For example, we propose that Hong Kong students should learn coding to achieve an economic diversification that promotes high-end industries,” Wong says. “We want to create a Hong Kong that is socially inclusive, sustainable and adaptable to the concept of smart city.”


Uncompromisingly moderate

Criticism of Tong’s third way is often highly personal, with some pan-democratic or localist supporters calling him a traitor to the pro-democracy camp and a communist party supporter (投共). Wong staunchly defends his leader, stressing that PoD is against the Article 23 anti-subversion legislation that so many on the pro-establishment side have supported. He also expresses concern over the Lee Bo case and longs for a genuine relaunch of the political reform process.

“Many critics of Tong fail to understand how ‘one country, two systems’ can continue to operate without communication with Beijing. Upholding the importance of dialogue does not mean we would compromise when seeking a political reform package that most would accept,” Wong explains.

Valued for his seven years of experience working for a Hong Kong-listed petrochemical company on the mainland, Wong was chosen to take part in a PoD visit to Beijing last April, during which the group met with Feng Wei (馮巍), Deputy Director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, and shared views on ‘one country, two systems’ and political reform.


A new hope

No longer a legislator himself, Tong is betting on his PoD trio to change what he describes as the “formality” of polarised Legco debates between supporters and opponents of the administration.

In the medium term, PoD seeks to become a critical minority in the legislature. As Wong puts it, it is important for moderates to capture the middle ground to bring the polarised camps back to the negotiation table, rather than leaving it to radicals who promote Hong Kong independence. Time will see who wins the day.