Taking to the streets: The rise and fall of radical politics in Hong Kong

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Over the past couple years, Hong Kong saw a rise of radical politics after the Umbrella Protests; but for now the trend seems to be fading.

Frustration pervades the opposition as the High Court ousted two localist LegCo members last year and then another four pro-democrats two months ago. The legal battles resulted in the disqualification of six LegCo members in total, meaning that the opposition has for now lost majority in the legislature.

This is only one of the many battles the opposition has fought – and lost – in recent years. The Umbrella Protests in 2014, despite its scale, marked a major failure for the pro-democrats. While the pro-democrats successfully vetoed the political reform bill, which had only provisioned conditional universal suffrage in which candidates must be pre-selected by Beijing, they were not able to propose an alternative, leaving Hong Kong with an electoral system that only a small number of citizens – a little more than a thousand – are allowed to vote in the chief executive election.

As the situation has grown increasingly unfavourable for the opposition in the past couple years, the more radical wing of its supporters – especially that on the political right – began to engage in militancy, more commonly known as “militant struggle” (勇武抗爭) in Chinese. In light of this phenomenon, HT interviewed four opposition politicians in New Territories East, a traditionally anti-establishment constituency, on their views on radical politics.


The rise of radical politics

An Umbrella veteran and localist, disqualified LegCo member Sixtus ‘Baggio’ Leung Chung-hang (梁頌恆) sees militancy as a more effective tactic than traditional LegCo politics as means to achieve political ends.

“Realistically speaking, struggles outside the LegCo is more effective than inside the LegCo,” he remarks. “Looking back in the past five years, starting from the struggle against patriotic education (國民教育), we see policies being retracted due to public backlash.”

He also cites other protests as successful examples, such as the anti-parallel goods traders protests in 2015, in which protesters employed militant tactics against parallel goods traders and the police.

“I am not very sure about the causal relationship, but it can be said that the anti-parallel goods trader protests did work in the sense that the Central Government finally imposed a one-trip-per-week cap [on multiple-entry individual visit endorsements for permanent Shenzhen residents],” he recalls.

“In that sense, taking to the streets is more effective than LegCo politics,” he continues. “I believe that if we finally win a battle against the government, whether it is the instigation of a truly democratic political system or the preservation of the core values we believe in, it is not going to take place in LegCo; it is going to be on the streets.”

With that being said, he also concedes that militant protesters often face grave consequences for their actions.

“But then of course, the cost of militant struggle is increasing,” he notes. “Some militant protesters have been sentenced to jail.”

On the other hand, ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung (梁國雄), a progressive left-winger and one of the disqualified LegCo members, believes that current radical politics in Hong Kong is not enough.

“We need a general strike,” he says. “The essence of civil disobedience is the refusal to do things as told, that’s a strike.”

The League of Social Democrats leader ascribes the failure of radical politics in Hong Kong to Hongkongers’ general apathy to the idea of organising themselves in an institutional way.

“One of the biggest weaknesses of activism in Hong Kong is that Hongkongers generally don’t consider joining political organisations,” he explains. “Rather, they prefer responding and echoing spontaneously. This needs to change.”

However, Tommy Cheung Sau-yin (張秀賢), a potential candidate for the upcoming by-election in New Territories East and convenor of pro-democracy think tank Lab in Hong Kong (立言香港), warns that radical politics could be encountered with escalating police violence.

“Militant struggle would only lead to a spiral of escalating violence,” he asserts. “At the end of the day, the government wins, because the government has guns, and we don’t.”

As various militant activists face months or even years of jail sentence, supporters of the opposition seem to become more aware of the costs of radicalisation. The march in solidarity with political prisoners on 7 September, one of the largest protests since Umbrella, ended peacefully without clashes with the police. This perhaps marked the decline of radical politics in the city.


Frustration persists inside LegCo

Contrasting attitudes among the opposition regarding radical politics is not uncommon. Likewise, opposition politicians hold vastly different views regarding LegCo politics.

“Struggle in the legislature was never effective,” Leung Kwok-hung says. “The Basic Law grants very little power to the legislature. […] LegCo members are not allowed to propose any bills related to political reform or public funding.”

According to Article 74 of the Basic Law, members of the LegCo can only introduce bills that are “not related to public expenditure or political structure or the operation of the government”. Such provision has largely restricted the range of issues that LegCo members can address in their private bills.

Sixtus ‘Baggio’ Leung shares a similar view. The experience of being disqualified over the manner he took his oath at the swearing-in ceremony has made him rethink about the nature of the legislature.

“The strongest weapon a LegCo member has is the public mandate,” he claims. “But then such mandate is actually very weak as it can be easily overruled by the judiciary under the manipulation of the administrative branch.”

Baggio Leung tells HT that he will not stand in the by-election. “I don’t see the point of participating in the system anymore,” he says. “If localists can no longer use the LegCo as a platform to advocate their [independence] cause, I just don’t see the point.”

However, Gary Fan Kwok-wai (范國威), a former LegCo member who indicated interest in running in the upcoming by-election in New Territories East, believes that participation in the legislature is still essential to the resistance of totalitarian influences from Beijing.

“The Hong Kong government, Sai Wan [the Liaison Office], and Beijing have been trying to undermine the function of the legislature as a check on the administrative branch,” Fan argues. “But that doesn’t mean we should willingly leave the situation as it is.”

Fan asserts that political liberties have to be actively exercised in order to preserve them.

“Hong Kong is transforming from a semi-democratic system to a semi-autocratic, or even semi-totalitarian system under the encroachment by the Communist regime,” he claims. “If we don’t actively exercise our political liberties, that liberties will be further undermined.”

“We should not give up on the legislature, that is our most legitimate and formal use of power,” Fan concludes.


Hong Kong not immune to global anti-elite trends

In frustration, voting behaviour is changing. Baggio Leung points out that populism and anti-elitism are sweeping across the world, which Hong Kong is not immune to.

“If you look at the global trends, there is a wave of anti-elitism,” he recalls. “One example would be Donald Trump, who won the American presidential election in 2016. In Spain and Taiwan, organisations that were unheard of, or didn’t seem like a viable political choice at first sight, won elections.”

He admits that he was part of the phenomenon. “Youngspiration is a product of such times,” he states.

Leung attributes this trend to a general frustration towards the establishment.

“In the past, we believe in representative democracy, in which a group of elites represented us in the political apparatus and figured out solutions for us,” he reasons. “But such system has not worked out well. People’s trust for the establishment is deteriorating. They began to cast their votes on amateur personalities and organisations that do not hold a record of failures – yet.”

However, others see amateur politicians as possibly inexperienced and could become easy targets for the government.

“The inexperience of newbies means that they might be easily manipulated by the government,” Tommy Cheung suggests. “They are not as well versed in the parliamentary procedure.”

“If you look at the disqualification saga,” he adds. “Experienced LegCo members couldn’t possibly make such mistakes. They have been in the establishment longer and are more conscious of the risks involved.”

Though, he notes that the inexperience is partly due to institutional weaknesses of the system since the early days post-Handover.

“Ever since the abolition of Regional Council and Urban Council in the Tung Chee-hwa (董建華) era, the opposition lost the training ground for future LegCo aspirants,” he argues.

Apart from inexperience, Gary Fan identifies the instability of electoral supporter base as another major weakness for amateur politicians.

“In terms of supporter base, they do not enjoy as much stability as major parties do,” he says. “After the disqualification saga, you can see a significant drain of supporters [from amateur politicians].”


The fall of radical politics in Hong Kong

After the disqualification of six radical LegCo members, especially localists, some say this is the end of radical politics in Hong Kong.

“I don’t think Hongkongers are ready for radical politics,” Leung Kwok-hung comments. “They would cast their votes, but they are not ready for greater participation. […] They remain very reserved, partly due to the failure of the Umbrella Protests.”

As the trauma from the Umbrella Protests continues to haunt, frustration persists in the opposition. With that being said, the upcoming by-election will reveal where voters stand with regards to radical agendas. Only by then, one could know if radical politics has completely faded out from Hong Kong’s political scene.