Philosophy student the face of radical activism in Hong Kong

Philosophy student the face of radical activism in Hong Kong

Fair of skin and peering through a pair of round-rimmed eyeglasses, Mr Edward Leung looks the philosophy undergraduate from the University of Hong Kong that he is.

But the Japanese manga images of warriors on his Facebook page hint at a different persona: A street fighter.

The 24-year-old has become the face of an increasingly prominent brand of activism in Hong Kong: one that is adept in guerilla street politics, is not shy about using violence and advocates what mainstream Hong Kong would deem provocative - independence for the city.

Mr Leung is the spokesman for Hong Kong Indigenous, a year-old radical "localist" group that shot to infamy two weeks ago for its role in the violent Mongkok protests on the first day of the Chinese New Year. He was among some 70 people arrested and charged with rioting. He is now out on bail.

On top of all that, he is also running for election, one of seven candidates contesting in a legislative council by-election for New Territories East on Sunday.

With his elevated profile, he has gone from a fringe candidate to someone who - while still unlikely to win the race - would play a significant role in swinging the eventual results.

The biggest blow he could inflict would be on a fellow democrat candidate, by splitting the pro-democracy vote: Mr Alvin Yeung from the Civic Party, whose founder Ronny Tong had vacated the seat, thus triggering the poll.

Victory could then go to Mr Holden Chow of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

The unwillingness to play nice is indicative of how Mr Leung and his group have become contemptuous of Hong Kong's traditional pro-democrats and even the 2014 student-led Occupy movement.

In a recent interview with local news site Harbour Times, he said: "The pan-dems have been failing Hong Kong people's aspiration for democracy for so long and yet they still refuse to acknowledge that the moderate and non-violent path is not going to take them anywhere."

Of Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai's initiative to coordinate election efforts among the pro-democracy entities, he added: "I see that as another kind of defeatism, and I am not going to replicate that."

Hong Kong Indigenous rose from the ashes of the Occupy movement. Its more radical wing had excoriated organisers - led by student groups and academics - for not taking more confrontational means to wrest greater freedoms from the authorities to elect their leader.

With Occupy's failure, it argues, violence remains the only effective way to push back at Beijing and the Hong Kong government.

Activists should use violent tactics to test the law enforcement agencies' limits and wait for them to make the wrong move, Mr Leung said.

"So, you can say that we already expected a violent event like the recent one (Mongkok riot) to erupt at some point, against an administration that likes to pick a fight with its own people."

The so-called "localist" movement in Hong Kong began a decade ago with calls to protect its local identity, heritage and resources - in 2007, for instance, protests broke out against the demolition of Queen's Pier.

But the idea of breaking away from China remained taboo. It was only in 2011 when an academic, Dr Horace Chin, published the book Hong Kong As A City-State that a pro-independence wing gained traction.

But the separatist movement remains an amorphous one, with different groups such as the "Hong Kong Independence Party", "Support Hong Kong Reunite (sic) with UK" and "Self-Determination Party of Tibet and Hong Kong".

Traditional democrats and even student groups such as Scholarism have been careful to disassociate themselves, at least publicly, from such sentiments.

With the Mongkok riot, Hong Kong Indigenous has, to date, become the most prominent "localist" group.

Mr Leung said in an interview with the Hong Kong Economic Journal that he has no hope for the "one country, two systems" framework and that a bloody path of violence is inevitable. On whether aspirations of Hong Kong independence are "hopeless", Mr Leung - whose father is a history teacher with a "pro-Kuomintang and anti-Communist" bent - drew inspiration from Taiwan. Even when the island was under martial law imposed by the KMT, there remained voices calling for independence, he noted.

Today, these people are members of Taiwan's ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party, and their so-called "empty talk" of independence may be realised in the near future, he said.

To achieve his group's goals, Mr Leung is embarking on a dual track strategy: fighting on the streets and in Parliament, saying he wants to bring the "culture of resistance" into the Legislative Council.

"The two (street politics and parliamentary politics) should complement each other."


This article was first published on February 22, 2016.
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