When social worker Lo Kin-hei was elected chairman of the Democratic Party in December 2020 at the age of 36, he became the youngest leader to head the city’s largest opposition group.
But there was little to celebrate. For the first time in its 26-year history, Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy party had no representatives in the Legislative Council.
Opposition parties were still reeling from the national security law Beijing imposed in June that year.
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That November, the Democratic Party’s six lawmakers had resigned, along with other opposition members, to protest a decision by China’s top legislative body to disqualify four of their allies.
Soon after came a wave of resignations by its district councillors, ahead of new oath-taking rules set by the security law that might have required them to repay wages if they were unseated for being “unpatriotic”.
The party went from having 91 district councillors to only six.
“We have to do everything carefully,” Lo told the Post. “We still hope to see the opposition voice playing a role in society. We know how easy it is for the authorities to take organisations down, so we have to preserve our own strength.”
As Hong Kong marks the 25th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule this year, its pro-democracy camp has been hollowed out, with key members in jail, in exile, unseated or out of politics.
The national security law, which bans acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, was followed by an overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system to ensure that only “patriots” ran the city.
Opposition members, who once spoke vociferously about fighting for democracy, are more cautious now. Still, they try to maintain a profile, keen to retain what they believe to be broad support in society.
An immediate challenge for Lo’s party is the financial strain of providing HK$11 million (US$1.4 million) in legal fees so far for members facing charges and HK$7 million to subsidise disqualified district councillors.
He said it needed to raise HK$3 million this financial year to continue surviving. The party is now selling merchandise online and planning a fundraising dinner in July.
The Civic Party, Hong Kong’s second largest opposition party, seems to be faring worse. All of its six lawmakers and 32 district councillors have either been unseated or resigned.
Alan Leong Kah-kit, chairman of the party he co-founded 16 years ago, said: “It’s hard for us to justify raising funds. We don’t want to project a message which we do not want to give.”
For now, he said: “We will exist until we have burned all the money.”
The party has retained a few employees to run “Station 202”, a Facebook group sharing non-political content, and plans to turn its North Point office into a free public space for study and work.
From protests to leadership race
Leong, 64, a senior counsel, has seen and been a part of the rise and fall of pro-democracy activism in Hong Kong.
July 1, 2003 marked a watershed, when an estimated 500,000 people marched to protest against a bill to introduce a national security law, as required under Article 23 of the Basic Law.
Leong, then chairman of the Bar Association, was among those who mobilised legal professionals and residents to take to the streets.
Shaken, the administration of first chief executive Tung Chee-hwa shelved the bill.
That successful turnout led to the Civic Party’s founding and Leong’s decision to contest the chief executive election in 2007.
Although in the end he lost to Tung’s successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, Leong said it gave Hongkongers a taste of what competition in a leadership race could look like.
“My campaign slogan 15 years ago was, ‘Who wants to win a race without competition?’” he recalled.
It was ironic now, he said, the city’s incoming fifth chief executive, John Lee Ka-chiu, was elected in May without a contest.
Breakthrough but ‘turncoat’ label sticks
Over the years, democrats pinned their hopes on the promise in the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, of universal suffrage for electing lawmakers as the ultimate goal.
Never mind that the pledge was qualified by such clauses as that it would be based on the “actual situation” prevailing and “in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress”. The promise of universal suffrage was also made for the election of the chief executive, but with the added caveat of prior nomination by a “broadly representative” committee.
In most legislative polls since the handover, the opposition had managed to secure 55 to 63 per cent of votes in most legislative polls but enjoyed a smaller share of seats because of proportional representation.
Many activists over the years began calling for a faster pace of democratisation towards an unconditional “one person, one vote”.
In 2010, the bloc forged an agreement with Beijing that led to the addition of 10 seats in the legislature including five directly elected “super seats” and an enlarged election committee of 1,200 members to select the chief executive.
Yet the Democratic Party, which had opted for negotiation and compromise with Beijing, was accused by allies for being “turncoats”.
Lo said there had been talk then of setting up a regular communication channel with Beijing and the opposition but the relationship soured over time.
A former member of the pro-democracy camp in Legco, Christine Loh Kung-wai, who became Undersecretary for the Environment in 2012, said the bloc’s attempts to have constructive engagement with the mainland were often spurned by some activists for fear of being trapped.
‘A dead end on the path of negotiation’
In 2013, the bloc initiated a civil disobedience campaign that ignited heated public debate on how the city leader should be elected.
Activists of the Occupy movement spent a year explaining the campaign for “genuine universal suffrage” to different sectors of society, from the homeless to the deaf to sex workers.
But Beijing’s proposal in August the next year for political reform was condemned as too “restrictive” by the camp. It moved for no change on the election of lawmakers and set out how the chief executive race in 2017 could have direct public voting after the election committee nominated two or three candidates.
Rejecting the reform package, activists kicked off large-scale protests to “occupy” the city’s streets, bringing parts of it to a standstill for 79 days. Authorities fuelled public anger when they used tear gas for the first time to quash a demonstration, a move to be repeated many times over during the 2019 social unrest.
In 2015, the reform package was rejected by Legco amid divided public opinion, on whether to “pocket” the changes first or to fight to the finish.
One of the movement’s ringleaders, Shiu Ka-chun, 53, a former university social work lecturer, was elected to Legco in 2016 after campaigning as an “umbrella man”, seizing on the icon of the brolly protesters used to shield themselves from the tear gas. Three years later, in 2019, he spent eight months in prison for his role in Occupy.
“We walked to a dead end on the path of negotiation before starting Occupy. Nothing to regret from our side,” he said.
Like others interviewed, Shiu refused to entertain the idea that “pocketing” the reform package could have left the camp in a better state today than the dire straits it was now in. It was too “hypothetical” a question and Beijing’s actions in the end exposed the regime for what it was, he felt.
“We had prepared to lose but we won’t collapse – that was what we were chanting in Occupy … I believe in the ripples caused by the movement,” he said.
But Christine Loh put the blame squarely on the failure of the leadership to rein in the radical elements from taking over. The Occupy protests, she said, piled enormous pressure on the pan-democrats to veto the reform package. “Voting it down was a grave error,” she said.
“Hong Kong was therefore unable to step-up to a contained but still more democratised election system,” she added.
“China was also denied a key opportunity to conduct a controlled experiment in political reform in Hong Kong at an elevated executive level involving competing candidates and universal suffrage.”
‘Pushing a Mercedes-Benz into the sea’
Another cataclysmic year came in 2019, when the city was roiled by months of anti-government protests triggered by the unpopular extradition bill that would have allowed fugitives to be sent to mainland China. The bill was withdrawn but violent protests continued, deepening the divide in society.
Riding on the wave of public discontent, novice activists contested district-level elections in December that year, and took control of 17 out of the city’s 18 district councils.
Among the first-time winners was Richard Chan Chun-chit, dubbed “airport uncle” for trying to mediate between police and protesters at the airport in August 2019.
A funeral sector businessman with a master’s degree in arbitration and dispute resolution, Chan was elected to Tai Po district council.
The euphoria in the opposition camp did not last long, however.
The imposition of the national security law six months later sparked a tectonic shift in the political landscape.
Some 47 opposition figures were rounded up after taking part in an unofficial primary run-off to shortlist candidates and maximise the camp’s chances at legislative council elections. All were charged for subversion under the new law. Their cases have not gone to trial, with only 13 are out on bail.
And after barely two years in office, Chan and 48 others were eventually unseated after their oath of allegiance was questioned by the authorities. About 260 opposition district councillors resigned.
Chan, 49, is using his own funds to maintain his assistants and an office.
“This costs me HK$80,000 to HK$100,000 a month. People make fun of me and say I am pushing a Mercedes-Benz into the sea,” he said.
Residents still seek his assistance on community matters, and he helps to care for 18 abandoned cats using the office premises as a temporary shelter.
“I was stripped of my councillor title, but I don’t want to be disqualified from serving the community,” he said.
Critics of the opposition camp however say the activists and leaders cannot escape some of the responsibility for the state they find themselves in.
Just as with their rejection of the 2014 reform proposal, the radical actions of the camp in not resolutely opposing violence during the 2019 protests and not distancing themselves from those who called for sanctions contributed to their current predicament, pro-Beijing analysts have said.
Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said Beijing had once expected the Civic Party, made up mainly of professionals, to become “a moderate, loyal opposition group” which could bring about constructive changes within the constitutional framework.
“It’s they themselves who have destroyed all the pathways with their radical acts of colluding with foreign forces that threatened national security,” he said.
“Beijing had to give up on the traditional opposition forces in Hong Kong and resorted to drastic measures to right the wrongs.”
What next: how to stay relevant
With many in prison in the city, the activists who fled Hong Kong are piling pressure on Beijing from overseas.
Washington-based Sunny Cheung Kwan-yang, 26, said at a recent closed-door meeting, he and other activists asked US officials to widen sanctions on Hong Kong to include judges designated to hear national security law cases, for their complicity in detaining people.
Cheung, a member of the advisory board of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, an advocacy group based in Washington, is seeking asylum in the US.
He is wanted in Hong Kong for alleged subversion for taking part in the unofficial primary and later calling on others to boycott the vote in the legislative election.
Cheung said while senior US officials were prepared to hear from the exiled Hongkongers, there were limits to what the activists could do.
“We have to address how to stay relevant, connected with people in Hong Kong,” he said.
All local opposition activists who spoke to the Post conceded that the window for pushing for democracy in the city had never been narrower than now and none could envision a long-term road map for a constitutional breakthrough to occur.
Hong Kong’s new leader, John Lee, 64, has made clear he has no plans to put political reforms back on the table during his five-year term.
Lo of the Democratic Party, which stayed away from the 2021 Legco polls, said: “We are deeply frustrated that everything is back to square one. But we shall never rule out chances of joining elections one day.”
With political reform no longer on the cards, some analysts appealed to opposition activists to find their footing in the new political landscape.
“In this era, there is no barrier to voicing different or ‘opposing’ views to those of the government. It is the methods of the former ‘opposition camp’ in LegCo that have disappeared, not the views on better solutions,” Christine Loh said.
Pro-Beijing analyst Lau Siu-kai expected that the central government would consider reforms towards universal suffrage only if the risks in the China-US rivalry de-escalated and Hong Kong was no longer a political pressure point.
Undeterred, China scholar and University of California Riverside professor Perry Link organised a letter signed by 15 prominent academics from 10 countries to nominate five imprisoned Hong Kong opposition figures for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.
“Without people to push, of course there will be no progress. No dictatorship in world history has ever moved toward democracy without being pushed,” he told the Post.
They praised the five – activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung, media mogul Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, journalist Gwyneth Ho Kwai-lam, barrister Chow Hang-tung, and former union leader Lee Cheuk-yan – for choosing to be “prisoners of conscience rather than accept the crushing of human rights and the affront to human dignity that a new national security law has visited upon Hong Kong”.
For now, the opposition activists’ fate and that of many of their allies will be determined by the courts when their trials are held.
Several of those behind bars have declined all visits and letters from allies and supporters, as part of a “yellow reduction strategy”, to convince judges to grant them bail as they posed no threat to national security having disavowed politics completely.
Former lawmaker Shiu has meanwhile disbanded Wall-fare, the prisoners’ rights group he founded, and now supports them and their families in a personal capacity.
The Chinese name of his rights group means “flowers in stone walls”.
Washington-based exile Cheung related that to his “survivor guilt”.
“I’ve been thinking about my friends in jail a lot. I believe the flowers will bloom in cracks one day after shifts in the geopolitical landscape,” he said.
The leaders of Hong Kong’s two major opposition parties said they had not spoken about their place in the redrawn political scene, let alone discussed possible collaboration.
“It is hard for us to do a lot of things as we are completely shunned in the governance structure,” said the Democratic Party’s Lo.
Leong has so far resisted calls from behind the wall, by four former colleagues who quit the Civic Party last year, to shut it down.
He said a friend told him he was like the violinist on the Titanic who continued playing as the ill-fated ship went down. “The worst case for me is to sink with it,” he said.
The party chairman recently began a daily routine to share on his Facebook how he explored the city. In one post, the former lawmaker uploaded photos of him walking on a footbridge connecting the Legislative Council to nearby buildings. He said he found the route unfamiliar as most of his allies were not there walking alongside him.
“My mere presence here means something,” he told the Post. “After all, we are not looking for a single solution. We are a part of history.”
Additional reporting by Lilian Cheng
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