27 June 2017

Not Just Another March

It was less than a month ago when citizens wrestled with the dilemma of whether to take part in the Tiananmen candlelight vigil at Victoria Park. Naysayers argued that the annual ritual, in its 28th iteration this year, had devolved into a night of sing-along and group therapy, as well as a thinly-veiled excuse for political parties to hit up participants for money. Those arguments had traction, especially among the youth, and many chose to stay home on June 4th. The turnout was the lowest in years.

July 1st March, an annual ritual

Call it the Vic Park déjà vu. Three weeks after the raucous Tiananmen debate, Hong Kongers once again find themselves ruminating over yet another “should I stay or should I go” decision, this time about the July 1st march. In Hong Kong, taking to the streets on Handover Day has been something of a tradition. The march typically begins at Victoria Park, inches down Hennessy Road and finishes at the government headquarters. It is an annual outing for the public to vent their anger over a host of political and social issues, from the call for universal suffrage to the withdrawal of bad government bills and the protection of a free press.

Over the years, the Handover Day protest has taken on a carnival atmosphere. The entire westbound Hennessy Road and Queensway from Causeway Bay to Admiralty are turned into a pedestrian zone. Opposition political parties and advocacy groups set up colourful fund-raising booths along the route, handing out paper fans and selling paraphernalia. As a result, the march shares many of the same criticisms levelled against the Tiananmen vigil. This year, with C.Y Leung out of the picture and chief executive elect Carrie Lam yet to reveal what kind of villain she will be, march organizers are struggling to find a cause célèbre to fire up the public. A good turnout looks doubtful.

Low turnout at this year's Tiananmen Square vigil

So in case you need a nudge to get off the couch and head over to Victoria Park on Handover Day, here are a few reasons why you should.

First, when it comes to large-scale demonstrations, numbers speak and size matters. In Hong Kong, protester turnout is one of the most reliable and closely watched barometers of public sentiment, which is why the police routinely underreports the numbers to downplay dissatisfaction toward the government. Since the handover, big rallies have resulted in major concessions from the authorities, most notably in 2003 when half a million citizens forced then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa to withdraw an anti-subversion bill, and in 2012 when 120,000 parents and students staged a sit-in in Tamar to thwart a patriotic education curriculum. A strong showing on this Handover Day will deliver a clear message to Carrie Lam that we are here to hold her and her rogue gallery of unpopular cabinet members to account. A low turnout, on the other hand, will give Lam plenty of bragging rights in front of her bosses up north.

Second, it is often said that a right not exercised is a right lost. Already, civil liberties in Hong Kong have been under threat on all fronts, from press and academic freedoms to the freedom to publish and protest. This year, the Victoria Park football pitchesthe traditional starting point for the July 1st marchhave been “pre-booked” for pro-Beijing celebrations, forcing marchers to convene on the nearby lawn, which may cause confusion and potential run-ins with the Chinese flag-waving revellers. Similarly, the Tsim Sha Tsui clock tower, a popular meeting place where the fringe localist group Hong Kong National Party has planned a vigil on June 30th, is suddenly off limits due to “public maintenance works.” If we choose to self-censor by staying home on Handover Day, we may be complicit in the government’s effort to curtail our constitutionally protected right of assembly. 

Low turnout expected at this year's July 1st march

Third and most importantly, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the handover and President Xi Jinping is expected to grace us with his presence. The entire foreign press corps will descend on the city to cover the pomp and circumstance. What better occasion is there for Hong Kongers to make maximum noise and draw maximum attention to our grievances and demands? With the help of law enforcement, our government is determined to turn Xi’s visit into a tightly-controlled, Pyongyang-style tour by locking down large swaths of the city to keep out pesky protesters and filling the streets with minders and rent-a-crowds. We don’t need another North Korea, and we owe it to ourselves to show the Paramount Leader the real Hong Kongone that our ruling elite don’t want their top boss to see.

If none of these reasons are enough to persuade you to join the march, then consider this: if Carrie Lam has her way and passes an anti-subversion bill within her first term, we might not, by the time the next milestone anniversary rolls around, have a chance to march down Hennessy Road chanting anti-Beijing slogans without risking arrest and prison. So enjoy your right while you still can.

The rally begins next Saturday at 3:00 pm from the Victoria Park lawn. March with the Progressive Lawyers Group (法政匯思) or look for their booth on the intersection of Hennessy Road and Tin Lok Lane (天樂里). 

March with the Progressive Lawyers Group!


This article appeared on Hong Kong Free Press under the title “Why Hong Kong's July 1 Democracy March isn't 'just another protest'."

As posted on HKFP.com

04 June 2017

Lest We Remember?

Today marks the 28th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, known more delicately in this part of the world as the June 4th Incident. Members of the so-called June 4th Generation—people born in or before the 1980s who feel a deep connection with the thousands of student protesters murdered that summer—have always felt a sense of duty toward them: to vindicate their death, and until then, ensure that the younger generations do not forget what happened.

Impossible to forget

The second duty is what compels parents to take their children to the Victoria Park candlelight vigil year after year, come rain or shine. The annual sit-in, organized by the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (支聯會), fills several football pitches and features impassioned speeches, songs and prayers. Just like marching down Hennessy Road on July 1st and sweeping grandpa’s grave on Ching Ming Festival, it is one of those things that people do out of habit and respect.
Since the Occupy Movement of 2014, every year in the lead-up to the massacre’s anniversary, university students will debate fiercely whether they should continue to partake into the Victoria Park memorial. Most of these discussions end in a decision to withdraw. Just today, the Chinese University Student Union issued a statement declaring the “end of the road for June 4th commemoration.” They argue that the annual ritual has become a “tick-the-box” exercise: participants show up at the park, post a sad-faced selfie on Facebook and feel good about themselves for having “done something when all they have really achieved is group therapy. They also believe that the pan-democratic parties have turned these memorials into fundraising campaigns and political shows.

An annual ritual

Some students have gone further then that. Social media and online forums are plastered with memes and status posts with the rhetorical question: “What the F does June 4th have to do with me?” Their point is that Hong Kongers have nothing to gain from redressing the wrongs of the massacre, and to put less diplomatically, whatever happened in 1989 happened on the mainland to mainlanders and is therefore irrelevant to them and outside their agenda. Hong Kong people have enough on their plate fighting for greater autonomy and even independence from China. They won’t and can’t be bothered with what goes on north of the border.

Expectedly, these sentiments draw outrage and condemnation from older politicians, parents and teachers. The June 4th Generation pounced on the students, calling them sacrilegious and heartless. Likewise, the students hit back with their own name-calling, accusing the adults of being “Greater China plastic”—an epithet for those who talk incessantly about ending one-party rule in China without doing anything about it and who still believe that a better China will mean a better Hong Kong.

They don't see a point

So who is right and who is wrong?

The best way to arbitrate the dispute is to go back to one of our earlier examples: sweeping grandpa’s grave on Ching Min Festival. Doing so will allow us to isolate the two issues at hand and deal with them separately.

The first issue concerns whether one should attend the Victoria Park memorial. Here, the students have a point. If they are not interested in speeches and prayers, then why force them? If your kids don’t want to travel to faraway Wo Hop Shek Public Cemetery and trek up the hills just to burn incense in front of grandpa’s grave, then leave them at home. Yelling at them for not respecting their ancestors will only backfire. For all you know, your children have their own ways of remembering grandpa that don’t involve posing a fire hazard in Fanling or benefiting greedy florists who jack up the price of chrysanthemums every Ching Ming. Mom and dad should just take a chill pill and get on with their trip without the kids. Both sides are better off.

Grave-sweeping is not for everyone

The second issue, however, is altogether different—it is a question of ideology and basic human decency. Asking “what the F does June 4th have to do with me” is no less morally repugnant than saying “I don’t care if the Holocaust happened” or “the Paris terrorist attacks don’t matter to me.” Any liberal-minded person should take a stance against evil, murderous acts, whether you are Chinese, Hong Konger, French or Jewish. The isolationist approach to history and current events—the thinking that what happens elsewhere is relevant to me—is naïve and irresponsible. It is Donald Trump.

Worse, denying that Hong Kong is a part of China and that the city’s fate is intricately linked to that of the mainland is to think that the Earth is flat or to call global warming a hoax. The notion that Hong Kong can somehow have meaningful electoral reform and genuine democracy without a more politically open China is mind-boggling. Put more bluntly, university students and young politicians who talk night and day of achieving autonomy and independence without ever proposing a concrete plan or a viable path is simply another kind of “plastic”—the localist plastic.

So what I have to say is this: if you find the whole Ching Ming routine pointless and banal, all you have to do is stay home. You don’t need to say “who the F care about grandpa?” just because the old man died before you were born.  


This article appeared on Hong Kong Free Press under the title “The Victoria Park Tiananmen vigil debate: Should you go, or stay at home?

As posted on HKFP.com

02 May 2017

That Bumpy Road to Growth 難走的成長路

“Demosistō’s anniversary celebration is officially activated!” announced the master of ceremony. It was a tongue-in-cheek parody of Benny Tai, the law professor who had used a similar battle cry when he launched Occupy Central nearly three years ago.

At the microphone was Derek Lam (林淳軒), a core member of one of Hong Kong’s youngest political parties. Lam has recently been arrested for unlawful assembly outside the Liaison Office and faces months in prison if convicted. But the 23-year-old is unfazed. Ever since he beat leukemia a decade ago and became a loyal sidekick to Joshua Wong (黃之鋒) – like Sancho to Don Quixote, he has prepared himself for whatever his government throws at him. The duo, along with fellow party members Nathan Law (羅冠聰) and Agnes Chow (周庭), are all expected to be charged for their roles in the occupy movement. Jail time or not, the student politicians are taking it in their stride.

Song and dance at the first anniversary soiree
From left: Joshua Wong, Issac Cehng and Derek Lam

Stride – that happened to be the theme of their first anniversary dinner that took place to great media fanfare one Saturday evening last month. “As new kids on the block, we’ve tried not to overpromise and under-deliver,” Chairman Law half-joked in his opening remarks. “It’s been a year of personal growth.”

And it’s been a year of false starts and setbacks. Their first press conference to announce the party’s establishment 12 months ago was an episode they would rather forget: the venue was too small, audiovisual equipment malfunctioned, and reporters were kept waiting for over an hour. The botched launch – and their inexperience that had caused it – was red meat for radical localists who pounced on the blunder and jeered in schadenfreude delight.

The party’s unusual name didn’t go unnoticed either. The Greek-Latin concatenation quickly became a subject of constant ridicule on social media – both for its unpronounceability and pretentiousness. The name in Chinese provided fodder for rude puns and biting zingers.

A year later, however, those angry localist groups have all but vanished from the social media echo chamber. Their young ringleaders have either quit politics or left the city for graduate schools, and the internet trolling has ceased. It bears out the political adage that if you wait long enough, you’ll outlive your enemies. 

Localism, all but gone

Demosistians had barely recovered from their rocky start when they found themselves going full steam ahead in preparation for the Legislative Council election. Because Joshua Wong was too young to run, Nathan Law had to fly solo in his bid for an elected seat. In the end he swept up over 50,000 votes and, at age 23, became the youngest ever Legco member in the city’s history and the only politician in Asia to enter the legislature as a student. But like a star-crossed lover in a Cantonese soap opera, the newly-minted lawmaker saw his honeymoon cut short as soon as it began. The political firestorm known as Oathgate – in which two young pro-independence Legco members, Baggio Leung (梁頌恆;) and Yau Wai-ching (游蕙禎) lost their seats for insulting China during their swearing-in ceremony – spread to the rest of the opposition camp. The government, having successfully ousted two thorns in their side in a single move, swiftly initiated similar legal actions to unseat Law and three others for straying from the oath.

The court is due to hand down a verdict in the coming weeks. If he loses, he will not only have to give up his hard fought seat but also face millions in counsel and court fees, not to mention months of salaries and expense disbursements he will have to pay back the government. Bankruptcy will be inevitable. Until the dark cloud is lifted over his head, Law is reluctant to make any long-term plans for his party. Proposals to open a second office in his constituency and hire more staff have been shelved pending the fall of the gavel.

Nathan Law (second from left) may lose his seat in the coming weeks

Then there are personal safety issues. Last January, Law was attacked by pro-Beijing protesters at Hong Kong International Airport when he and Wong returned from a pro-democracy forum in Taipei. Hecklers threw water bottles at Law and ripped his shirt. He slipped and fell down a flight of stairs and was treated at a nearby hospital. So far no one has been arrested or held accountable for the assault. Three months prior to the incident, Wong was denied entry to Thailand and detained at the Bangkok airport for 12 hours. Based on that and a similar run-in with the Malaysian government, there are now only three countries in Asia to which the two feel comfortable traveling: Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. The ersatz travel ban has hamstrung a party that has put “international connection” on its marquee.

If legal action and physical violence are overt forms of political clampdown, then there are more subtle but no less effective weapons of oppression. To date, Demosistō still hasn’t been able to register itself as a “society” with the Hong Kong Police, a requirement under local law. Attempts to open a bank account have been repeatedly denied, which makes everything from managing donations and crowd funding to hiring staff and paying bills a daily struggle. The irony of not being able to even write a check in the world’s freest economy is not lost on them.

In the meantime, the party continues to be hemorrhaging people. Out of the seven founding members who addressed the press at the party’s inauguration, only three (Law, Wong and Chow) are still around. The other four have bowed out for one reason or another. Fermi Wong (王惠芬), a long-time defender of minority rights, was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after the launch. Vice Chairman Oscar Lai (黎汶洛), who took flak for sidling up to Civic Party during a by-election last autumn for his own political gain, stood down from party elections earlier this month. The vice chairman position remains vacant today.

Of the original seven founding members, only three left
From left: Agnes Chow, Joshua Wong, Shu Kei,
Nathan Law, Oscar Lai, Fermi Wong and Ng Mei-lan

To call the past year “eventful” would be an understatement for Demosistō. The young activists have long lost their teenage innocence. Local politics have toughened them up and taught them lessons that no textbooks can. Among them is voters’ priorities. It has taken them a bit of time to figure out that most constituents are less interested in big ticket political items like universal suffrage and freedom of speech than smaller, more immediate matters affecting their neighborhoods.

That means community outreach and grassroots issues are just as important as filibustering a bad government bill on the Legco floor or leading a thousand-man rally on the streets. Wong and Law, both having achieved international fame, now find themselves increasingly rolling up their sleeves over everything from rerouting bus routes to preventing teen suicides. Recently, the party launched a neighborhood initiative to look into why a popular shopping arcade that serves thousands of local residents has been turned into an international school for a privileged few from outside the district. To look more down-to-earth, they have finally decided to drop the macron – the little bar above the letter “o” – from their name.

Demosisto (now spells with two regular o’s) has been actively growing their membership and grooming new leaders. Their latest recruit on the executive committee is 16-year-old Isaac Cheng (鄭家朗), a high school student with Wong’s signature bowl haircut. The party has also drafted an army of university students and fresh graduates to tackle an ambitious research project. The newly-launched Archival Research on the Future of Hong Kong aims to study, digitalize and compile a report on declassified documents concerning the handover negotiation between Britain and China in the 1980s. The party believes that these documents, housed in the National Archives in London, hold the key to not only understanding the past but also analyzing the path forward come 2047, when the “one country, two systems” framework for Hong Kong will expire.

Poster for the Archival Research on the Future of Hong Kong

At the end of the evening, after the music had died down and the Chinese petit four had been served, two dozen active party members came on stage for a final curtain call. They shook hands with their guests and posed for endless selfies in every combination. And then they would be back to the grindstone the next day. Demosistō would join a handful of opposition parties and advocacy groups in a protest against a stew of political and social issues. They would continue to make strides, whatever is thrown at them.


A shorter version of this article appeared on SCMP.com under the title "Hong Kong’s youngest political party Demosisto undeterred by a year of false starts and setbacks."

As posted on SCMP.com