October 31, 2019


Meet the Spiritual Leader of the Hong Kong Protests: Edward Leung has barely spoken about the demonstrations from his jail cell, but he has emerged as an unlikely oracle in the eyes of demonstrators. (TIMOTHY MCLAUGHLIN, 10/31/19, The Atlantic)

It is Leung's 2016 election slogan, "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times," that rings out today, one of the several chants that are now mantras for those who have taken to the streets. The phrase (or similar translations of it) is printed on flags and banners and spray-painted on walls. Detained protesters have looked into TV cameras and mouthed the words as they are taken away by the police. A video game that pits protesters against police uses the slogan as a title. Leung's supporters, some of whom speak about him in hagiographic terms, say he foresaw the direction that Hong Kong would take as Beijing sought to wield greater influence here. This month, hundreds gathered outside a Hong Kong court for Leung's appeal hearing, waiting for hours to catch a glimpse of him and briefly blocking the van transporting him back to prison.

Cast even by traditional pro-democracy champions here as radical just a few years ago, Leung's prognostications about the rapid erosion of Hong Kong's rights look to have been correct. The more confrontational, sometimes violent, means that Leung and Hong Kong Indigenous, the pro-independence political party of which he was a member, advocated in countering encroachment from mainland China are consequently gaining mainstream approval. As protesters have ramped up tactics, vandalizing businesses owned by mainland Chinese and tossing petrol bombs at police seen as loyal to Beijing, people are generally accepting of the violence, leveling blame at the authorities for the escalation. Leung's willingness to risk arrest was once seen as extreme. Now many hard-core demonstrators no longer fear police tear gas, nor does the threat of arrest deter them--more than 2,700 protesters have been arrested since June--while the most fervent openly speak of the possibility of dying in the streets. "Edward Leung and Hong Kong Indigenous planted a seed in Hong Kong politics, and now it has started to grow," Ray Wong, who founded the party in 2015, told me. "It really took some time for those Hong Kongers, for those peaceful protesters, to understand why we took this approach."

Leung is an unlikely oracle, having described himself in much less flattering terms than his supporters do today, often saying he was a loser, a nobody. The 28-year-old studied philosophy at Hong Kong University, where he was an intensely competitive lacrosse player and served as a residency-hall leader. In Lost in the Fumes, a 2017 documentary about Leung, he spoke about feeling lost at the time, having failed to graduate or get a job, at times locking himself away in his room. Then, in September 2014, he joined the Umbrella Movement protests, finding camaraderie and direction among his fellow protesters. "It seemed suddenly my life was meaningful," Leung said in the film.

Wong, 26, also participated in those protests, but over the course of the 79-day occupation grew disillusioned. When the protests ended, he founded Hong Kong Indigenous, a party championing "self-defense, more radical means of protest, and ... our unique identity as Hong Kongers," he told me. It fell into the "localist" movement, a group of political parties and activist groups holding a spectrum of ideas on Hong Kong's autonomy. The beliefs of some of these groups have at times veered into the xenohobic, with members demeaning mainland visitors as locusts invading Hong Kong.

In the past, Leung has described his idea of localism as rooted in the safeguarding of a Hong Kong identity distinct from that of mainland China, to "preserve our own narrative on the past, present, and future of Hong Kong." This idea, of keeping Hong Kong from becoming just another Chinese city, protecting it from Beijing's control, has come to drive the current protests. Polling from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in October showed that the number of people identifying as localists has more than doubled since March. Yet it is the most radical of Leung's beliefs, one that still remains fringe, for which he is most notorious: advocating for independence. "It might be very unrealistic; it might be nearly impossible," he said, "but in terms of politics, in terms of rational calculation, independence is the only way to leave this authoritarian regime," a reference to the Chinese government.

When Wong met Leung after the Umbrella Movement ended, Leung was again struggling, even contemplating suicide. Then, in July 2015, Leung took the stage at an annual protest and delivered a speech that, Wong recalled, "impressed all of our members." Hong Kong Indigenous, which had focused on street-level activism that included haranguing mainland tourists and sometimes violent protests targeting small-scale day traders from China, made the decision to formally enter mainstream politics by contesting elections.

The party's positions, as well as its youthful and at times boisterous members, put it at odds not just with pro-Beijing politicians. It also clashed with the traditional pro-democracy camp, who it felt was overly willing to compromise and did not take sufficient action. The feelings of dislike and distrust went both ways.

"I thought he was arrogant, full of himself," the pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said of her first impressions of Leung. Her feelings, she told me, softened over time, and she has visited Leung in prison on multiple occasions, most recently in September. This summer, after protesters stormed the building housing Hong Kong's legislative assembly, lawmakers were given a tour to see the damage. Inside, Mo said, was a spray-painted message calling for Leung's release. "I knew then he had become an icon," she said.

The only difference among Catalonia, Brexit, Palestine, Kurdistan and Hong Kong is which your partisan politics lead you to support and which to reject.

Posted by at October 31, 2019 12:00 AM