by Martin Yip
The night is darkest just before the dawn.
That was a quotation that Edward Leung purportedly took from a Batman film, as shown in the documentary Lost in the Fumes. Leung was a student from the University of Hong Kong who majored in philosophy. More importantly, he was and remains a figurehead of the ‘localist’ political movement in Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong politics, the major political divide has never been between left or right. It is between being pro-China and pro-democracy. One wonders why they appear to be mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, it is within such a context that the localist movement was born in 2014. (It is also the year of the Umbrella Movement, in which hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers expressed their desire for universal suffrage via civil disobedience. The government made no concessions whatsoever.)
The democracy movement in Hong Kong gained momentum in the 1980s, when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed and the British authorities prepared for the eventual transfer of sovereignty in 1997. However, some of their efforts at democratisation was met with strong resistance from the Chinese. Although it is stated in the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, that the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council should ultimately be chosen by universal suffrage, little progress has been made.
As a result, some supporters of democracy, in particular many young people, became disillusioned with the ‘pan-democrat’ camp of politicians. From the localists’ point of view, these people have used the same strategies for thirty years, with ample evidence of failure. Many pan-democrats were also patriotic and envisioned democracy in mainland China.
Not the localists. They presented themselves as an alternative to the long-standing pro-Beijing-pan-democrat dichotomy that has dominated Hong Kong politics. They emphasised the interests of Hongkongers and not anyone north of the Sham Chun River. They did not take it upon themselves to build a democratic China, but rather a democratic (for some, even sovereign) Hong Kong. It sent a message of hope that many approved of – at least initially.
The movement gained momentum and popularity as quickly as it lost it. Leung ran for a Legislative Council by-election in 2016 and won 15% of the vote, entering the public spotlight in the process. Other localist groups participated in the 2016 election and won seats. However, Leung himself was disqualified from participating in that same election, in an unprecedented move by the Hong Kong government. His involvement in civil unrest also resulted in a six-year jail sentence which he began to serve this year. Localist legislators were removed from their positions after their manner of oath-taking had been challenged by the government.
The phrase ‘the darkest day of democracy in Hong Kong’ has been used so many times in the past, nowadays it is used sarcastically. Indeed, the localists have been at the forefront of political pressure. In 2016, the government decided its returning officers would judge if candidates were truthfully upholding the Basic Law. In the following years, candidates have been barred from running even if they had signed a declaration promising to do just that. Earlier this year, a pro-independence political party was declared illegal by the Security Bureau, a first in Hong Kong’s post-colonial history, and some fear that other groups will suffer the same fate.
In the pervasive darkness, it seems an endless wait for dawn.
This is not to say that localists represent the democracy movement. Edward Leung was and is a controversial figure who holds radical political views (such as supporting Hong Kong independence). It meant he would find Hong Kong’s political scene as difficult to navigate as anyone would. The point is that his quotation embodies why he took up the challenge of giving like-minded youths a voice and later striving to be a legislator. It was his determination and unwavering faith in the people of Hong Kong and its future that served as motivation. Leung is not so different from many supporters of democracy in the sense that they all refuse to give up, and still work towards the vision of a democratic Hong Kong.
The inconvenient truth is that it would be nothing short of a miracle for Hong Kong to achieve anything resembling ‘true’ democracy under the strong rule of the People’s Republic of China. But considering that those facing the most pressure and making the largest sacrifices have persevered, what excuse do the rest of us have?