by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Iris Tong/WikiCommon/CC
HONG KONG LOCALIST Edward Leung pleading guilty to charges of assaulting a policeman, but rejecting riot charges, is the latest development in a series of arrests of high-profile social movement leaders which began since the jailing of the “Umbrella trio” of Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow in August. This wave of arrests may only end when the Hong Kong government, acting on Beijing’s orders, arrests all high-profile social movement leaders in Hong Kong from the Umbrella Movement and subsequent protest outbreaks such as the “Fishball Revolution” in February 2016.
Beijing may be going in particular after youth activists in order to set an example for young people in Hong Kong to tow Beijing’s line or face political imprisonment. Hong Kong already has become a city in which Beijing can prevent political candidates it disapproves of from running for office, invalidate their election results if it so desires, kidnaps political dissidents in Hong Kong directly to China, as well as mobilizes violent pro-Beijing mobs against political dissidents.
As with other localists, Leung rose to public prominence after the “Fishball Revolution,” a series of riots which broke out in Mong Kok following police actions against street hawkers who traditionally sell food during Lunar New Year. Leung served as spokesman of the localist group, Hong Kong Indigenous and attempted to run for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) before being blocked from running because of his pro-independence views.
Leung resigned from Hong Kong Indigenous before his trial, likely not wishing to burden the group. The charges faced by Leung date back to the “Fishball Revolution”, with Leung accused of having thrown a water bottle at a policeman, attempted to kick a policeman, and hitting a policeman with a wooden plant. The full charges of inciting rioting which Leung faces have a maximum of ten years in prison.
Localists notably distinguished themselves from other social movement participants in Hong Kong by calling for more radical measures to defend Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms from political encroachment by Beijing, whether this was in terms of more drastic forms of direct action, more directly anti-Chinese rhetoric, or outright calls for Hong Kong independence. Yet the charges faced by “mainstream” leaders of the Umbrella Movement, as distinguished from localists that later rose to prominence during the later Fishball Revolution have been severe nonetheless, the Umbrella trio facing over six months in prison, and demonstrators who attempted to storm the LegCo to demonstrate land redevelopment plans in Hong Kong’s New Territories facing a year in prison.
As such, it would be too surprising if, in line with Leung’s more radical views, Leung receives an even harsher sentence compared to Joshua Wong and other prominent figures of demonstrations against Chinese political influence in Hong Kong in recent years. Leung, Wong and similarly prominent figures of Hong Kong activism have notably chosen to remain in Hong Kong to face charges rather than pursue asylum abroad, perhaps hoping that imprisonment can stir the Hong Kong people to action. Notably, 18-year-old localist Lee Sin-Yi, who also faces charges in Hong Kong related to the Fishball Revolution, allegedly fled to Taiwan in August of last year, reportedly overstaying her visa and going into hiding in Taiwan with the help of pro-independence Taiwanese political third parties. While Wong was recently arrested again on a second set of charges, he has been released on bail again.
In the meantime, attempts by post-Umbrella Movement student leaders to participate in electoral politics continue, with Agnes Chow of Demosisto, founded by Joshua Wong and former Scholarism members, competing to win fellow Demosisto member and Umbrella Movement student leader Nathan Law’s former seat that he held before he was invalidated and imprisoned. Demosisto has stressed that it accounts for Chow possibly also being prevented from running for office, stating that it has a “Plan B” prepared for such a possibility.
Likely Demosisto still sees electoral participation as escalating of political tensions in Hong Kong in such a manner that China may slip up, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of past calls by Leung that continual escalation would lead to China making mistakes that activists could grab ahold of. Indeed, despite past tensions between more “mainstream” Hong Kong youth activists and localists, both sides may be increasingly brought together by Beijing taking a harsh line against both “mainstream” and more radical youth activists, and the increasing lack of differentiation that Beijing takes in its actions against youth activists that call for greater autonomy for Hong Kong, as members of Demosisto do, and activists that call for outright independence, as in the case of localists.
Yet China illustrates that it has no plans to back down from the harsh line it has taken on Hong Kong anytime soon. Kidnapped Causeway Bay bookseller Gui Minhai, a naturalized Swedish national who was part of a group of Hong Kong booksellers kidnapped to China for publishing tabloid-style books critical of Chinese political leaders, had been granted some freedom of movement within China through the intervention of Swedish diplomatic officials. However, earlier this week, Gui would be kidnapped again by plainclothes police right in front of Swedish diplomatic officials. This was likely as a way to send a message to Sweden.
And so it does not appear that China intends to back down from the harsh line it intends to take in Hong Kong anytime soon. How youth activists will cope with this remains to be seen.