The great defender

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 September, 2005, 12:00am

LEUNG YIU-CHUNG has barely settled into his seat when the taxi driver starts ranting. 'Are you lot all on holiday already? With so many problems, polluted food and the like, shouldn't you people be looking at what's going on?' he says.

The legislator forces a smile. Leung had just met a housewife seeking advice on a personal injury claim, and rather than dashing to a lavish banquet, he's off to Lei Muk Shue Estate, where he's been helping residents move out of the ageing housing complex.

'It happens all the time,' Leung says of being given an earful by cabbies. It's a mild scolding compared to the barbs he sometimes fields: abusive tirades from detractors at forums in Victoria Park; and having his office smeared with excrement last year after he attacked Beijing's veto on political reforms in Hong Kong.

That's the politician's life. But what casts Leung apart from his Legco colleagues is his readiness to take on unpopular causes. One Chinese-language daily dubbed him 'the convicts' friend' for his campaign to secure fixed terms for the two 16-year-olds involved in the 1985 Braemar Hill murders.

His office receives regular cries for help from prisoners claiming miscarriages of justice. The latest to land on his desk was from a man serving a life sentence who says he was framed for a robbery-murder six years ago.

Leung walks a moral minefield in his work with prisoners, and he knows it. His efforts on behalf of Braemar Hill killers Won Sam-lung and Cheung Yau-hang did not go down well in some quarters. On a petition drive in Causeway Bay, some critics not only hurled abuse, they wrecked his stall.

He had his doubts about taking on convicted murderers' cases, but these evaporated after meeting the young men's parents. 'What they had to endure was worse than [the penalty] for adult prisoners,' he says. 'So I decided that I would help them get a fixed sentence. It's not for me to decide how long the sentence should be, but they have the right to know what the future holds.'

For all Leung's efforts to rehabilitate troubled teenagers, it seems his influence stops short of one: his son. The 14-year-old Kai-lok is the opposite of all the legislator stands for. His boy is pro-US, supports the war in Iraq to the point of wanting to serve in the military, and hates all things Chinese - including his father. 'Perhaps it's the situation at home that drove him down this path,' says Leung, who describes his family life as 'problematic'.

He is separated from his wife Lai Siu-chun, a fellow activist who used to work for pro-democracy party The Frontier, but to give their son access to both parents, they still live in the same apartment. It's an unusual arrangement that Leung now acknowledges has backfired. The tensions at home probably fuelled his son's hostility towards him and what he does. 'He's just been to this summer school in Canada for six weeks and his host family told me how well-behaved he was over there,' Leung says. 'He told me he loved life there.'

He's agreed to let his son continue his education in Richmond, near Vancouver. 'For him, it probably means liberation.'

This year marks another watershed for Leung. It's the 20th anniversary of the Neighbourhood and Workers' Service Centre, a grassroots collective he founded that has since become a major political force in Kwai Chung, claiming four seats on the Kwai Tsing District Council, including the vice-chairman's post.

The centre is one of the most active political groups in Hong Kong. Under Leung's leadership, it has helped set up dozens of trade unions and now boasts a staff of 40. It's a big change from the early years, when he could barely afford to hire even one assistant with his $3,500 subsidy as a district board member.

Leung's mild-mannered approach belies his dogged resolve. Political insiders credit the unionist as having far greater impact on government than his more flamboyant colleagues such as 'Long Hair' Leung Kwok-hung.

'I don't know where his [Leung Yiu-chung's] persistence comes from,' says one official who declines to be named. 'Once he's on a case he never backs down.'

Among the thornier cases he's adopted is the campaign by Annie Pang Chor-ying's family for an inquest into her death. The former model's remains were found in mysterious circumstances six years ago in a flat owned by lawyer John Fang Meng-sang, the elder brother of former chief secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang.

Leung has been the legislator for New Territories West since 1998, when he defeated a candidate fielded by an alliance with a campaign fund 10 times his.

Despite his limited resources and aversion to grandstanding - his main claim to notoriety was in 1996, when he was dismissed from the Legco chamber for describing the selection of the first chief executive as 'foul grass growing out of a foul jar' - Leung has remarkably high standing in the pro-democracy camp. In 2000, he was returned to the legislature with the most votes among the democrats. The same happened in last year's polls.

Ideals have driven Leung even before he entered politics. As a young school leaver, Leung was appalled by the get-rich-quick ethos and stock market fever that permeated Hong Kong. He wanted 'something more meaningful out of life', he says.

An old schoolmate returning from France introduced him to socialist principles, which were reinforced when he met activist-turned-director John Shum Kin-fan while studying in Britain. Leung, who read mathematics at the University of Essex, was quickly swept up in the student movement. Sit-ins and protests became his extra-curricular activities.

On his return in 1978, he became an active member of Hong Kong's left. While others drifted into conventional careers in the 1980s, Leung stepped up work at his service centre, helping residents with everyday problems.

He took up the issue of badly constructed tenement blocks in Kwai Fong Estate. Buoyed by neighbourhood support, he won the Kwai Fong seat in the 1985 District Board elections and has retained it ever since.

He narrowly lost his first Legco bid in 1991 to fellow democrat Albert Chan Wai-yip, but made it into the legislature four years later on the textiles and garments functional constituency.

Despite having held the New Territories West seat since 1998, he still feels a little uncomfortable with the prestige of being the Honourable Leung Yiu-chung. He has since conceded that 'going into the establishment' has its advantages. 'It gives me the position and the resources to achieve something,' he says. 'I may not bring about big policy changes, but at least I can make a mark and do some good for people.'