Government linked Legco clash with Occupy Central to denigrate movement, says activist
Activists who tried to storm the legislature last week said yesterday they were just opposing plans to develop new towns, not a mob conducting a trial run of the planned Occupy Central blockade.
The government had "overestimated" their abilities and intentions by linking the clash at the Legco building to preparations for bringing the commercial hub to a standstill.
Occupy organisers are planning to mobilise 10,000 people to stage a non-violent sit-in on the streets of Central if the government fails to come up with a satisfactory proposal for the 2017 chief executive election.
But the protesters at the Legislative Council building last Friday said they were only trying to stop lawmakers voting on the government's request for HK$340 million for planning for the two new towns in the northeastern New Territories.
A political scientist criticised the administration for naming - via a government source speaking to local media - six out of the more than 10 major activist groups involved in the chaos.
Chinese University political scholar Ma Ngok said the government was "again" looking for an excuse to associate the Occupy campaign with violence in an attempt to sway public opinion.
"The public sympathises with the villagers whose homes will be razed," Ma said. "But by exaggerating the danger such activist groups pose, the government is trying to win public support for the police's high-handed approach."
Ma said the government's claim was "far-fetched" and aimed only at turning public opinion against Occupy Central.
A sit-in outside the Legco building was different to blocking roads, he said.
Ma said that by naming the six groups, the government was trying to suppress what it considered radical groups and brand them as repeat offenders with a plan.
The naming of the groups was meant to give the public a sense of real threat, he said, adding that the public may not know that in fact the groups had as few as 20 members.
Of the six groups, five consisted of activists who, unlike villagers affected by the project, would not see their homes razed.
Seven of the activist groups the Post talked to said they had not planned to storm the Legco building, nor could such actions be planned.
All but one of the six groups the government pinpointed were founded after 2010, with the two newest formed only in April. That means their membership tended to be loosely defined, and the groups often had no idea how many would show up at the events they organised.
These groups also favour a flat hierarchy, whereby all the members are equal.
They say that their supporters, contrary to common perceptions, are of all ages and from all walks of life, not just young people and students.
The groups said that despite many of their members supporting Occupy Central in their personal capacity, they were fully aware of the non-violent nature of the civil disobedience campaign.
Cathy Chan, from another of the activist groups, said that when the Legco Finance Committee chairman tried to end a filibuster at 8.30pm last Friday and proceed to voting, "everyone was outraged and each did what he or she felt was necessary, so it's not fair to say [the storming] was planned or encouraged by any particular group".
The activists claimed they were infiltrated by plain-clothes officers posing as protesters who had escalated the protest. They said some even took the lead to storm the Tamar building before arresting them later on.
Acting Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu denied the accusation, saying police officers would not pose as protesters.
Passion for justice spurs new-town protesters on
They could have looked the other way, but the injustice ingrained in the running of Hong Kong is the reason why activists from six concern groups are standing up for thousands of residents who will see their homes sacrificed for the sake of two new towns near the border.
No matter that they are not the ones to suffer; the activists are fed up with the razing of entire communities in the name of progress - as happened with Lee Tung Street, affectionately termed "Wedding Card Street", in the heart of old Wan Chai.
The government's HK$120 billion plan to develop the northeastern New Territories posed yet another provocative dilemma, said Au Lap-hang of Left 21, a group concerned about the distribution of wealth.
"Every Hongkonger is now faced with the choice of whether to remain silent when the government spends an enormous amount of public resources to build new towns when we don't even know who they are built for," Au said.
"And don't forget [the project] will cost each Hongkonger HK$17,000," he added, based on a population of seven million.
Au and his ilk question why the government insists on pushing ahead with a controversial plan that has even triggered physical clashes, as seen from the pandemonium that rocked the Legislative Council building on Friday.
The government says the two new towns in Kwu Tong North and Fanling North will yield a total developable area of 333 hectares, of which 47.6 hectares will be allocated for subsidised housing.
"It is very easy to find replacement land for those 40 hectares," former journalist Chu Hoi-dick, from the Land Justice League, said. "After so many conflicts and clashes, [the government] still insists on getting Legco's Finance Committee to approve funding of the [preliminary works today] … We can't help but wonder what its motive is."
In the past, many urban renewal and new-town projects required forced evictions, with ordinary residents making the sacrifices, Cathy Chan said. The name of her group, founded in April, roughly translates as Land to the People Front.
Chan cited the examples of Lee Tung Street and Kwun Tong's Yue Man Square, which she said were now home to luxury residential projects that few of those who were evicted could afford.
"Once again, we have to let those in power know we are against the same model of development repeating itself elsewhere," she said.
"It should not be only the government or big businesses that decide how our city's land is to be used. The people should have the final say."
Willis Ho Kit-wang, Chu's colleague in the Land Justice League, saw their fight for the northeastern New Territories as an attempt to preserve the local agricultural industry.
As of 2012, locally grown vegetables could satisfy only 1.9 per cent of local consumption, Ho said, citing the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department's annual report.
Losing one of the city's last remaining patches of farmland would further undermine its food safety, she said.
Ho said rural and urban areas could complement each other. A well-planned policy for agricultural development could allow those who wished to live as farmers to do so, she suggested.
The deeper issue, as shown by the new-town controversy, is that the government is taking the city in the wrong direction with irreversible consequences, according to Age of Resistance co-founder Chan Man-wai.
Chan's group, like the Land to the People Front, was formed in April. Consisting entirely of university students and recent graduates, the co-founders were galvanised into action after the government proposed setting aside a HK$220 billion "future fund" to be used for big investments.
"The HK$120 billion could solve many longstanding problems if we spent it on, say, setting up a long-awaited universal pension scheme," he said.
Despite the fact that most activists have gone to university and are savvy in social media, getting their seemingly "high-sounding" ideas across to the public remains a challenge. They have yet to figure out innovative ways, other than going back to basics - setting up booths on the streets and distributing flyers.
Whether or not the new-towns project gets its Legco funding today, the activists say their battle will not end. Already, they are looking ahead to the next battlefield, the Town Planning Board, which will discuss the plan next month.
The groups fighting the new towns
Land Justice League
Aim: to raise public concern over development
Areas of interest: land policy and local agriculture
Describes its members as: farmers, students and social activists affiliated with other activist groups
Age of Resistance
Founded: April this year
Aim: to focus public attention on "important yet under-noticed" socio-economic issues
Areas of interest: monitoring the use of public funds
Describes its members as: university social science students and recent graduates
Land to the People Front
Founded: April this year, by activists against the government's eviction of Ma Shi Po villagers in April
Aim: to end the monopoly on land policy by developers and government
Areas of interest: land policy and development
Describes its members as: mostly teachers and students aged between 18 and 30
Founded: July 2010
Aim: to carry on the 2010 anti-high-speed rail campaign and fight social injustice
Areas of interest: wealth distribution, labour rights, development
Describes its members as: people of all ages and from all walks of life
Hong Kong Federation of Students
Aim: to encourage students to engage in social movements
Areas of interest: education issues and democracy in Hong Kong and mainland China
Describes its members as: students from local universities and tertiary institutions
Hong Kong People First
Founded: April last year, by members of a Facebook group
Aim: advocates a Hongkongers-first policy
Areas of interest: issues related to the city's autonomy and eventual independence of Hong Kong
Describes its members as: working adults from all backgrounds, mostly men aged between 20 and 40
(not among the groups linked by government sources to last week's protests at Legco)
Founded: in February 2012, to support founder Wong Yeung-tat's failed Legco election campaign
Aim: to support Wong
Areas of interest: political reform, Hong Kong's autonomy and press freedom
Describes its members as: supporters of Wong; now boasts 300 members