Hong Kong’s youngest political party Demosisto undeterred by a year of false starts and setbacks
Jason Y. Ng says the young opposition politicians have not only had to deal with legal action, personal attacks and the everyday challenges thrown their way by the authorities, but they also face a steep learning curve responding to the needs of the people they serve
“Demosisto’s anniversary celebration is officially activated!” announced the master of ceremony. It was a tongue-in-cheek parody of Benny Tai Yiu-ting, the law professor who had used a similar battle cry when he launched Occupy Central nearly three years ago.
At the microphone was Derek Lam Shun-hin, a core member of one of Hong Kong’s youngest political parties. Lam has recently been arrested for unlawful assembly and faces months in prison if convicted. But the 23-year-old is unfazed. Ever since he beat leukaemia a decade ago and became a loyal sidekick to Joshua Wong Chi-fung, he has prepared himself for whatever his government throws at him. The duo, along with fellow party members Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Agnes Chow Ting, are all expected to be charged for their roles in the Occupy movement. Jail time or not, the student politicians are taking it in their stride.
Stride – that happened to be the theme of their first anniversary dinner that took place to great media fanfare one Saturday evening last month. “As new kids on the block, we’ve tried not to overpromise and under-deliver,” chairman Law half-joked in his opening remarks. “It’s been a year of personal growth.”
And it’s been a year of false starts and setbacks. Their first press conference to announce the party’s establishment 12 months ago was an episode they would rather forget: the venue was too small, audiovisual equipment malfunctioned and reporters were kept waiting for over an hour. The botched launch was red meat for radical localists who pounced on the blunder and jeered in schadenfreude delight.
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Demosistians had barely recovered from their rocky start when they found themselves going full steam ahead in preparation for the Legislative Council election. Because Wong was too young to run, Law had to fly solo in his bid for an elected seat. In the end, he swept up over 50,000 votes and, at age 23, became the youngest ever Legco member in the city’s history and the only politician in Asia to enter the legislature as a student. But like a star-crossed lover in a Cantonese soap opera, the newly-minted lawmaker saw his honeymoon cut short as soon as it began.
The political firestorm known as Oathgate – in which two young pro-independence Legco members lost their seats for insulting China during their swearing-in ceremony – spread to the rest of the opposition camp. The government swiftly initiated similar legal action to unseat Law and three others for straying from the oath. The court is due to hand down a verdict in the coming weeks. If he loses, he will not only have to give up his hard-fought seat but also face millions in legal fees, not to mention the months of salary and expenses he will have to pay back to the government. Bankruptcy will be inevitable.
Watch: Lawmaker Nathan Law attacked at the Hong Kong airport
Then there are personal safety issues. Last January, Law was attacked by pro-Beijing protesters at Hong Kong International Airport when he and Wong returned from a pro-democracy forum in Taipei. Three months previously, Wong was denied entry to Thailand and detained at Bangkok airport for 12 hours. Based on that and a similar run-in with the Malaysian government, there are now only three countries in Asia to which the two feel comfortable travelling: Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. The ersatz travel ban has hamstrung a party that has put “international connection” on its marquee.
If legal action and physical violence are overt forms of political clampdown, then there are more subtle but no less effective weapons of oppression. To date, Demosisto still hasn’t been able to register itself as a “society” with the Hong Kong police, a requirement under local law. Attempts to open a bank account have been repeatedly denied, which makes everything from managing donations to paying bills a daily struggle.
To call the past year “eventful” would be an understatement for Demosisto. The young activists have long lost their teenage innocence. It has taken them a bit of time to figure out that most constituents are less interested in big-ticket political items like universal suffrage and freedom of speech than smaller, more immediate matters affecting their neighbourhoods. And so party leaders now find themselves increasingly rolling up their sleeves over everything from rerouting bus routes to preventing teenage suicides. Recently, they launched an initiative to look into why a popular shopping arcade has been turned into an international school for a privileged few.
Demosisto has been actively increasing membership and grooming new leaders. The party has drafted a youth army to tackle an ambitious research project to study and digitalise declassified documents in London concerning the handover negotiations in the 1980s. The party believes these documents hold the key to not only understanding the past but also analysing the path forward come 2047, when the “one country, two systems” framework will expire.
At the end of the evening, after the music had died down, party members shook hands with their guests and posed for endless selfies. And then they would be back to the grindstone the next day. Demosisto would join a handful of opposition parties in a protest against a stew of political and social issues. They would continue to make strides, whatever is thrown at them.
Jason Y. Ng is a Hong Kong-based columnist and the author of Umbrellas in Bloom: Hong Kong’s Occupy Movement Uncovered