Under threat of jail and bankruptcy, Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching discuss future of Hong Kong pro-independence movement
In interview given before their conviction for illegal assembly, ousted lawmakers say they cannot be blamed for Beijing’s tightening grip on city
It has been more than a year since localists Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching were booted from the city’s Legislative Council, but even after returning to their regular jobs, they continue to elicit angry glares and curious glances when they walk down the street.
The defiant pair notably drew Beijing’s ire in 2016, when they held aloft banners during their Legco swearing-in ceremony declaring “Hong Kong is not part of China”.
The incident prompted fears their offensive gestures would open a Pandora’s box and caused the central government to further tighten its grip on Hong Kong.
Earlier this year, student activist Agnes Chow Ting, a comrade of Occupy movement poster boy Joshua Wong Chi-fung, was banned from the Legco by-election in March to fill four of the six vacancies left by Leung, Yau and four other lawmakers.
This happened despite her party Demosisto endorsing “self-determination”, a milder political stance than advocating outright independence for the city.
The position had appeared to sit well with Beijing two years ago when Chow’s peer and party chairman, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, was allowed to run for a seat on the legislature alongside Leung and Yau.
The shift that saw “self-determination” calls being put on par with pro-independence ones came after the duo’s disqualification.
Speaking to the Post recently, ahead of a court hearing over their attempt to forcibly enter a Legco meeting in 2016 while they were lawmakers-elect, Leung and Yau said they remained stern believers in independence for the former British colony. They insisted they should not be blamed for what appeared to be Beijing’s growing control over the city.
“If you blame it on us, do you go back in history to trace everyone who has promulgated Hong Kong independence, such as … Ma Man-fai?” Yau asked, referring to the late social activist who advocated self-determination against the British government in the 1950s and 1960s.
Yau and Leung were convicted of illegal assembly on Friday, an offence carrying a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment and a HK$5,000 (US$637) fine.
At the interview earlier, the ousted lawmakers spoke of their possible jail sentences and shared the latest on their lives after their political careers came to a sudden halt.
Yau, who now works in marketing, said: “I focus on non-political things.”
She added she had been trying to see things from an ordinary citizen’s perspective, hopeful of being able to better communicate her beliefs to them in the future.
Leung is doing freelance work on e-commerce projects while seeking to help fellow activists.
The pair also shared their views on the impact of the government’s increasingly strong-arm approach to the pro-independence movement.
On Chow’s by-election disqualification, Leung claimed the decision had nothing to do with the duo’s pursuit of independence for the city.
He said Chow was turned away by returning officers because her beliefs were deemed threatening – similar to how he and Yau were disqualified as lawmakers two years ago.
Leung cited University of Hong Kong law scholar Benny Tai Yiu-ting as another example, saying the academic had reiterated numerous times that he opposed independence. Yet Tai, a co-founder of the pro-democracy Occupy protests of 2014, still drew sharp criticism for a recent speech in Taiwan in which he suggested that Hong Kong could consider becoming an independent state.
The academic’s remarks were made at a seminar in Taipei organised by the Taiwan Youth Anti-Communist Corps.
“What [Beijing] is doing is to marginalise those who are threatening, regardless of whether they were pro-independence,” Leung said.
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The pair said that since their disqualification, they had noticed the local authorities were escalating efforts to clamp down on the pro-independence movement, declining, for example, to approve demonstrations organised by localist activists.
“It’s not like in the past. When you tried to oppose something, the first thing you did would be to hold a press conference,” Leung said, claiming that every move they made now would alarm officials.
This, Yau added, had forced the movement to go underground, with fewer people handing out fliers on the street now compared with a year ago. But despite the tighter leash on protesting, the pair said, followers of the movement remained loyal.
Ahead of their Friday hearing, the two admitted they had thought about being sent to jail, or “camp”, as Yau referred to it.
“I have made arrangements with friends and family,” she said, noting she had prepared a list of books to bring to prison.
Leung said he would read a book called Escape from Freedom, written by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, discussing humankind in the absence of freedom.
The shadow of a jail stint aside, the threat of bankruptcy also hovers over the duo.
Leung and Yau were ordered to pay the government’s legal fees after losing all the court battles since 2016 against the legal bids to disqualify them. They were also told to pay back HK$1.86 million in salaries and allowances to Legco.
The pair maintained they would not return the money but would declare bankruptcy to comply with the court order. To this day however the legal bills – which they expect to exceed HK$10 million – have yet to materialise.
Amid the uncertainty about the whopping sum, Leung said, one thing was for sure: “There is no way we could repay it.”