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Hong Kong localism and independence

As disqualifications pile up, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy politicians are careful what they call themselves

  • With district council polls set for November next year, young candidates are shying away from labels such as ‘localist’ and calls for self-determination
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2018, 4:44pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2018, 10:59pm

Young pro-democracy politicians are shying away from labels such as “localist” and calls for self-determination ahead of citywide local council elections.

The positioning comes after a series of opposition entrants were barred from elections in the city, based on their political platforms.

Last Sunday, legislator Eddie Chu Hoi-dick became the 10th person barred from the ballot, after the returning officer in the rural committee election questioned his willingness to uphold the Basic Law and his stance on separatism.

And pro-democracy politicians have voiced concern that he will not be the last, with district council polls set for November next year.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Au Nok-hin said the recent surge in disqualifications could be an obstacle to politicians who had already put time into their communities.

“This may deter people from taking part in politics,” Au said.

The atmosphere is in stark contrast to the optimism in the camp after it won ground during the 2015 district council elections.

Back then, seven of the group collectively referred to as “umbrella soldiers” – people who were inspired to enter politics by the pro-democracy Occupy protests of 2014 – won district council seats.

That included Wong Hok-lai, then a 22-year-old university graduate. In a surprise win, he beat 60-year-old Tang Wing-cheong of the pro-Beijing New People’s Party by 363 votes in a Sha Tin District Council poll.

Wong, who has since worked in the community full time, said he was “actively considering” running again in 2019, but was not sure if he would be allowed.

“There’s no point in worrying, as the ‘red line’ is always moving,” Wong said. “I will focus on community work.”

In 2015, Wong was a member of localist group Shatin Community Network. The group was led by Ventus Lau Wing-hong, a localist who was barred from entering a Legislative Council by-election in March.

Wong said the group was defunct, but did not make clear if he still considered himself a localist – a term for people who oppose what they see as increasing mainland Chinese interference in the city, and think the government should prioritise the welfare of Hongkongers specifically.

He also said residents were more concerned with welfare issues than Legco tussles over democracy.

Tiffany Yuen Ka-wai, 25, who is understood to be eyeing a seat on Southern District Council, agreed with Wong that there was no use in worrying about disqualifications.

“No matter the affiliation, all of us [in the pro-democracy camp] could face the same suppression from the government’s moving ‘red line’,” Yuen, vice-chairwoman of post-Occupy party Demosisto, said.

Yuen quit the party – co-founded by Joshua Wong Chi-fung, one of the poster boys of the Occupy movement – in May this year. Her departure came as Demosisto decided not to participate in future elections, after core member Agnes Chow Ting was barred from entering the March by-election, because the party advocated Hong Kong’s self-determination.

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Yuen refused to say if she still backed self-determination, but criticised the government for suppressing dissidents.

The Post also contacted other “umbrella soldiers” who were affiliated with localist groups, including Kowloon City councillor Kwong Po-yin and Tai Po’s Lau Yung-wai.

Kwong, a former Youngspiration member, won the district council election in 2015 after campaigning with localists Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang.

She quit the group in June 2016, before Yau and Leung were elected to the legislature and subsequently ousted for improper oaths.

“Sorry, I don’t have anything to share on this topic,” Kwong said.

Despite the apparent steps taken to distance themselves from groups that support localism or self-determination, such candidates could be at risk, Polytechnic University political scientist Chung Kim-wah said.

“Leaving Demosisto could be one way to ‘clear your record’. Another might be to join the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB),” Chung said jokingly. The DAB is the biggest pro-Beijing party.

Chung said the government had been managing public expectations through the series of disqualifications, and people had become desensitised about politics in general.

Demosisto secretary general Joshua Wong chose to stand firm in working in his local area in South Horizons, knowing it was almost impossible for him to enter an election.

“Through the community work, we want to show the public that on top of our political mission, which is self-determination, we the young people are also able to serve the community on the ground,” he said, adding that he had been following cases of water seepage complaints and helping the elderly to draft wills.

“We aim to practise democracy in bottom-up approaches ... that won’t change after the spate of disqualifications.”