Make pots of money, retire at 40 and open a dive school in the pristine waters of a Southeast Asian island.
Such was the dream of Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang, one of two pro-independence lawmakers whose disqualification from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council has unleashed one of the biggest political and media storms to have hit the SAR in recent times.
Rather than clear-blue water, the 30-year-old graduate in business administration from City University has dived headlong into a deep legal entanglement that could take him years to extricate himself from, possibly leaving him penniless in the process.
Likewise the ambitions of his Younspiration party stablemate, Yau Wai-ching, 25, a history and literature buff who writes “Boys’ Love” fiction (a Japanese genre featuring romance between male characters) and harbours an idea of launching a monthly literary magazine.
Both must now put their dreams on hold as they face up to the wrath of not one, but two political establishments, deal with their newfound status as public pariahs and battle a legal action that could saddle them with millions of dollars in debt. And all because of a few moments of what might kindly be described as immaturity – some say sheer folly – during their swearing in ceremony in which they slurred the word “Chee-na”, swore and unfurled a banner.
To understand the predicament facing the pair – and why their actions would provoke such a storm – one must look back to how their fates first intertwined in the forming of their party in the aftermath of the Occupy protest of 2014.
The civil disobedience movement had called on protesters to block roads and paralyse the city’s financial district if the Beijing and Hong Kong governments did not agree to implement universal suffrage for the 2017 chief executive election. And when, even after 79 days of protest, no such agreement materialised, Younspiration became one of the first so-called “localist” parties to form, campaigning on a ticket of Hong Kong first.
Most pundits back then would have given long odds on the pair upsetting any apple carts, but fast forward two years to September’s Legco elections and they had sent genuine shockwaves through the political establishment with their victories in two constituencies – New Territories East and Kowloon West – between them polling 58,640 votes.
Almost overnight, the pair had become the poster-faces of Hong Kong’s localist movement, not only in the SAR, but internationally, riding a wave of interest in the overseas media that has never fully settled since those heady days of Occupy. It was a victory that gave hope to what had appeared to many as only the most marginal of political causes. A win that, no doubt, made the believers feel their dreams could indeed come true.
And then there was the fall. The shambolic – and what many Chinese saw as grotesquely offensive – swearing in ceremony to Legco just one month later, saw the pair of lawmaker-elects refer to mainland China as “Chee-na” (a derogatory variation of the offensive “Shina” used by the Japanese during the second world war), use a word that can’t be printed in a newspaper without the use of ****, and unfurl a flag saying “Hong Kong is not China”.
The acts, seen by many as a justification of criticisms the two were too immature for their office, fuelled a snowballing controversy that incurred not only the wrath of the central government and the Hong Kong establishment, but embroiled the SAR’s highest courts and the mainland’s top legislative body, offended ordinary Chinese both on the mainland and in Hong Kong and unleashed one of the biggest legal and political storms to have hit Hong Kong since the handover. On Friday, even Hong Kong’s former governor, Chris Patten, warned that the antics of pro-independence activists were “diluting support” for democracy in the city.
Decision on oath-taking appeal to come early next week, as judge expresses ‘unease’ over lack of focus on Beijing’s Basic Law interpretation
On November 15, just two months after their landmark victories and following an intervention of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing that effectively banned all pro-independence advocates from entry into the city’s legislature, the pair became the first lawmakers to be disqualified from Legco when Hong Kong’s High Court ruled they had not been sincere in their swearing-in.
As if that wasn’t enough, having kicked away the ladder from any fellow localists with ambitions of entering Legco, the pair even saw some of their own supporters turn on them.
“I feel like you are asking two soldiers or commanders at war how their lives would be if such a battle did not exist from the very beginning,” says Leung in an interview with This Week in Asia when asked about his life’s goals following the disqualification.
“But the fact is we only want to end this war as soon as possible – that’s all that is in our minds now.”
The oath-taking fiasco has left them jobless and driven would-be employers away. Now they must figure out their next steps, bewildered by the forces they have unleashed.
With the High Court’s decision likely to be taken to the Court of Final Appeal – raising the prospect of millions of dollars in legal cost – the pair have launched a crowdfunding drive. On Thursday, that drive was given impetus when Legco president Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen announced the pair would be forced to repay the salaries and costs they had claimed in advance and sent a bill of HK$930,000 each.
In a twist of irony, just before the interview they were busy applying for legal aid at Queensway Government Office – to pay for their battle against the very same government.
At the outdoor café on the top floor of Pacific Place – just blocks from the Legco from which they were ejected – people in business attire immediately recognise them. They whisper, point, and walk away. Others turn for a second or third glance, brows furrowed. They are curious. But no one is smiling.
Two months ago, at the very same spot, when this reporter sat down with Nathan Law Kwun-chung of Demosisto, people were palpably warmer. Some came over and shook his hand, congratulating him for his victory at the Legislative Council elections. Law, too, favours debate on self-determination – yet he did not besmirch his oath like the Youngspiration pair.
“Many people recognise us, with some coming over and swearing at me, but usually I just ignore them,” Yau confesses readily.
Yau says her civil service parents were upset with her oath, but she explained the situation to them and they now understood it better. Leung, for his part, has been quoted as saying his family always understood what he was doing.
Yau has been skipping almost all social gatherings and unnecessary engagements since the storm broke.
“I neither have the time nor do I want to trouble my friends,” she says in soft tones, a stark contrast from her tough public-speaking style when she is before the cameras.
Every day, the pair are followed by at least two teams of photographers and videographers recording their every move.
Did they know what they were starting when they swore during their oath-taking? Do they know the damage they have caused, they are often asked.
The duo are cagey in their answers, one minute admitting they had not planned for a storm so big, offering fighting words the next. They are wary of revealing their next steps – launching a fresh round of international lobbying and settling the court case seem to dwarf any other thoughts they might have.
As to why they took their oaths that way, they say the flag idea came when a friend brought a souvenir from a university students’ union to their office – a blue flag with the words “Hong Kong is not China”, used by Hong Kong soccer fans during a World Cup qualifier match against China last year. The duo were moved by the words – which they said encapsulated the basic doctrine of the city’s localism – and decided to bring it along to Legco. Leung draped it on himself while he read his oath while Yau spread it out on the table before her.
WATCH: Legco chaos as Youngspiration candidates force their way into chamber
Yau caused further outrage by pronouncing the “People’s Republic of China” as the “People’s Ref**king of Chee-na”. In the interview, she insists she still does not find her remarks insulting, and while that suggestion may raise plenty of eyebrows, in mitigation, searches online suggest it is not uncommon for Hong Kong internet users to use “Chee-na” to express dislike – if not disgust – towards their country.
But whatever their intent, Leung and Yau now find themselves at the centre of a lonely fight.
Not surprisingly, the pro-establishment camp joined Beijing in castigating the pair and mobilised its supporters to protest against their insulting remarks against China.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was moved to denounce their actions, saying Hong Kong was “an inalienable part of the country” and that the “Hong Kong people have the duty to uphold national unity, territorial integrity and security, as well as the dignity and interests of the Chinese people”.
WATCH: Hong Kong localists rush into Legco to retake oaths
But even among Hong Kong’s pro-democracy “pan-democrat” parties, sympathy was not forthcoming. In particular, the Democratic Party criticised their acts as naive and totally unnecessary.
Such a reaction from a party that would seem a natural ally stems partly from the deep-rooted distrust between them – the two parties had run head-to-head in several constituencies in the District Council polls, which split the votes for the liberal to middle-of-the-road camp and handed victory to pro-establishment candidates.
Criticised on one side for being so overtly anti-Beijing, the hapless pair have even been accused of being mainland spies, swept up in conspiracy theories fuelled by their relatively short track records in social movements.
One such theory goes that they are hired hands whose antics were a calculated gambit to give the central government reason to intervene in Hong Kong affairs. Its interpretation of the Basic Law, that ruled Legco lawmakers must be sincere in pledging to represent Hong Kong as part of China, was widely seen as a blow to the city’s judicial independence and a tightening of Beijing’s hold over the city.
The thread common to much of the vitriol facing the pair seems to be a collective fear that the “one country, two systems” model – promised by Beijing when Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule – is tilting irrevocably towards “one country”.
Even legal sector lawmaker Dennis Kwok, of the Civic Party, said the “irresponsible behaviour” of the pair had forced all Hongkongers to pay for the mess they had created. (Some new and young lawmakers, such as Nathan Law, have been more sympathetic, urging a united front).
Leung admits to under-estimating Beijing’s determination to draw the line at talk of independence. “No one had ever thought Beijing would interpret the Basic Law,” he says.
But, like a politician, he knows how to weave a counter-argument. “The central government’s move has told us that the Basic Law is just a mere scrap of paper, whereas the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ is also just a mirage … it is important to have these facts clear,” he says, forcefully.
By accepting that prospects are dim for “one country, two systems” , he says, Hongkongers can focus on finding a new way forward – yet he does not quite outline how the so-called struggle he has started can continue.
What he is adamant about is that the conspiracy theorists are wrong. He believes he has achieved something – making others realise what is at stake.
But Yau, who enjoyed short-lived tenure as the city’s youngest female legislator, is aware they have let many down. She admits she has not visited Whampoa – her stronghold in the elections – since the fracas.
“My colleagues told me that some voters had come to them to criticise [our acts] when they set up a street booth there,” she says. “They are disappointed. They voted for us as they truly hoped we could stir up some trouble in the legislature.”
Instead, she is out, and without a clear plan. Her foremost task right now, she says, is to win the court case rather than offer an apology. She promises to give her supporters in Whampoa a full account of the incident when the case is over.
And it’s far from clear that even now, stripped of their roles and income as legislators, either of them feel there is anything to apologise for.
Business-minded Leung says elections have always been only the means for them to achieve their goals. Seats in a “handicapped” Legco do not matter that much, he says, admitting he would not have made a good lawmaker anyway.
What about his obligation to his voters? To this he replies only: “We are almost the most honest team in elections as we warned our voters not to expect us to achieve universal suffrage immediately after our election as this was impossible.
“Elections, to me, are something that can fuel the struggle.”
The pair argue that the three races which Youngspiration participated in over the last two years have all paid off. Tapping into anti-mainlander sentiments in the city, the group pushed the agenda of identity into the limelight at the 2015 District Council polls with the slogan “Hongkongers, let’s win the battle together for once”.
Youngspiration has since its inception touted the pro-Hong Kong line, arguing that the city should be only for Hongkongers and kept at arms-length from Beijing.
One of its first tastes of success was in the New Territories East Legco by-election in February, when the group assisted pro-independence activist Edward Leung Tin-kei to bag 15 per cent of votes – a significant figure given that under the city’s proportional representation voting system many candidates squeak into Legco with half or less than that.
But, as the pair point out, the attention their oath-taking antics has received is in a different league.
“This time, media from 79 countries have reported the official entrance of what they call pro-independence advocates to the Hong Kong legislature,” Baggio Leung says.
He is confident enough to suggest he will fulfil his role as a “public elected representative” and give voice to people’s concerns even without a seat in Legco.
Yau, a graduate who read Chinese studies at Lingnan University, claims to have no feelings whatsoever towards China – an irony that was apparently missed on another lawmaker who targeted her parents by saying all civil servants should be given lessons in Chinese history.
She insists she will continue to fight for independence and will take up the cause internationally.
“I am not here to create hatred, but how can we get together when our lifestyles, languages, cultures and aesthetics are completely different?” she says.
Leung echoes the view and says that while he once accepted the “one country, two systems” principle, “endless invasion” by China was forcing Hongkongers to turn away. Leung, a former e-commerce manager who was once president of the CityU students’ union, previously worked on the mainland.
He describes the increasing number of schools teaching the Chinese language in Mandarin rather than Cantonese as “making no sense at all” and says 2016 is a watershed year as a series of events, including the apparent abductions of Hong Kong booksellers by mainland security forces, had proven Beijing would not honour the Sino-British Joint Declaration it signed in 1984.
“[Pro-independence] might not necessarily be right but other options are definitely wrong,” he says. “By elimination, I think we should give the idea which has not been proven wrong a try.”