A Democracy Activist Beijing Puts Up With

Legislator and longtime activist Leung Kwok-hung protested last month in front of Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang, who was about to deliver a policy address.
Legislator and longtime activist Leung Kwok-hung protested last month in front of Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang, who was about to deliver a policy address. (Associated Press)
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 27, 2008

HONG KONG -- As soon as legislator Leung Kwok-hung joined the handful of demonstrators milling outside the Hong Kong Jockey Club on a recent day, their protest sprang to life.

Instantly recognizable by his waist-length ponytail, Leung grabbed a bullhorn and began to harangue the Sichuan provincial government officials gathered inside. The club, once a bastion of British colonial rule, was hosting a VIP luncheon to thank racing fans for their contributions to earthquake relief.

"Release Huang Qi!" Leung shouted under the watchful eye of police and club security guards. He was referring to the Chinese dissident jailed after campaigning for parents who'd blamed their children's deaths in the quake on shoddy school construction. "Respect human rights! Severely punish corrupt officials!"

Such outbursts are not usually tolerated on the Chinese mainland. But here in Hong Kong, the chain-smoking democracy activist and constant thorn in Beijing's side has perfected the art of the drive-by protest. Leung's well-rehearsed demonstrations -- many on behalf of the poor and the working class -- illustrate the differences in political culture that remain between Hong Kong and the mainland, even though both answer to Beijing. More than a decade after the British formally handed the island over to the Chinese, Hong Kong residents still enjoy a greater degree of free speech than mainlanders under China's "one country, two systems" policy.

Authorities here generally treat Leung respectfully. Even members of Hong Kong's famously capitalist middle class have come to appreciate him for daring to say no to the government, although some find his tactics tiresome.

Now, an economic downturn and Beijing's determination to stave off democratization efforts in Hong Kong have combined to make the self-described Marxist revolutionary more relevant than ever. Leung did better than expected in September's Legislative Council elections. He received fewer votes than he did four years ago, but he comfortably kept his seat in a district contested by 29 candidates from seven political parties, just a month after a wave of pro-Beijing Olympic spirit washed over the territory.

Leung's success as a member of the radical League of Social Democrats -- and the success of other grass-roots candidates -- has surprised Hong Kong's establishment. But it comes amid anxiety among the city's 7 million residents over the economy, as well as growing dissatisfaction with the central government.

Leung, 52 and known to everyone as "Long Hair," has vowed not to cut his hair until Beijing apologizes for the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. His smoke-filled office is filled with Che Guevara paraphernalia, and he is often seen in his trademark T-shirt featuring the Argentine revolutionary.

"I love him so much," said Wong Kingyan, a 26-year-old trading company employee. "He doesn't wear a suit or a tie, he has a kind of modern and free spirit, and he says what he wants. When I see his protests on TV, I feel he really cares for ordinary people and wants to do something for us."

The son of a servant in a colonial British household, Leung learned English by listening to the BBC. His mother took him to participate in left-wing union activities when he was young, and in middle school he joined a Maoist student movement. After graduating from high school, he worked as a bartender, a laborer and a car washer. Leung then joined a political group, the Revolutionary Marxists, which helped him land his first jail term in 1979 for organizing a rally in front of the official New China News Agency. He served a month, for unlawful assembly.

Leung was a well-known street activist for two decades before he decided to run for the council in 2000. He lost that race, but was elected in 2004, an outcome that surprised many. "Leung, with no background or connections to the elite, is neither a tycoon nor a barrister with a degree from a top-tier school in the U.S. or Europe," the Beijing-based intellectual Yu Jie wrote in a recent essay, noting Leung's election by a large margin. "Behind this miracle lies the people's aversion to autocracy."

During the government-led Olympic celebrations, Leung got himself ejected from the main equestrian venue for holding up a sign that read "No Dictatorship" and shouting "End one-party rule!"

Earlier this month, as Leung climbed aboard streetcars and walked through the city's open-air food stalls, people smiled and waved, calling out his nickname and asking for news. Occasionally, they also heckled him. "Some say, 'You're a traitor,' " Leung said. "It's politics."

Many in Hong Kong say they prefer a less antagonistic approach to Beijing than Leung's. Chen Kangsong, 48, a tea-shop owner, said he liked Leung's opinions but disagreed with his tactics.

"It's not easy for us ordinary people to make a living," Chen said. "So I welcome his help. But I don't like his style very much. The protests are superficial, trying to draw people's attention. If I were him, I'd use the time to do something more useful."

Leung is known as a champion of the working class, but "rich and middle-class people also like him," said Chinese University political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung. "In addition to the economic crisis, Hong Kong people are less and less satisfied with the politics of the current government."

Polls show a drop in support for Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang, Choy said. This year, Beijing announced its long-awaited decision on Hong Kong's request for expanded democratic rights: no direct popular elections or universal suffrage until at least 2017, and then only after candidates are approved by the central government.

"Most Hong Kong citizens want earlier elections," said Lam Wai-man, an assistant professor of politics and public administration at Hong Kong University. "If the government can't reach consensus on granting democracy, Long Hair will gain many more supporters in the future."

Police and Jockey Club officials understand Leung's appeal. Leung had actually been invited to the Jockey Club lunch Nov. 11 as a member of the Legislative Council. Once it was clear he intended to protest, however, he was barred.

"I am part of the community they should listen to," he said of the mainland visitors. "They want money from the Hong Kong people -- they shouldn't just come here like VIPs having a banquet and ignore our opinions about corruption and political repression."

In the middle of his protest, Leung managed to get a Sichuan representative to come out and accept three written complaints against corruption. Minutes later, the bullhorns and signs were packed up, and the protesters and reporters dispersed. Relieved club officials and security guards retreated into the clubhouse.

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company