This is a story told by a Springtime of Nations Associate Lap Gong Leong, a citizen of Hong Kong.
Before Hong Kong’s 2020 Legislative Council Election was delayed twice, the sixth election since the handover was to be held on September 6th of that year. Concerned over the pro-democratic camp’s complacency after winning a stunning victory in last year’s District Council elections, I tried to find any way to volunteer for the upcoming campaign. Understandably, the major and minor parties were unable or unwilling to hire individuals who could not speak Cantonese. I eventually found a small pressure group headed by Gordon Ng Ching Hang who went by the alias Lee Bak Lou. Together, I started to volunteer whatever spare time I had for his campaign. I first met him in person wearing a navy coat and a tie, trying to impress him. Needless to say, he found it unusual. As spring and summer went on, the campaign began to intensify. While every-day people we met were just plain uninterested, a gradual trickle of voters would begin to take our leaflets and ask us as to how a pan-democratic primary would operate. Perhaps what solidified our petition and furnaced the iron will to vote in such a primary was the National Security Law that was enacted the day before July 1st., the 23rd anniversary of the handover [of 1997 from the UK to China]. In what should’ve been a normal and exciting day to raise money for pro democratic causes and create pressure on the parties, the police had harassed any pro-democracy campaigners that were perceived to be ill behaved or illicit. I still remember a policeman shooting blanks at an overhead pedestrian crossing simply because he was slighted at the swearing and jeering, he received from crossers by.
As I struggled to navigate myself from chaos to the safety of my brother’s nearby apartment, my brain was only wracked by fear of repercussions of being a pro-democracy lay activist and the hope that a people’s vote could assert a people’s voice. I had not stayed in Hong Kong for this long and yet the environment felt so alien, despite such deep familiarity. The night before, a Democratic Primary activist from Ted Hui’s office contacted me. They wanted all hands-on deck to set up the primary polling booth in his constituency office and smooth operation of the voting process. Needless to say, I was ecstatic, they didn’t seem to be concerned that I couldn’t speak Cantonese. Unfortunately, the day was racked by several technical and logistical issues. Firstly, a sign broke down, and volunteers spent what seemed like hours trying to fix it. Then, technical programs with the voting software delayed the primary until 11 am, forcing us to turn away early voters. With a critical target to hit and millions spent, it seemed that a grand incompetency (as always) was bedeviling the pro democrats. For my moaning, I was sent to a smaller polling station near Lan Kwai Fong, where I could be sure to make less trouble. After repeating my story of my complicated upbringing and inability to speak Cantonese, the voters started to trickle in. Then, the trickle turned into a flood. The small office was inundated. Voters and poll workers did their best to socially distance and prevent infections, but people kept huddling up in order to vote. Later, an older pro-democracy activist took me to the Causeway Bay polling station, conveniently near my brother’s home.
The spectacle of trying to help gaggles of first time and longtime supporters use a voting app will never leave me. For the first time ever, my fellow permanent residents were exercising their right to choose their favorite politicians to represent them. For the first time in decades, the pro-democrats were united and centered. For the first time, a superpower couldn’t stop a plea to representation and organization. Unfortunately, this pride was not to last. 604,660 voters cast a valid ballot in a city-wide primary that had seen diners, offices, neighborhood stores, and an old double decker bus made into makeshift polling stations. The admittedly amateurish effort, bedeviled by logistical issues that only come from crowdfunded operations, had still attracted more than 14% of the total electorate, beyond any organizer’s dream. Yet the Chinese Government and its Hong Kong representatives would effectively render such voting useless by christening it an illegal straw poll. They first threatened that such a poll could run afoul of the national security law and soon disqualified the entire pro democratic slate. Then, in January 2021, they arrested all 47 participants and 6 organizers. Their crime was to win a parliamentary majority and veto the budget, which counted as overthrowing the government. Had we chosen our candidates behind closed doors, we wouldn’t have broken any national security laws and likely cruised to an election victory.
Had the Pro-Democrats been less democratic, my friends would be bargaining and negotiating with China rather than being behind bars. In many ways, Hong Kong’s crisis was my breaking and unmaking. While I had always been passionate about global affairs, especially about the national question in Britain and Canada, Hong Kong’s conflict wasn’t a polite debate between nationalists demanding respect and sovereignty and federalists defending an act of union. While I prefer unity over division, Hong Kong’s governance crisis was different. It did not possess that many cloying, self-deferential civic nationalist leaders that espoused our great universities or accentuated the city’s free market dynamism. Pro Chinese politicians, until recently, were not obsessed with deifying Chinese communism or angry about the lack of patriotism in a general public they disliked. Upon reflection, the Hong Kong protests were the final split of what was once a single nation. The people who wanted the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law to possess genuine authenticity were finally muzzled and snapped by those who felt “bourgeois democracy” was a destructive and venal distraction from economic, social, and patriotic development.