Hong Kong’s ‘Che’ Points at the Collapsing Facade of Elitist Hong Kong

Yoichi Shimatsu


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HONG KONG - Wide-eyed in astonishment, the guards at Kowloon’s Lai Chi Kok prison stepped aside out of respect for their most prominent visitor ever. His Eminence Cardinal Joseph Zen is the senior prelate of the 350,000-member Catholic diocese, power-broker in the Vatican’s conservative wing, a beacon of hope for the underground church in mainland China, and spiritual head of Hong Kong’s pan-democratic alliance.


Which lost sheep from his flock could the prelate have been seeking out on a humid summer afternoon? Was his prison visit to perform last rites for a dying sinner-turned-convict or to hear confession prior to holy communion for a lost soul inside that grim maze of concrete walls and wire fence?


The guards were jaw-drop stunned when the cardinal stopped in front of a solitary-confinement cell. Locked inside was the inflammatory agitator Leung Kwok-hung, better known as Longhair, whose patron saint is not Saint Francis but Che Guevara.


Far from being a devout Christian, Longhair is the chieftain of the League of Social Democrats (LSD), a band of revolutionaries known for stormy protests that often end with activists being wrestled to the pavement by hordes of policemen. Despite the conservatism of this hard-nosed city, his confrontational tactics have won the affection of poorer residents, who have re-elected him over the past 10 years to voice their grievances as a parliamentarian in the city’s Legislative Council (Legco).


That activism also led to his imprisonment in June after a court verdict for disorderly conduct at his 2011 disruption of a public meeting at a local museum. Just prior to that guilty conviction, he burst into a closed-door session discussing the nomination procedures for the 2017 election of a new Chief Executive, Hong Kong’s highest political position.


“The meeting to discuss the nomination procedure was held at an undisclosed location, which turned out to be a hotel,” Longhair recalls. “As a Legco representative, I had every right to be there but was not invited or even informed.” When the activist politician stood up to denounce the shroud of secrecy and waved a copy of the Basic Law, security men tussled with him and dragged him out of the room. That was a sign of things to come.


The short prison term happened to coincide with the annual June 4 commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square events. The timing conveniently eliminated him from the planning phase for the shutdown of the Central financial district by an activist coalition led by the Occupy Hong Kong group. Adding insult to injury, the police ordered the prison barber to shear off Longhair’s trademark locks, replaced by a crew cut, an act that he claims was intended to further marginalize him from the protest leadership.


“I was more shocked than any of the guards by the surprise visit of the Cardinal,” Longhair recalled with a smile. “On his short stay of maybe 15 minutes, he expressed his personal support and to see if I was well. Although depressed about the hair cut, my spirits were really lifted by his coming to prison just to say that.”


Passing the Torch


The surreal prison meeting, in hindsight, was a symbolic passing of the torch from the iconic Catholic prelate to the notorious street fighter, anointing him to carry by personal example unflinching courage, humility and moral inspiration to the emerging Generation ‘97 youth movement. The strategy shift has since been dramatic, moving from Zen’s policy of peaceful legal rallies, as when a half-million people marched against a proposed security bill in 2001, toward provocative and confrontational civil-disobedience tactics that are now rocking Hong Kong.


Perhaps it will never be disclosed whether Cardinal Zen then realized what was about to come down like a ton of bricks. At the end of August, agents of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) raided the home of Jimmy Lai, the pro-democracy publisher of the Apple Daily media group. They seized ledger books, according to the local press, involved illegal payoffs to top politicians in the opposition Democrats and Civic parties.


One of the prominent names on donation list is a Baptist pastor, one of the troika that heads the Occupy Central initiative. The damaging allegation caused co-leader Benny Tai to waver in his pledge to shut down Central at a warm-up rally.


Also on that list of suspects, allegedly receiving the equivalent of tens of thousands of US dollars, was another clergyman named Joseph Zen, who until that disclosure was the unchallenged moral authority of this city. The pan-democratic movement had lost the moral high ground, and faced the prospect of plummeting into disgrace.


“Everyone knows it takes funding to survive in the political arena, and some of that comes from less-than reputable sources” Longhair explained. “The pro-Beijing party (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, DAB) also has plenty of money to dispense on its support groups, and it’s known that mainland Chinese businessmen have been generous to them, so why have they never been targeted by ICAC? The raid obviously had political motivation.”


Surveillance Society


It is recognized that the Congress-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the Democratic National Institute (DNI), a foreign-policy branch of the US Democratic Party provide ample funding to dissidents groups in Hong Kong. Beijing insistently raises the specter of “foreign interference” in Hong Kong affairs, without ever disclosing details. Insiders in Beijing claim that the CIA funnels money through third-party channels, alleging a crime tantamount to treason, if proven in court. It is telling that many of the accused have disappeared from the political scene and remain absent from the barricades.


Longhair’s claim of ICAC bias has strong grounds since its origins during the British colonial period, when the Special Branch police intelligence force ruled the streets with an iron fist. Despite Hong Kong’s image as a free-wheeling center for business and lifestyle, the Commission is among the world’s most pervasive social-surveillance systems, planting secret ICAC informers inside every company with more than a dozen employees. The covert force was set up to combat corruption in a port city with a large triad presence, as depicted in many crime movies. Prior to the Apple Daily raid, another target was executives with the Sun Hung Kai developer group, owned by a prominent Catholic family.


The ICAC tends to follow directives from the Central Policy Unit (CPU), the official think tank involving top bureaucrats and university-based experts. Even though CPU members have often divergent political stances, there exists an unspoken rule: Do not kill the goose that lays the golden egg, that is, Hong Kong’s role as a global financial hub. This code of insider interest explains how Hong Kong’s elite, including many pro-British figures, closed ranks against the approaching threat of Occupy Central.



The global banks, property developers and brokerages with the Hong Stock Exchange, along with their wealthy mainland clients, are to be defended against the barbarians inside the gates. The naked self-interest of the ruling class hasn’t changed much since the Taiping (Heavenly Kingdom) insurgency and Boxer Rebellion in days of yore.


When the chips were down in those darkest hours after the corruption raid, Longhair sighed like a vastly outnumbered warrior in a kung-fu epic: “From now on, there will be fewer protesters and a shutdown of Central will be difficult to sustain. However it goes, we must turn up for the fight.”


The Real Estate Agent


“The one thing we can count is that Chief Executive C.Y. Leung will make a fatal mistake as he always does,” Longhair predicted. That premonition has since come to pass when the Hong Kong police fumbled every basic rule of public-relations by tossing dozens of teargas canisters at high-school students protesting at the new Legco offices, right in front of the television cameras.


Longhair’s nemesis is Leung Chun-ying, whom he describes as “the most unrepresentative of the three CEs since Handover.”


The three successive Chief Executives are: Tung Chee-wha, a Shanghai-born shipping company magnate; Donald Tsang, nicknamed “Bow-tie”, a career bureaucrat; and the current Leung Chan-ying, who was a executive with a land-surveying company that provides services to the major property-development companies.


“As the first CE, Tung at least tried to help the city’s poorer population with public housing and job creation. His successor Donald Tsang favored the major local developers with land sales and infrastructure grants. Then came C.Y. Leung, who’s acted like a property agent for the huge mainland corporations. His role was to facilitate mainland giants in setting up international offices in Central, while selling off public land for lower-cost back offices in outlying districts for their employees from China.”


Longhair said that the huge influx of mainland corporations, which have been establishing partnerships with Western finance capital, have driven up consumer prices and forced thousands of local companies out of business, to the detriment of local employees. Meanwhile, “CY Leung has done nothing for the people of this city,” he charged.


In 2013 parliamentary session, the League and its allies in the People Power group staged a filibuster of the Legco’s budget proceedings, with demands for health care, welfare, housing and jobs for the low-income population. The delay tactics exposed the undisguised favoritism of Leung’s officials toward property developers, including the New World Group (also a huge jewelry chain), Hong Kong Land (affiliated with the colonial-era Jardine group and the Sassoon fortune, both rooted in the opium trade), and Cheung Kong and Henderson owned by the Li Ka-shing (a multi-billionaire uneasily allied with mainland interests).


In a boisterous Cantonese society, a sharp wit and sarcastic humor are necessary for political survival, especially when defending a lousy deal. A stiff communicator, Leung became CE in 2012 only because the leading candidate, Henry Tang, got caught up in scandals involving bribery and marital infidelity.



Split in the Opposition


In the springtime run-up to the Occupy Central protests, Longhair focused his wrath against a private initiative by former Chief Secretary Anson Chan, a relic of the British colonial era, and tycoon Li Ka-shing, to forge a slightly modified nomination framework for the 2017 election. The Catholic-dominated Democrat Party apparently gave its nod to the secretive proposal, in a break with the uncompromising posture of Cardinal Zen.


“Those compromisers focused on ‘who’ will be Chief Executive, instead of demanding ‘how’ we can achieve an open nomination procedure with full universal suffrage,” Longhair explained. “Hong Kongers in the outlying poorer districts will support the fight for ‘one-man one-vote’ in the nomination process because it is in their best interest, and anyone who opposes will lose out.”


Last Tango in Hong Kong


Tattered by dropouts and defectors after the ICAC raid, the diminished ranks of the democratic opposition faltered just before the planned start of the Occupy Central protests timed for the National Day holiday on October 1. Despite their growing isolation from a public fearful of the impact on the economy, university and secondary school activists announced a classroom boycott for the last week of September.


At the close of the week-long school boycott, since extended, the students were denied a permit for rallies in front on the new Legco offices on the shore of the famous Harbour. The youths stormed past the barriers and refused to back off when assailed by volleys of teargas canisters. Police overreaction was a gross tactical blunder that turned public support in this money-obsessed city to the side of the protesters, in yet another of C.Y. Leung’s self-inflicted wounds. The sudden reversal of political fortunes has thrown everything wide open, as the elitist power structure fragments and crumbles.


Whatever discontent he has with Beijing’s growing influence over his hometown, Longhair remains a steadfast patriot in the territorial dispute between the People’s Republic against Japan. The very first protest he ever attended was at age 14 at the start of the bilateral conflict over the Daioyu (Senkaku) islands, a cause that he continues to back with boat landings by his League members on those stormy islets.


“We are not against mainland China or its sovereignty because we are Chinese, but one thing must be made clear,” he asserted “The people of Hong Kong will not surrender their rights to anyone or any power.”


Although well into middle age, Longhair is known for his youthful wide grin and gleaming impish eyes. Tall by local standards, his strongly built frame has been resilient in the many knockdowns in encounters with police. The mean streets of this unforgiving city are perhaps his only birthright, but he continues to fight for a place called home.


Author Bio:

Yoichi Shimatsu was a founding faculty member of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.


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