Written by Jaspar Chan | Photos by Isaac Yee
This piece can be read as a continuation of the article “A Primer on Hong Kong Politics” published in Issue 17 of Xiao Hua, which can be found here.
Schism within the Opposition
The explosion of localism onto the city’s mainstream political scene (and public consciousness) has been partly attributed to the rift between the right-leaning localists and the established pan-democrats in the aftermath of the Occupy movement, where divisions had arose within the pro-democracy camp concerning the tactics used in the months-long protest movement. The pro-democracy movement’s traditional principle of nonviolent protest espoused by leading figures such as Occupy movement founder Benny Tai and prominent pro-democracy politician Leung Kwok-hung was a particularly divisive issue, with localist activists advocating for a more aggressive and militant stance in propagating the movement. The schism between radical localist groups and established, moderate elements of the pro-democracy movement is further exemplified in the disaffiliation of the student unions of four major universities from the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) over the Federation’s handling of its participation in the Occupy movement, with critics lambasting the Federation’s hesitancy in mobilising students and perceived failure to commit fully to the movement.
The infighting between the incipient localist and liberal elements of the pro-democracy movement can be evidenced in the nature of post-Occupy political activism. The Mong Kok riot in February 2016, as well as numerous anti-parallel trader protests in the New Towns during 2015, saw varying degrees of violence used against counter-protesters and police, with the localist groups involved being less adverse to the use of physical force in confrontations than established groups of the pro-democracy movement. The wide-reaching strategizing common in more established pro-democracy actions like the 1st July marches was also absent; the decentralised anti-parallel trader rallies were initially organised from social media, and the rapid escalation of the Mong Kok riots was incited online by the political group Hong Kong Indigenous with little pre-planning.
Of course, the divisions within the opposition camp cannot be simply classified into the tidy categories of the established pan-dems and the emergent localists. As evidenced in the 2010 schism within the Democratic Party, as well as hostilities between localist and more traditionally pro-democratic groups, it is hardly an united front that the opposition camp presents to the Hong Kong public. In addition to the differences between the left-leaning progressives and the liberal elements of the pro-democracy movement, there have also arisen rivalries between different ideologies amongst localist factions. For instance, the ideologies espoused by some localist parties are entirely at odds with that of other localist groups. The Alliance of Resuming British Sovereignty over Hong Kong and Independence calls for the return of Hong Kong to British rule, and as a result has drawn vitriolic ridicule from netizens, as well as heavy criticism from pro-democratic and localist activists alike. The nativist nature of localism is another source of antagonism within the movement. Certain groups such as Hong Kong Indigenous espouse a nationalistic narrative that distinguishes the cultural and racial uniqueness of the Hong Kong people, often at the expense of the mainland Chinese, and as a consequence drawing harsh condemnation and accusations of xenophobia and racism from across the political spectrum.
Hong Kong’s protest culture
The tactics surrounding the planning and execution of protests is perhaps the most divisive issue dividing the localist movement. With the validity of Hong Kong’s longstanding protest culture of pacifism and non-violence now being in question, those who advocate an aggressive and militant strategy clash with those wishing to preserve the tradition of non-violent protest. The failure of frequent protests and demonstrations to sway the government to effect lasting change in the city has been blamed on the communal and festive atmosphere prevalent in marches, sit-ins, and other events organised by the pro-democracy movement, the easygoing attitude of which has been blamed for the perceived deficit of dedication and persistence in protests staged by the pro-democracy movement. During the occupation of the Admiralty, Mongkok and Causeway Bay sites in 2014, clashes arose between those who strove to create a communalistic and artistic atmosphere and those who called for the restoration of discipline and purpose amongst the occupiers and fiercely opposed the perceived “carnivalization” of the occupation. Once the protests sites were no longer in immediate danger from eviction by police forces, independent activists organised communal events such as tent-building competitions and art exhibits, sights that would soon become common throughout the three occupation sites. Displays of art and creativity have always been present throughout Hong Kong’s protests and demonstrations – the short occupation of Queen’s Pier in 2007 was characterised by a brief but exuberant display of creative energy, with local artists collaborating with protestors to create a festive carnival-like scene on the pier despite failing to stop the demolition of the pier. But during the Occupy movements, the animosity towards such enterprises had become so heavy that there were numerous occurrences of verbal and physical attacks directed towards the organisers, independent or otherwise, of these communal events by their fellow occupiers at the occupation sites. Organisers of discussion groups and art exhibits were labeled as “leftist pricks”, and their actions were accused of eroding the discipline of the occupiers, as well as detracting from the purpose of what their opponents saw to be a single-issue occupation. The stifling of individualistic expression in favour for a dogmatic, doctrinaire approach to political activism – internecine self-policing in an otherwise egalitarian and populist movement – has disturbing ramifications, threatening (quite paradoxically) not only the unity of the occupation movement, but the prerogative of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement to introspection and critical discourse as well.
Some predominantly localist groups, such as the Kowloon East Community or the Tin Shui Wai New Force, seek to focus more on livelihood issues in order to challenge the prominence of pro-establishment parties (namely the DAB) in the fields of community outreach and social work. The uncritical and collaborative attitude of the establishment towards business and corporate entities allows for a strong alliance between the pro-Beijing and pro-business elements making up the establishment camp. With the large amount of resources available to pro-establishment parties due to strong financial backing from their pro-business allies, they can afford to engage in large-scale community events such as street fairs and concerts, and can provide and maintain low-costing social services to the working and lower classes. As a result they receive a considerable amount of support from lower-class voters, as evidenced in the predominant majority of pro-establishment district councillors in low-income districts (District councillor offices emblazoned with DAB banners are a common sight in public housing estates, for example).
The New Preservation Movement
This breed of community-oriented localism, dubbed the “New Preservation Movement” by local academics, seeks to uphold Hong Kong’s unique cultural identity through grassroots action, foregoing the hot-blooded militancy of other localist groups for a more moderate, progressive kind of activism. Their chief concern is that of urban preservation; the quasi-governmental Urban Renewal Authority (URA), responsible for demolishing and expropriating large swaths of Hong Kong’s historic urban districts, is their foremost enemy. Some of the most momentous episodes of civil unrest over the past decades were not about achieving democracy or universal suffrage, but were instead movements to resist the destruction of touchstones, both tangible and intangible, of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage and collective memory; Lee Tung Street in 2005, the Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier in 2006, Queen’s Pier in 2007, and today, the ongoing redevelopment of the Graham and Peel Streets in Central. The urban preservation campaign that sought to safeguard Queen’s Pier in 2007 was unique in that there were no residents to be evicted or shopkeepers whose livelihoods would be threatened by the demolition of the pier. Rather, it was the pier’s historical and cultural significance, as well as its identity as a well-liked and easily-accessible public space, that spurred on the popular campaign to protest and resist its demolition.
It is a thin line that divides the localism of the New Preservation Movement from their right-wing counterparts. Their desire to protect the cultural identity of Hongkongers often takes a nativist turn when the interests of local Hongkongers are in direct conflict with those of mainland immigrants or tourists. The hostility towards mainland cross-border shoppers and anchor babies are perhaps the most prominent examples, but anti-mainland sentiments propagated by localist groups manifest in various other insidious ways; the outpour of vitriolic hatred in 2015 towards Siu Yau-wai, an undocumented mainland immigrant (then twelve years old) who had grown up in Hong Kong with his grandmother, comes to mind as a striking showcase of localist xenophobia and chauvinism. The animosity Hongkongers feel towards mainlanders can be seen as self-contradictory; after all, Hong Kong was a city built upon the labour of immigrants. However, it is what mainland immigrants have come to represent to born-and-bred Hongkongers – opportunistic welfare-seekers, unscrupulous competitors for local resources (such as university scholarships or jobs), authoritarian zealots, – combined with Hong Kong’s own economic downturn, social inequality, and political strife that has enabled the advent of the post-Occupy, “Hong Kong People First” breed of localism. Just like the protracted failure of the pro-democracy movement to achieve true democracy or universal suffrage, the seeming futility of the New Preservation Movement – none of the landmarks aforementioned in this article survived the depredations[2.1][2.2] of the URA – mean that large numbers of frustrated and disillusioned citizens are turning to the nativist breed of localism to safeguard Hong Kong’s cultural heritage.