What Hong Kong’s man without a mask wants you to know

Why We Wrote This

As young protesters stormed the legislature, many people found it hard to understand. Brian Leung – the only protester to remove his mask and address the media – talks about that night, his generation’s identity, and what comes next.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

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If you know one face from the Hong Kong protests, it’s probably Brian Kai-ping Leung’s.

On July 1, a few hundred protesters stormed the city’s legislative chambers, most hiding their faces behind cloth and paper masks. But hours later, as many started to trickle out, one young man stood on a desk and ripped off his mask, urging the crowd to stay, and stay unified. 

Mr. Leung knows something about division, after watching Hong Kong’s last big social movement, 2014’s Umbrella Revolution, splinter into factions. 

“I know very strongly that the movement can’t end this way, in a scenario where escalation and use of force ends without justification,” he says today. 

That night, though, his plea was unsuccessful. But he instantly became the iconic image of the night – a night that represented principled activism to some, and chaotic vandalism to others. It’s put a question mark over Mr. Leung’s future plans, and he refuses to discuss his location.

But as Hong Kong continues to protest, attempting to preserve its autonomy under Beijing’s “one country, two systems” arrangement, Mr. Leung spoke with the Monitor about the pro-democracy and “localist” activism that has transformed Hong Kong – especially his generation. Here are selections from our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

On July 1, after a month of mostly peaceful protests, dozens of young people smashed the windows and doors of the city’s legislature, and hundreds more stormed the chambers.

Someone blacked out “People’s Republic of China” on the city’s emblem. Portraits were defaced. Many people scrawled slogans onto pillars and walls, including demands that the city government kill a proposed extradition agreement with mainland China – the bill that propelled an estimated 2 million people to march in June, pushing back against Hong Kong’s eroding autonomy.

While many protesters hoped the break-in would spark an occupation, most started to leave once police imposed a deadline. In a room filled with helmeted people, their faces hidden behind cloth and paper masks, one young man stood on a desk and ripped his off. As journalists filmed, he urged the crowd to stay. It was an unsuccessful plea, but instantly an iconic image of the protest – a night that represented principled activism to some, and chaotic vandalism to others. 

“If we retreat now … they will film all the destruction and mess inside LegCo, point the finger towards us and call us rioters,” said Brian Kai-ping Leung. “Our whole movement cannot be divided. If we win, we all win together. If we lose, we will lose for 10 years. The whole civil society will turn back 10 years. ... Therefore, this time, we need to win, and win together.”

Mr. Leung knows something about division. The city’s last big social movement, a 2014 campaign for more expansive voting rights and elections free from Beijing’s grip, split into factions, some of which persist. Participants divided along generational lines and tactics, with some goading the more peaceful, nonviolent strikers to abandon that approach.

Mr. Leung wasn’t a well-known figure in that movement, but made his own mark. As an undergraduate at the University of Hong Kong, he edited a journal that published a provocative edition in 2014. Articles in “Hong Kong Nationalism,” published as a book the following year, asserted that the territory was a nation. That claim, coming amid President Xi Jinping’s campaign to tighten Hong Kong’s loyalty to China, inflamed then-chief executive Leung C.Y., who criticized the publication in his annual policy address. The book sold out and helped fuel a philosophy of “localism” that promoted Hong Kong’s language, culture, and history as distinct from mainland China’s. 

Until mid-June of this year, Mr. Leung defended his master’s thesis at the University of Washington, where he’s a doctoral candidate studying economics, civil society, and democracy. On June 16, he flew home to join the protests. When he removed his mask on July 1, he took a risk. 

“I think everyone knows very dearly and clearly that the one who spoke in front of camera and media is going to pay a price,” he says. He has refused to disclose his current location. 

Thomas Peter/Reuters
Protesters face riot police during clashes near a flag raising ceremony for the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China in Hong Kong on July 1, 2019.

Using two social media apps, Mr. Leung spoke to the Monitor about his politics, his studies, and the activism that has transformed Hong Kong – especially his generation. Here are selections from our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

What message did you want to send to the world by storming the legislature? 

It’s a culmination of desperation and frustration and the cry of democratic freedom from a large group of young people. They have no choice. They have exhausted all means of peaceful protest. We have tried a million-person protest, 2 million people marches, all sorts of advertisements in foreign media; we tried noncooperation. July 1 is an extension of the frustration and exasperation as to how the government responded inadequately to our demands.

Why occupy on July 1, a holiday marking Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China? Lawmakers were not in the building.

July 1 is supposed to be symbolic or emblematic of the implementation of “one country, two systems,” a celebration of having a democratic government that belongs to the Hong Kong people. … After the return of sovereignty [young people] feel alienated and excluded and barred from that system.

Why did you decide to address the people in the room?

If we ended that night without really justifying our action in a statement or a declaration, I think it would end bitterly. Not only would it invite criticism from the Beijing camp, we would invite a lot of internal debate about the meaning and justification. 

Was your decision spontaneous?

Very much so. What I saw was that people were wandering around, people were trying to protest in their own way, by defacing the emblem, doing some sort of graffiti, slogans, but I think people were also leaving. I felt the momentum shifting against us. I saw a moral vacuum that demanded someone stand up.

I witnessed from personal experience how a movement’s end can divide a civil society for years to come. … I know very strongly that the movement can’t end in this way, in a scenario where escalation and use of force ends without justification … and causes the dissolution of civil society for years to come.

Now that [Hong Kong chief executive] Carrie Lam suspended the anti-extradition bill, but did not withdraw it as protesters asked, what is next for the movement? 

The success of this movement so far has to do with the repertoire, the arsenal of multiple weapons or tools or multiple creative ways to engage in protest. It’s taking money out of a Chinese bank. Boycotting a pro-Beijing company. ... Doing an occupation action.

At least we have to channel part of the energy into institutions and threaten the power of the pro-Beijing camp. 

I also expect there might be sustained mobilization around the issues of police brutality, and ironically, more chances for confrontation between citizens and the police, hence more police brutality. More pressure will be built up on the police, and the government hiding behind it.

How would you describe your politics?

In 2014 I was a very strong [Hong Kong] localist. I still have a lot of attachment to that label, the rise of localism coincided with the rise of youth politics in 2014.

Over the past few years there’s been a strong consensus about identity. We reject the values imposed by the Chinese. … People in this movement act on the basis that we are Hong Kong people and we are willing to reject the Chinese way of doing things. I would not describe myself as pro-independence.

Do you plan to return and stay in the United States?

The Umbrella Movement is really the defining moment in my youth and many of my peers. We care so much about democracy in Hong Kong and freedom in Hong Kong that we are trying to think what is the best way to contribute to Hong Kong. The sole purpose of doing a Ph.D. is to come back to Hong Kong and find a position in a university. I really like teaching people. It excites my soul to know I could help Hong Kong students in some way.

Personally I’m very worried about the possibility of continuing my studies. And I’m very worried about the dream that I might not be able to come back to Hong Kong and be hired in an institution and contribute to Hong Kong in the way I imagined.

It will be politically very unreasonable for them [the Hong Kong government] not to charge me. Because I did what I did.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct an error in one of Mr. Leung’s quotes. He said, “We have tried a million-person protest, 2 million people marches, all sorts of advertisements in foreign media; we tried noncooperation.”

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