Hong Kong’s freshman councilors get a crash course: City Gov 101

Why We Wrote This

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp won big in district elections. Now, they have to translate big-picture dreams into day-to-day decisions. If the protests were a seminar in activism, this presents a whole new learning curve.

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Newly elected Hong Kong District Councilor Fergus Leung, a pro-democracy advocate and Hong Kong University student, meets with constituents near the Kwun Lung public housing estate in western Hong Kong Island, Nov. 28, 2019.

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In May, Fergus Leung will graduate with a degree in biomedical science. But by then the student leader and pro-democracy protester will be well into his first term as a Hong Kong district councilor. Less than a week after defeating a pro-Beijing incumbent, Mr. Leung was meeting constituents and immersing himself in a new range of subjects, from trash collecting to public housing to parking.

As a politician, he still has a lot to learn. To compete with pro-Beijing forces that still offer services to constituents, Mr. Leung is banding together with other new District Council members to cooperate not only on traditional social services – such as planning day tours for the elderly – but on creative improvements for the district.

Included on his agenda of urban innovation: modernize recycling and oppose a giant land reclamation project that would disrupt a historic harbor-front pier.

Beyond the neighborhood, Mr. Leung says he’s receiving mentoring and training from established democratic parties and more experienced politicians. He also plans to actively promote the pro-democracy movement that he says motivated him to run for office. “I won’t forget what we are fighting for,” he says.

A tiny woman in a pink knit cap and red jacket hobbles over to Fergus Leung, her newly elected district councilor, as he greets constituents outside the towering Kwun Lung public housing complex on western Hong Kong Island.

“Where have all the orange rubbish bins gone?” she asks. Mr. Leung explains that Hong Kong police took away the bins, fearing protesters might use them to block roads, and replaced them with plastic bags. The woman looks dismayed. The orange bins had ashtrays. Without them, cigarette butts now scatter the sidewalks.

“The streets … are a bit dirty,” Mr. Leung admits, bespectacled and wearing a white button-down shirt. “I’ll write to the Hygiene Department.” 

It’s been less than a week since the 22-year-old University of Hong Kong student leader and pro-democracy protester defied the odds, defeated a pro-Beijing incumbent, and won the local district seat. Indeed, his term doesn’t officially start until Jan. 1. But Mr. Leung is in high demand. 

“It’s quite overwhelming,” says Mr. Leung, already immersed in issues of rent hikes, public housing access, and illegal parking. Living in a student dorm on the nearby campus, where he’ll graduate with a biomedical science degree in May, Mr. Leung is still somewhat amazed he won the seat held by the opposition since 2007. 

“It’s really a big surprise for me,” he says.

Considered a referendum on Hong Kong’s political crisis, the Nov. 24 elections saw a record turnout that produced a stunning defeat for the pro-Beijing camp and a landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates, who captured about 85% of 452 seats and took over 17 of the 18 district councils. Although the councils are advisory bodies, they offer democrats a platform for broadening their agenda and voter base, and a springboard to groom candidates for higher office.

But now it is up to Mr. Leung and other councilors-elect – many of them in public office for the first time – to translate the pro-democracy camp’s unprecedented win into long-term political gains by getting things done at the grassroots. 

Mr. Leung first was drawn to politics in high school, when he took part in Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement and saw police use tear gas against non-violent protesters. This past summer, he researched a District Council bid and learned that no other democratic candidate planned to seek the Kwun Lung position, considered a pro-Beijing stronghold. He decided to run in August.

“I have a lot of work to do,” he says. “You first have to win their trust, but it’s not easy.”

Uphill battle?

During morning rush hour, a week later, Mr. Leung is back in Kwun Lung, tracking a slew of constituent issues – from families stuck in tiny apartments to workers who need better bus service. “I would say it’s quite mind-blowing,” says Mr. Leung, who says he is gaining a deeper understanding of many real-world problems for the first time as he advocates for individual cases with the government.

Residents, many of whom are elderly and lower-income, seem to appreciate Mr. Leung’s earnestness – if not his democratic activism. But midway through the morning, a pro-Beijing resident walks up and denounces him in Cantonese slang: “Kill people, burn houses, and wear the golden belt!” the man says – loudly repeating the phrase for emphasis.

“I know, I know,” Mr. Leung replies in Cantonese. The saying is an attack on the protesters, and means roughly “do whatever you want without any consequences,” he says.

“This gentleman is a very loyal supporter of the DAB,” Mr. Leung explains, referring to the flagship pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. The DAB ran 181 candidates in the District Council election, and – in its biggest defeat – all but 21 of them lost, including Mr. Leung’s opponent. 

“This election brought a lot of trauma to those government supporters” who oppose the protests and believed they were in the majority, Mr. Leung says.

Nevertheless, pro-Beijing forces remain a power to contend with at the grassroots. For example, after its election drubbing, the DAB announced it would continue to pay its District Council members who were voted out of office, to prepare for a comeback in the next election four years from now. 

So Mr. Leung’s opponent, Yeung Hoi Wing, will remain ensconced in an office inside the very housing complex that Mr. Leung will soon represent. Moreover, he says, defeated politicians like Mr. Yeung will continue to organize activities and services with the help of pro-Beijing organizations built up over decades, such as the residents’ association of the housing complex.

Backed financially by Chinese offices and businesses, the vast pro-Beijing network in Hong Kong also includes leftist unions, workers at China-funded companies, and a variety of community organizations including cultural and recreational groups and women’s groups. These groups offer services, social activities, and free gifts such as meals, and they help groom local politicians and get out the vote in elections, according to Ma Ngok, associate professor of government at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“This will be a very big challenge to myself and all the democratic district councilors” who need time to build similar networks, Mr. Leung says. “Many of us are worried whether we can provide the same level of service as our opponent did before.”

New networks

Mr. Leung is banding together with other young, independent, new District Council members, including two from adjacent neighborhoods: Jordan Pang, another university student leader, who defeated DAB Vice Chairman Horace Cheung; and Cherry Wong, who captured a seat held by the DAB since 1994. 

Together, they plan to cooperate not only on traditional social services – such as planning day tours for the elderly and Chinese New Year festivities – but on creative improvements for the district.

Advancing his agenda of urban innovation, Mr. Leung will work closely with Ms. Wong on new ways to give breathing space to the beloved, more than century-old banyan trees whose exposed, vein-like roots cling to a broad stone wall in the neighborhood. He seeks to modernize recycling, to encourage cohabitation with the wild pigs that transit the area, and to oppose a giant land reclamation project that would disrupt a historic harbor-front pier.

Beyond the neighborhood, Mr. Leung says he’s receiving mentoring and training from established democratic parties and more experienced politicians.

He also plans to actively promote the pro-democracy movement that he says motivated him to run for office. “I won’t forget what we are fighting for,” he says. He will participate in protests – while trying to avoid arrest – and will step in to de-escalate any confrontations between police and demonstrators in his neighborhood. He also plans to donate a portion of his salary to a legal fund for protesters charged with rioting.

Aspiring to a long-term political career, Mr. Leung says his vision is to empower Hong Kong to break away from its dependence on superpowers and become “an active player on the international stage.” 

“We aren’t using our strength fully. Our imagination has been limited,” he says, taking a short break in a cafe over a mango smoothie. “We need to readjust our mindset, and think about the future of Hong Kong in a creative way.”

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