Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing says it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation, but it seems more like that dying flame is being snatched from her grasp as her political currency weakens and an angry younger generation asserts its claim to Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

While Lau has announced that, after 25 years as a legislative councillor, she will not be running for re-election in 2016, she insists that she is not being forced out of politics by disgruntled members of her splintered party; it is evident, however, that she sees the writing on the wall.

Emily Lau. Photo: Stand News.

Lau and her sixty- and seventy-something pan-democratic colleagues are now perceived as too old, tired and moderate for a rising younger generation of voters.

Indeed, does anyone under 25 even remember Democratic Party founder Martin Lee Chu-ming, now 77 and wallowing in irrelevance?

Even as he advances in age, Lee has continued his globe-trotting to Western capitals with pleas for support for democracy in Hong Kong. But those entreaties mostly fall on deaf ears in Washington, London and Ottawa—where the interests of tiny Hong Kong are smothered by concerns over maintaining good relations with Beijing—and are also ignored by young people in Hong Kong who have grown impatient with what they see as the fruitless campaign for democratic reform spearheaded by old warhorses like Lee and Lau for the past three decades.

Martin Lee. File photo: HKFP.

It was, remember, this younger generation, led by university and secondary students, who spilled into the streets in September of 2014 as police blasted tear gas in their faces, starting the 79-day Umbrella Revolution. Elders, including Lau and Lee, would later join them, but it was clear as the protests unfolded that their time had passed and that a more radicalised youth movement had transformed them from icons to relics in Hong Kong’s quest for democracy.

The irony must have been painful for Lau, once the darling young radical of her own generation. True, she did not throw fruit and other objects in the Legislative Council chamber; nor did she hurl profanity-laced insults, the hallmark of the crude clowns who pass for today’s Legco radicals.

Nevertheless, there has been no fiercer and more enduring proponent of democracy and human rights in Hong Kong and no more eloquent spokesperson for that cause.

Photo: StandNews.

Lau first made a household name for herself in 1984 when as a brash young reporter working for the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review she confronted Britain’s Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher at a news conference called to explain the Sino-British Joint Declaration that set up Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, asking the prime minister if it was “morally defensible” to “deliver over five million people into the hands of a communist dictatorship.”

Ever since, she has been a relentless champion for Hong Kong—butting heads with colonial governors and Beijing-backed chief executives alike.

In 1991, she was the first woman to be directly elected to Legco, launching a political career that would see her fully engaged on every major issue of her era—from her doomed Legco motion calling for right of abode for Hong Kong citizens in Britain after the handover to her determined opposition to Article 23, the proposed national security legislation that prompted a 500,000-strong protest in 2003, to her more recent and problematic support for the limited (and critics say meaningless) 2010 constitutional reform package, disagreement over which would split the pan-democrats into the bickering factions we still see today.

Once Legco’s most popular member, in 1996 she founded The Frontier, an aggressive, left-wing pro-democracy group born out of disenchantment with Lee’s more moderate Democratic Party, and continued to build a reputation as a political firebrand.

If at times Lau’s voice seemed shrill and her style confrontational, she also courageously refused to give an inch to the powerful and at times downright nasty forces arrayed against her. Her Shatin office has been splashed with faeces and attacked by arsonists; in addition, she has been labelled a “traitor” and banned from travel on the mainland and, more recently, to Macau.

Emily Lau.

Throughout her long political crucible, Hong Kong’s own Iron Lady never backed down.

In 2008, however, Lau would soften her stance (and lose a number of her more radical supporters) when she agreed to merge her Frontier group with the Democrats, and in 2012 she became chairperson of the party she had once shunned as too mainstream.

Now that the Democrats’ attempts to compromise and find common ground with Beijing have flopped and the city has entered its most politically divisive period since the handover, Lau sees her political fortunes sinking. Whereas she once coasted to landslide victories in her New Territories East constituency, she may not even win her seat if she were to seek re-election to an eighth term later this year.

It must have hurt her deeply to be booed this past December at a protest against the copyright bill that is currently languishing in Legco as today’s new radicals wield their favourite weapon, the filibuster, to paralyse the council’s business. She used to be at the adored centre of such demonstrations; here she was treated as a pariah.

In the eyes of the demonstrators, her sin was to not take part in the petty procedural legislative hijinks designed to stall and embarrass Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s administration at any cost. “No compromise” is their mantra, but too often “no progress” is their predictable result.

Emily Lau (left) . Photo: HKFP.

Still, as Lau admits, it’s time for new blood, new beginnings and new ideas.

Other pan-democratic heavyweights of the past such Albert Ho Chun-yan and Ronny Tong Ka-wah have also heard the generational bell toll and stepped aside during this past year. Tong quit the Civic Party that he co-founded and resigned from Legco after his efforts failed to produce a compromise in the city’s latest constitutional reform debacle, and Ho lost his Tuen Mun district council seat.

They, too, have called for a younger generation to join the political fray and pick up the leadership mantle for the pan-dems.

Meanwhile, however, as a once-revered older generation shuffles off stage in resignation and defeat, there are only feuding factions remaining to fill the void.

The current mess in the pan-dem camp can make one turn absolutely nostalgic for an exceptionally bright and articulate young woman who had the courage and the conviction to take on a British prime minister known as the Iron Lady.

Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the pre-Alibaba South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.