As the world’s largest parliament gathers in Beijing this week to place its rubber stamp on China’s next five-year plan, combatting localism in Hong Kong is clearly on the agenda.

Indeed, prior to the annual meeting of the 2,943 members of the National People’s Congress, Chinese officials had already raised the double spectre of separatism and terrorism in a not-so-veiled threat to localist groups such as Hong Kong Indigenous and Civic Passion.

The Great Hall of the People, where the National People’s Congress takes place. Photo: Wikicommons.

In the wake of Hong Kong Indigenous candidate Edward Leung Tin-kei’s strong showing in last week’s New Territories East by-election, what then can the future of localism be in Hong Kong?

It’s quite possible that the central government’s harsh reaction to the violence in Mong Kok on the first night of the Lunar New Year had a goading effect on voters that served to increase support for Leung, a 24-year-old philosophy major at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) who garnered an impressive 66,524 of the 432,581 votes cast and is now being hailed as the new young face of the politics of protest in Hong Kong.

Mong Kok riots. Photo: HKFP.

Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu, representing the pro-democracy Civic Party, won the by-election—triggered by the resignation of the party’s co-founder, Ronny Tong Ka-wah— with 37.2 percent of the vote, and Holden Chow Ho-ding of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong took second with 34.8 percent.

In the short term, all the by-election did was maintain the status quo in the Legislative Council, with—thanks to Yeung’s victory—the pan-democrats holding their crucial one-seat advantage (and thus veto power) over pro-establishment lawmakers representing the geographical constituencies.

Edward Leung and Alving Yeung, a rising star in the civic party, shaking hands. Photo: Apple Daily.

In the long run, however, Hong Kong politicians on all sides will be scrambling to determine the impact of Leung’s brash arrival on the city’s electoral stage.

Although Leung did not come close to winning a Legco seat, his third-place finish certainly represents a moral victory for Hong Kong Indigenous and other localist groups whose independence manifestos are anathema to the Chinese leadership and their representatives in Hong Kong.

It raises the uncomfortable question: Will there come a day when advocates of localism—and the tinge of violence and intolerance often associated with the movement—actually sit in the Legco chamber calling for Hong Kong to become an independent city-state?

Meanwhile, we are also left to wonder about the inevitability of another Mong Kok and how the central government and Hong Kong authorities will react—or overreact— to this perceived threat.

The fact is, localism as a banner for violence and blind opposition to everything and everyone connected to the mainland has no future in Hong Kong, and the aftermath of Leung’s big splash in the by-election has already demonstrated this point.

Leung supporters interviewed after casting their ballots did not pump their fists and call for a repeat of Mong Kok. Rather, they spoke of how they had used the power of the ballot box to impart their worries and fears that what makes Hong Kong so special as a city in China—its rule of law, freedom of expression, clean government and constitutional promise of a democratic future—is slipping away while the city’s putative leaders do little to resist the outgoing flow.

A sign at the New Territories East by-election. File photo: Chantal Yuen/HKFP.

They also expressed their frustrations with the more established pan-democratic parties and their traditional marches and street protests, now dismissed as ineffective. But there was little enthusiasm for violence.

Yeung, a 34-year-old barrister who offered legal assistance to some of those involved in the Mong Kok unrest, was clearly attuned to localist sentiments during and after the campaign, literally reaching out to shake Leung’s hand and expressing his admiration and respect for his opponent.

Yeung and other savvy pan-dems understand the quixotic pull of localist ideals in the present climate, especially for the young, who feel they are being robbed of their future.

They see localism on the rise at the city’s universities, student unions at three of which—HKU, Chinese University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology—having now taken pro-localist stances while the Baptist University student union is poised to do the same as the only candidate standing to be its next president is a self-described localist.

Hong Kong University Students’ Union building. Photo: WikiCommons

None of these student organisations is advocating violence, however, or insisting on independence from China. Theirs is a more flexible brand of standing up for the ideals that distinguish Hong Kong from the mainland.

The trick going forward is how to parlay this youthful, romantic desire to save Princess Hong Kong from the evil Beast across the border into a positive political force.

It can and must be done—but first and foremost this requires the outright rejection of all the brick-throwers and “locust” haters. That’s the ugly, violent fringe element of localism, which the vast majority in Hong Kong does not and will not support.

But many will endorse non-violent efforts—both traditional and non-traditional—to safeguard this city’s Cantonese culture and core values.

Just look at recent events: The copyright bill—labeled “Internet Article 23” after the doomed national security legislation that could not break through a 500,000-strong protest wall 13 years ago—is now dead; not a single brick was thrown.

A banner at a rally against the controversial copyright bill. Photo: HKFP.

Looking to the future, again in the absence of violence, there may well be a big, embarrassing HK$70 billion hole in the ground in West Kowloon instead of an unwanted, unneeded terminus for the most expensive stretch of railway never built.

Even if the government manages to circumvent its Legco opposition and salvage this lavish sop to Beijing, the message has been sent and everyone sees the wayward project for what it is.

There are so many other ways to shake up Beijing’s world.

Let’s take localism away from the haters and give it to those who truly love and want to preserve what is special about Hong Kong.


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.