Two developments last week threw Hong Kong’s shifting political landscape into sharp relief—one a promising step into the future, the other an ugly regression to the past.

In the first instance, Scholarism—the student activist group that garnered international attention for derailing a government attempt to propagandise Hong Kong’s educational system as well as for the key role it played in the 79-day Occupy campaign—announced that it is suspending operations in order to form a new political party. The yet-to-be-named party hopes to field candidates in Legislative Council elections to be held in September.

Scholarism suspends operation.
Scholarism announces the suspension of its operation last week. Photo: Stand News.

That’s a breath of fresh political air for many Hong Kong voters, especially young ones, who are fed up with the failed politics of old and in search of new faces and new ideas.

One of the irrepressible avatars of those past failures, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, also made a news splash this week with her call for detention camps—modelled on those the colonial government built for Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s—to be constructed in Shenzhen for any foreigner who has the temerity to claim refuge in Hong Kong.

Ip, the city’s former security chief and founder of the pro-Beijing New People’s Party, has lots of bad ideas, but this one goes high on the list.

In 2003, you will recall, it was in good part Ip’s insistence on enacting Article 23 of the Basic Law, legislation that would have allowed Hong Kong citizens speaking out against the central government to be charged and detained for subversion, that inspired 500,000 demonstrators to fill the streets in protest.

Article 23 demonstration
Protest against Article 23 on July 1, 2003.

Not only was the bill subsequently shelved, but the massive turnout also forced Ip’s resignation as secretary for security in the Tung Chee-hwa administration and appeared to sound the death knell for her political career. Remarkably, however, she has, phoenix-like, risen again to win a seat in the Legislative Council and appointment to the Executive Council that advises the chief executive.

Moreover, although she has made no official announcement, it is painfully obvious that she has her eye set on the chief executive’s office—which may explain why she makes pandering, irresponsible and sometimes downright offensive statements time and time again.

Before her spectacular fall from grace 13 years ago, Ip made her views on democracy crystal clear when she remarked: “Adolf Hitler was returned by universal suffrage, and he killed 7 million Jews.”

Which, of course, is a false statement—Hitler was never democratically elected to anything.

Ip now claims to be a born-again democrat and even earned a master’s degree at Stanford University with an argument for full democracy in Hong Kong as her thesis; unfortunately, her mouth keeps betraying her recently acquired erudition.

Since her return to the Hong Kong political scene in 2007, Ip may have softened her image and reached out more sympathetically to the Hong Kong electorate, but her bottom line is still unquestioned fealty to the central government no matter the issue or circumstances at hand.

That was clear from her strong, unqualified opposition to Occupy Central, a movement demanding the very democracy she wrote about in her Stanford thesis.

More recently, she casually dismissed the seriousness of the case of Hong Kong’s missing booksellers, saying that anyone who so desires can evade border checkpoints to the mainland. Thus, the disappearance of Lee Po and the other four booksellers was nothing to be alarmed about.

regina ip
Regina Ip said about the case of Lee Po, “illegal exit is not a crime”.

And now she wants to build detention camps for refugees who claim to have been tortured in their home countries—an idea that is not only, as Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was quick to point out, impractical, but also heartless and cruel. As many of these claimants come from South Asia, however, why not say it anyway to exploit Hong Kong’s history of racism against people from the subcontinent?

Rather than dredging up ideas and antipathies better left in the past, enlightened Hong Kong voters want to focus on the future and, for the younger generation especially, the thorny question of what happens to the territory on June 30, 2047, when the Sino-British Joint Declaration expires along with, possibly, fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, assembly and the press.

That’s why Scholarism should be welcomed into the political fold.

Yes, when Joshua Wong Chi-fung founded the group in 2011, he and his small bunch of followers were all wearing school uniforms and ditching lessons to join protests against a proposed mandatory curriculum in moral and national education that they labeled as “brainwashing.

Joshua Wong.
Joshua Wong. File Photo: HKFP.

Widespread public support for their position eventually forced the government to stand down and make the program voluntary rather than compulsory.

A couple of years later, as the adult braintrust for Occupy Central dithered in their ivory towers, Wong and his group literally led the charge, launching a movement that would turn into a 79-day international advertisement for universal suffrage in Hong Kong and place his then 17-year-old face on the cover of Time magazine.

Meanwhile, as much of the world looked on in awe and admiration, Ip and her fellow Beijing loyalists derided the student occupiers for the inconvenience they were causing to businesses and commuters and for their lack of understanding of the real world of power and politics.

In the end, they smugly noted, after nearly three months of sloganeering and disruption, the students packed up their tents and protest banners and went home without receiving any of the concessions they demanded. Leung was applauded for “waiting them out” and the movement was deemed a failure.

But Occupy was only a failure if you see it as an isolated event, not as part of an ongoing process during which we watch Hong Kong’s younger generation come of age.

Scholarism’s decision to jump into the city’s red-hot political fire is just the latest sign of that.

LegCo. Photo: HKFP.

One has to laugh at the fact that the group’s two most prominent leaders, Wong and Agnes Chow Ting, are both 19 years old and thus do not qualify to run for a Legco seat, for which candidates must be at least 21. But they say that won’t stop them from promoting badly needed political reform while also organising a referendum on Hong Kong’s future beyond 2047.

Of course, they will once again be disparaged by the old guard as too callow and idealistic to join in the rough-and-tumble of realpolitik in Hong Kong. But every year they are getting older and wiser and, indeed, it won’t be too long before they or others like them will be sitting in the Legco chamber.

After all, it’s their future we are all arguing about.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the 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.