On July 1, 2012, Hong Kong’s third chief executive Leung Chun-ying took his oath of office after a campaign of unprecedented ferocity against rival Henry Tang.

The new Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying wipes his face during a speech at his inauguration ceremony in Hong Kong on July 1, 2012. Photo: Dale de la Rey/AFP.

In the lead-up to the small-group election, businessman Tang was hit with allegations of having fathered illegitimate children and building illegal structures underneath his Kowloon Tong mansion. But after Leung won, Ming Pao reported that his mansion faced the same problem.

Two weeks before the vote, Eastweek magazine reported that Leung and his supporters dined with rural strongmen, including some with triad links. Then in a televised debate, Tang cited Leung as saying in a government meeting that Hong Kong would one day suppress protests with riot police and tear gas. Leung rejected Tang’s accusation.

Three days after Leung won, an online profile from Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily briefly called him “comrade” – a reference to a party member – before removing the term. Leung denied an accusation by writer Leung Mo-han that he was a secret member of China’s ruling party.

For veteran journalist Ching Cheong, the warning bells had sounded. In an April 2012 column in the Hong Kong Economic Journal (HKEJ), he predicted that four things would happen to the city:

1) “Two Systems” would gradually become “One Country.” 2) The China Liaison Office would interfere in Hong Kong politics more regularly. 3) The city would become more ideologically-aligned with the mainland. 4) “Leftists” loyal to the party would infiltrate the governing cabinet.

The China Liaison Office, Beijing’s government organ in Hong Kong. File photo: HKFP.

On Friday, Leung will depart from office, leaving behind a very different Hong Kong to the one he took over five years ago. HKFP reflects on ten precedents – political events that the city had not witnessed since the 1997 handover – that were set during his tumultuous tenure.

February 7, 2013: The first time a chief executive threatened a media outlet with a defamation lawsuit.

Businessman Lew Mon-hung was originally a key supporter of Leung during his campaign, but fell out with him soon afterwards. In January 2013, he gave a 10-page interview to political gossip magazine iSun Affairs. He narrated his version of how the chief executive rose to power.

Outspoken columnist Joseph Lian seized upon the story, writing in the HKEJ that Leung should be disciplined by the Communist Party for his purported links to triads.

In an unprecedented move, Leung’s lawyers sent a letter to the HKEJ. They called Lian’s article defamatory, and asked for a retraction and apology. The outlet apologised – to its readers only – but refused to retract the piece. The chief executive did not take further action. Three years later, the HKEJ suddenly suspended Lian’s column. Lian speculated to Stand News that the Communist Party was making an example of him.

Joseph Lian. File photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

For current affairs radio host Li Wei-ling – also a victim of a recent high-profile dismissal – Leung has a totally different attitude towards the press compared with his predecessors.

“When I was a reporter before 1997, you could walk into the old government headquarters in Central anytime with your press pass,” she told HKFP. “The ministers had offices there. If they were free you could just knock on the door and chat with them.”

“For [first chief executive] Tung Chee-hwa, even if you were a talk show host like Commercial Radio‘s Albert Cheng, criticising him day and night, he would understand – that’s the role of the media in a civilised society.”

“But from the very beginning, Leung wants to eliminate you. He thinks you’re a cockroach, it’s an enmity… like his attitude towards the pro-democracy camp.”

Since then, Leung has also sent two legal warnings to Apple Daily, in September 2016 and February 2017 respectively. Li lamented: “Today, if he sends out a legal threat, it’s not even newsworthy.”

Li Wei-ling. File
October 12, 2014: The first time protesters gathered to prevent newspapers from being distributed.

While the feud between Leung and Lew played out in the media, pro-democracy protest movements brought hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers onto the streets. But since 2012, almost every protest has been accompanied by a counter-protest from the pro-Beijing camp.

The Youth Care Association – established only 13 days after Leung took office – staged daily protests in various locations across Hong Kong right beside those of the Falun Gong, which Beijing considers an “evil cult.” Brawls between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy protesters took place in Mong Kok during the Occupy movement. Pro-police groups regularly gather outside court to support officers accused of assaulting demonstrators.

See also: Protesters claim they were paid to attend pro-Beijing rally in support of China’s ruling on oath row

As a leading pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily has been a key target of pro-Beijing counter-protests. But in an unprecedented move, dozens laid siege to the publication’s Tseung Kwan O headquarters during Occupy on October 12, 2014. They stopped vehicles from exiting the complex and distributing the newspaper.

Protesters camped outside the Apple Daily headquarters on the night of October 12, 2014.

The following day, Apple Daily obtained a court injunction, banning protesters from surrounding the complex. But they stayed for another week. Knife-wielding men destroyed bundles of the newspaper as they were unloaded in Hung Hom. Three men threw animal entrails at owner Jimmy Lai, and protests outside his Ho Man Tin mansion continue regularly to this day.

As a former Apple Daily editor, radio host Li told HKFP that the newspaper stood out from fellow publications in rejecting self-censorship. She said self-censorship has been a trend since businessmen – especially mainlanders – began taking over from journalists like Jin Yong (Ming Pao) and Lam Hang-chi (HKEJ) as media owners in the 1990s.

“Thankfully, many front-line reporters do the best they can in this difficult environment,” she said. “Even in pro-Beijing newspapers, they publish what they can, even if just a single [critical] sentence.”

April 1, 2015: The first time a Hongkonger received political asylum overseas.

Guangzhou activist Yang Kuang was first imprisoned in mainland China in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. He came to Hong Kong in 1995, where he continued his activism.

But from 2011 onward, Yang travelled across the border on several occasions, only to be detained and imprisoned. He suspected he was being monitored in Hong Kong. His mainland-based wife Liu Shasha was also prevented from departing for the city to join the Occupy protests.

Liu Shasha (L) and Yang Kuang (R).

Liu decided to smuggle herself into Vietnam, where Yang joined her. But Hanoi detained the pair, threatening to send them into Chinese custody. They were eventually released into Cambodia, from where they travelled to Thailand. There, they received an offer of assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In February 2015, the UN recognised the pair as refugees. On April 1, 2015, the couple arrived in Vancouver, Canada. Yang told the now-defunct DBC radio station he was the first Hong Kong permanent resident to receive political asylum overseas since the handover.

July 30, 2016: The first time a candidate was banned from running in an election due to his political views.

“I’ve participated in social and political movements for 50 years, and I’ve never before seen the emergence of separatism,” veteran journalist Ching Cheong told HKFP.

But over the past decade, a mixture of local conservationism, Hong Kong-China tensions and street protests led some Hongkongers to a different conclusion. On March 28, 2016, Andy Chan announced the establishment of the Hong Kong National Party. “We advocate Hong Kong independence as the only way out for Hong Kong people,” he told reporters.

He planned to run in the legislative elections that September.

Andy Chan. File photo: iCable screencap via Stand News.

Two days before the nomination period began, the Electoral Affairs Commission announced it would ask all prospective candidates to sign an unprecedented declaration promising they understood Article 1 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution: “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China.” Like many opposition candidates, Chan refused.

On July 25, election officer Alan Lo emailed Chan a question, claiming that his answer would influence whether his nomination would be validated: “Do you still advocate and support Hong Kong independence?”

“I have complied with the legal requirements,” came the reply. “The political views I hold and advocate are a matter solely for the consideration of the voters in the constituency in which I propose to stand, not for you as the returning officer.”

On July 30, Chan became the first person to be disallowed from standing in a Hong Kong election due to his political views.

Four others were barred in the ensuing days: internet celebrity Nakade Hitsujiko, Shatin district councillor James Chan, Alice Lai – who advocates Hong Kong’s return to Britain, and localist figurehead Edward Leung.

Edward Leung. File photo: Cloud.

“The candidate cannot possibly comply with the requirements of the relevant electoral laws, since advocating or promoting ‘independence of the HKSAR’ is contrary to the content of the declaration,” said a government spokesperson regarding Chan’s case.

“There is no question of any political censorship, restriction of the freedom of speech or deprivation of the right to stand for elections.”

August 5, 2016: The first Hong Kong independence rally.

A week later, the five disqualified candidates gathered thousands of supporters outside Admiralty’s government headquarters in an unprecedented rally. “Hong Kong independence” was the call reverberating across Tamar Park, where two years ago, some of the same demonstrators had shouted “I want real universal suffrage.”

Chan told the crowd to infiltrate different sectors of society, becoming doctors, lawyers and officials: “Only if we study well can we build Hong Kong and govern it in the future.”

Hong Kong independence rally. Photo: Socrec.

A month later, secondary students across Hong Kong established pro-independence groups in their schools on the first day of the new academic year.

“The emergence of the pro-independence camp is a huge change, and it should be attributed to Leung and the Communist Party,” journalist Ching told HKFP.

Continue to Part II.

Elson Tong

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.