“Is this the office of Nathan Law? I live in Tin Wan estate, I need your help.”
A week after Hong Kong’s youngest-ever lawmaker was disqualified from his seat by the High Court, his office in Aberdeen received a request for assistance from a man living in the neighbouring district of Tin Wan. His Demosisto party later visited his home.
Since Law was elected last September, his staff and volunteers have invested heavily in serving the working-class community, most notably in the their battle against gentrification. The party has fought to prevent developers from turning the community shopping mall into an international school.
“Tin Wan has always been a place where independent pro-establishment candidates win district council seats automatically [for lack of competition],” said Demosisto community officer Tiffany Yuen, a fresh university graduate.
“I’ve heard that when people ask the councillor for help, they often get no reply,” she told HKFP. “They’re like orphans.”
Beyond the Legislative Council building, the consequences of the “Oathgate” court decision to oust four democratically-elected lawmakers has been to deal a severe blow to their ongoing community work and activism. Law, Lau Siu-lai, Leung Kwok-hung and Edward Yiu will no longer receive their HK$95,000 monthly salaries plus office and staff expenses. As a result, they have been forced to reduce the size and payroll of their teams.
The four may even be asked to return all their salaries and expenses to the legislature – as their two previously-ousted colleagues did. Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching were judged to have vacated their seats beginning on the day they failed to take their oaths of office: October 12, 2016.
But, despite the challenges, Law, Lau, Leung and Yiu have vowed to continue their work.
The long wait
None of the four lawmakers knew anything about their imminent fate until 24 hours before they were disqualified, when Oriental Daily broke the news on July 13 that Justice Thomas Au would announce a verdict at 3pm the following day.
Veteran lawmaker Leung had just pinned a job advertisement to the top of his Facebook page, seeking candidates to fill four vacancies: one organisation officer, one media officer and two community officers.
His incumbent organisation officer, 21-year-old Figo Chan, told HKFP that the League of Social Democrats (LSD) team were initially hesitant to hire staff because they did not know whether Leung would be ejected from the legislature. “We heard rumours it was going to be in April, so we didn’t hire anyone in April. Then came May and June and nothing happened.”
“In July, we couldn’t wait anymore – there’s no point wasting resources when we have vacancies… But as soon as we began hiring, we received news of the imminent verdict.”
Legislative newcomer Lau – known for her street lectures during the 2014 “umbrella movement” – had just been offered a retail unit by the Housing Department to serve as a community office.
“As soon as we made preparations to furnish it, she was disqualified,” her assistant Brandon Yau told HKFP. “I don’t know whether we were lucky or unlucky.”
Ordinary citizens once more, the four lawmakers are returning to a society that appears somewhat muted compared the one that elected them into office nine months ago. The scrum of journalists at the legislature on July 14 did not witness a repeat of the chaotic scenes when localists Yau Wai-ching and Baggio Leung were barred from re-taking their oaths last October. At 3pm that day, the disqualified four were attending a Finance Committee meeting, which was promptly suspended to allow them to leave.
Nine months earlier, Beijing’s retroactive interpretation of the Basic Law to clarify the content of oaths led to violence, with demonstrators occupying the streets outside the China Liaison Office. But a protest on the evening of July 14 saw no more than 1,000 people in attendance – prompting a Facebook apology from Demosisto’s Joshua Wong.
“The public has realised that the Sino-British Joint Declaration has been scrapped,” concluded renowned columnist Joseph Lian. “The traditional social movements no longer have energy, democracy is a faraway goal, and participation is waste of time.”
Unfortunately, the four disqualified lawmakers have no choice but to rely on the public’s monetary donations in order to remain active – at least until they can try to regain their seats in a by-election.
Among them, Leung, Law and Lau had been the sole legislators – or “breadwinners” – in their respective political parties: the LSD, Demosisto and Democracy Groundwork.
All three have now arranged for their staff to receive significant pay cuts, and allowed team members to leave on their own initiative. Last week, Law told HKFP that his office will require HK$100,000 per month in donations in order to continue working at its current scale.
“Three or four people departed,” said LSD officer Chan. “Some people are very kind and said they would continue to help without pay… But others must rent apartments or raise a family.”
Chan added that it was difficult for many of his colleagues to find external employment to supplement their income: “You can’t tell possibly tell [LSD Vice Chairman] Raphael Wong to find another job. How will he find one? He’s been in politics for so long. He has so many criminal records.”
“If you look at our members who are always on television, they are the ones who will find it difficult from now on.”
Inside the legislature, the July disqualifications mean that the pro-democracy camp will no longer be able to veto motions raised by pro-Beijing opponents. But in the wider society, a number of charities and non-governmental groups have also lost a significant source of support and a platform to voice their concerns.
For many years, Leung has been donating half of his salary to a “resistance fund” supporting grassroots activist groups such as the Concerning CSSA & Low Income Alliance – to the extent that he qualifies for public housing owing to his meagre personal assets.
Likewise, Lau pledged during her campaign to give away 50 percent of her salary – a promise she fulfilled beginning last November to the benefit of groups such as the Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association. All of this funding has now ceased.
During her nine-month tenure, Lau was also instrumental in reviving Hong Kong’s traditional street markets – considered a symbol of local identity. She chaired the legislature’s Subcommittee on Issues Relating to Bazaars, and persuaded the government to disclose data on suitable open spaces for street markets.
“We were thinking of conducting overseas visits to study bazaars and follow-up after the summer break,” said her assistant Yau. “But then we got disqualified… We thought we had a few meetings left, but now we can’t hold them.”
Demosisto’s Yuen told HKFP that although her party is frequently attacked by the pro-Beijing camp, lower-level government officials actually cooperated with Law’s team to deliver livelihood services to Southern district residents. These services included repairing traffic barriers and plumbing leaks – which may now be reduced following the loss of Law’s legislative platform.
“On the district level, we always had ample communication with the government,” she said. “Progress was slow, but I guess that’s because the government works slowly.”
In the two weeks that followed the disqualifications, the four lawmakers were ordered by the Lands Department to remove all of their political banners from their districts. They then busied themselves packing up and departing from their legislative offices.
Meanwhile, Hongkongers turned their attention towards the announcement of a controversial plan to implement mainland Chinese law within a checkpoint area at the West Kowloon terminus of the national high-speed rail system.
But community work and activism have not taken a back seat. On the Monday after Leung was disqualified, he returned to the legislature as a private citizen to call for better welfare on behalf of the Concerning CSSA & Low Income Alliance. The following week, Yuen and her Demosisto office attended a Southern District Council meeting on wheelchair access.
Yiu attended events in support of the soon-to-be-evicted villagers in Wang Chau. Lau’s deputy Napo Wong said he would continue to search for a suitable office within her Kowloon West constituency – even if it meant renting an industrial unit in Tai Kok Tsui.
“There’s no reason for us to give up on community work, even if we lack resources,” said Yuen. “In the past, we sent letters to the government in the name of legislator Nathan Law. Now, we tell the community there’s a risk that the government won’t reply quickly… But people told us they trust us anyway.”
“I was moved. People don’t think you’re useless just because you’ve lost your seat.”
The LSD’s Chan was equally adamant that “Long Hair” and his followers would not stop demonstrating against social injustice, even if fewer funds were available for producing and transporting leaflets and props. “Protests are the LSD’s speciality,” he said.
“Of course, I feel tired because so much has been happening… we haven’t had any rest since the Legislative Council elections,” he added. “But what I appreciate about the LSD is that no matter how many or few people, or how little media coverage there is, [its members] will keep coming out [to protest].”
A period of transformation
For Yuen, nine months of work has earned Demosisto the support of the Southern district community. On the day of Law’s disqualification, members of the public began a crowdfunding campaign on their own initiative to keep his Aberdeen office open.
“In just a few days, they raised over HK$10,000, enough for our rent this coming month,” she said.
Within a week, the Justice Defence Fund – launched by the Professional Teachers Union to crowdfund the lawmakers’ legal fees – also raised HK$1 million, a fifth of its ultimate target.
Yau, Yuen and Chan all told HKFP they would stay on to work full-time with their parties despite the disqualification of their only lawmakers and substantial pay cuts.
“I’ve thought about [leaving], and giving my position to someone else who is willing to take the responsibility,” admitted the LSD’s Chan. “But I’m still young, and don’t have too much [financial] responsibility, while others might need to raise a family and rent a house.”
“If I say I’m resigning, it’s very unfair to the party,” he added. “Everyone’s been so busy.”
Lau’s assistant Yau has a long-term perspective to the difficulties faced by the ousted lawmakers. For him, street-level public participation in Hong Kong’s democracy movement is not dead – but simply undergoing a period of transformation.
“I first started getting involved in protests during the campaign against building the high-speed rail [in 2010],” he said. “The government built it anyway.”
“But [the campaign] gave birth to ideas about conservation and sustainable development, and [these ideas] are still here.”
“We have to remember that since the 1990s, when most legislative seats were opened up for popular election… we seem to have taken for granted that – apart from the functional constituencies – Hong Kong’s legislature has inherently been fair and just.”
“But it’s not. We’re up against a powerful dictatorial regime.”