Pro-democracy campaigner Finn Lau, who coined one of the bleakest but best-known slogans of last year’s unrest, has one especially strong memory from his schooldays.
It was 1999, two years after the handover, and a primary school teacher was telling students about Beijing’s now-breached promise to keep Hong Kong’s way of life unchanged for 50 years.
Lau, then aged six, raised his hand to ask the teacher: “What happens after 50 years?”
There was a dead silence.
Lau invented the concept of “laam caau” (攬炒 or mutual destruction), a phrase which expresses a willingness by protesters to exhaust all means, even at the cost of sacrifice, to bring about justice or damage the government.
“If we burn, you burn with us” – a line from the dystopian Hunger Games movie series – was what the then-anonymous Lau used as a sign-off for a dozen of his posts on Hong Kong’s Reddit-like LIHKG online forum.
The term went viral and reflected a mentality in which protesters no longer seek to patch up holes in the system or approach democratisation from within that system. Instead, they are inclined to seek the dismantlement of a fundamentally flawed government in hopes of a rebirth.
“Phoenixism” is what the 27-year-old suggested in one of his voice recordings. “We would rather live freely and burn, than be subjugated and diminished. We are Hongkongers. ‘Reclaim Hong Kong. Revolution of our Times’,” he said.
Lau, who lived in Britain during last year’s protests and is still there, was listed as wanted by Hong Kong police in August under Hong Kong’s draconian national security law, the day after pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai was arrested under the same law.
The city-wide demonstrations and unrest began in June last year when the government tried to push through an extradition bill. Protests against it soon developed into a large-scale and sometimes violent pro-democracy movement.
The day after the first march, which saw over one million participants according to organisers, Lau joined a demonstration in London.
He drafted a post on LIHKG under the name “I want Laam Caau”, calling for the cancellation of foreign passports held by families of top government officials. The “laam caau” concept soon snowballed into several variations of protest tactics.
But Lau never had high hopes that things would change. He had lived through the 2012 protests against government-imposed national education, the 2014 Umbrella Movement demanding universal suffrage, the 2016 Fishball movement and the first elections that brought two localist politicians into the legislature. They were ousted in just 12 days for refusing to take their oaths correctly.
“I had zero hopes for universal suffrage or a change in the system,” Lau told HKFP, explaining the underlying rationale for his “mutual destruction” strategy – which found support among many Hongkongers.
But he never expected to get more than 1,000 responses overnight to his first LIHKG post. Throughout the year-long protests, in collaboration with groups such as “Stand with Hong Kong,” he organised dozens of assemblies overseas, raised funds for front-page newspaper ads ahead of the G20 Summit and urged the international community to sanction the Hong Kong and China governments.
“Laam Caau” became a keyword in the glossary of Hong Kong protests but pro-Beijing lawmakers hit back at the concept.
“Why do you want Laam Caau? asked Priscilla Leung and members of her party in a music video on Facebook in June. “Why do you want to destroy? Hong Kong has already been broken to bits. We have lost everything.”
In October last year, Chief Executive Carrie Lam was asked by reporters if she was the “Mother of Laam Caau” – as some protesters suggested that the government initiated and prompted the mutual destruction mentality.
Lam said the protesters’ only agenda was to smash everything without advocating for any specific topic. “They just want Hong Kong to wilt and therefore they destroy Hong Kong,” she said.
Lau could have taken another path. He worked for two years after graduating from university, passed the surveyor’s examination, moved to Singapore in early 2018 and then to London early the following year. Although born and raised in Hong Kong, he wanted to see the world.
“During my first internship in my year one summer, I realised that the construction industry is too dependent on and inclined towards China,” he said, describing the professional frustration which prompted him to leave Hong Kong.
He was mostly based overseas throughout the pro-democracy movement but returned for the New Year demonstration this year, when he was arrested for unlawful assembly as police rounded up 400 people in Causeway Bay. During his 48-hour detention at a police station, Lau was fearful that his Laam Caau identity would be revealed.
“If they had discovered who I was within 48 hours or if anything matched with their ongoing investigation, I might have been sent directly to China or disappeared forever,” Lau said. “I thought it was possible.”
He left Hong Kong immediately after his release and returned to Britain, where he has a career and family. “Even if there is the slightest chance of survival, I should seize it and give back,” he thought.
Months later on the streets of London, Lau was assaulted by three people. In a voice recording he released shortly after the attack, he said he was facing death threats as someone had offered up to a million dollars to kill him.
Even though he was a significant strategist in the protests, Lau has always been careful about when and how to weigh in on public discussions.
“I always feel like treading on thin ice. If the people do not understand nor support me, I am nothing,” he said.
“Labels and tags are quite meaningless. But of course we should have based our solidarity on common goals,” he said. “It is only meaningful when people come together with a principle.”