“Your Honour, I have nothing to be ashamed of and no remorse for what I did on that day.”

With those bold words spoken in a courtroom last month, Raphael Wong, former leader of the League of Social Democrats (LSD), made it clear that he was not about to compromise his beliefs to catch a break from the judge after pleading guilty to organising an unauthorised assembly in 2019.

Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“The true and frequent violence is the kind of violence that ignores people’s demands, that tramples on their opinions, that deprives them of their right to express themselves,” the activist told HKFP in May.

Wong pumped his fist in the air as he filed into the courtroom on Wednesday with six other democrats already serving time for other charges. Appearing defiant, relaxed, even nonchalant, Wong settled into a seat in the defendant’s dock alongside two of his fellow LSD colleagues, Leung Kwok Hung and Figo Chan.

You’re going to become like the Monkey King wearing the monk’s magic gold ring on his head. You’re finished as soon as he utters the spell.

Raphael wong

As Hong Kong’s opposition navigates a new normal in which routes of political expression have been blocked and even closed off completely by legal sanctions, the courtroom has become one of the few remaining public platforms available to the city’s embattled pro-democracy camp.

This May, Wong – himself out on bail and facing a series of protest-linked charges – hurried in and out of a courtroom as 10 democrats waited in turn to deliver mitigation pleas to a judge after pleading guilty to organising a protest.

In his hand was a stack of handwritten paper, the mitigation plea about to be personally delivered by fellow party member Figo Chan.

Two other LSD veterans, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-Hung and Avery Ng, delivered personal submissions through their lawyers the same day. Wong made sure all the reporters in the courtroom received copies of each statement.

“I pleaded guilty, but I admit no wrongdoing,” was the opening sentence in Leung’s submission.

File photo: LSD via Facebook.

Wong believes using mitigation pleas as political statements can help seize back the narrative and get activists’ voices heard. It is also their responsibility and calling, he said.

“What we call the ‘judicial struggle’ is that we won’t just deliver our mitigation pleas,” Wong told HKFP. “We will express what we think. The judge won’t like what we say during mitigation, but we have to do it because this is our responsibility. I will do the same when it is my turn.”

“This is like daring the ghosts to come take my life,” Wong added, referring to the fact that such “politicised” pleas in mitigation might even provoke a judge to give them a harsher sentence.

Wong rose to public prominence when he threw a box of fish and corn rice at former chief executive Donald Tsang. The takeaway lunchbox fell to the floor in the chaos of a protest scrum, so Wong grabbed a handful of rice from the ground and tried to chase after Tsang and his security detail, yelling: “Do you know how much rice costs?”

The Monkey King

The League of Social Democrats is a pro-grassroots socialist party. Since its 2006 founding, it developed a three pronged strategy for advancing its political and policy aims: delaying or blocking votes in the legislature, using court cases to challenge the law and taking to the streets in protest.

Police hold down a protester during Xi Jinping’s visit in 2017. File Photo: LSD.

For now, the legislative struggle is “finished,“ Wong said. LSD was the first pro-democracy party to declare it will not participate in legislative elections, after Beijing imposed an overhaul of the system that cut the number of democratically elected seats and required candidates to be nominated by people from an election committee dominated by pro-establishment figures.

“I have no issue with participating in a limited election, or even one with political selection,” he said. “But to beg these assholes for nominations?” Requiring candidates to seek nominations from opposing camps will inevitably lead to deals and conditions they cannot accept, Wong said.

“You’re going to become like the Monkey King wearing the monk’s magic gold ring on his head. You’re finished as soon as he utters the spell,” he said, referring to the Chinese tale Journey to the West. In the tale, an intelligent yet rebellious monkey was forced into obedience by a monk who placed a gold band around his head that tightened and caused him immense pain whenever the monk said the magic words.

‘Political pioneers’

Wong said he believed the LSD used to be a party of “political pioneers,” using all sorts of catchy gimmicks in street protests and raucous tactics in the legislature that were not acceptable to traditional democrats.

“Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung dressed up as a Chinese empress. File Photo: LSD via Facebook.

Besides Wong’s well-known lunchbox incident, the LSD has mounted other unusual and theatrical protests. The party members marched in a 2011 protest with a prop coffin, calling for justice for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. It was destroyed by a group of thugs that crashed the event.

In recent times, their protests have become less rowdy. Under current Covid-19 restrictions, LSD members are only able to hold miniature protests in groups of four. Despite this precaution, they were handed a 14-day suspended sentence in March for breaching social gathering rules during a protest with eight people who walked in two groups 1.5 metres apart.

When top Beijing officials travelled to Hong Kong to host a closed-door consultation session on the electoral overhaul, Wong and three LSD members were the only protesters near the venue. Police stood closely beside them and the protest ended without fanfare.

LSD members Chan Po-ying (left), Raphael Wong (second right), and Avery Ng (right). File Photo: LSD via Facebook. Photo: LSD via Facebook.

Facing the new political realities, Wong believes LSD members should focus on local affairs and cultivate connections in civil society through hyper-local platforms like residential building committees, unions and other trades, and district groups.

“We don’t have to be highly politicised, battling and shouting everyday, as long as we have the connection,” he said. For now, Hongkongers need to “retreat from the political front” without becoming completely apolitical. Instead, they need to maintain their communities and networks and stay patient, Wong said. Future activists and political talents will emerge when the time comes again.

Political vacuum

Wong’s optimism is remarkable, considering the circumstances. Nearly the entire top leadership of the LSD is currently in jail. Leung, Ng and Chan are serving jail time for unauthorized assembly charges, while Jimmy Sham is in remand on NSL charges related to the 2020 pan-Democratic primary election. Wong himself was imprisoned three times prior to 2019, which makes him a “veteran” compared to the other pan-democrats put behind bars for the first time in the wake of anti-China extradition bill protests.

Raphael Wong’s t-shirt was printed with US civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote, “only in the darkness can you see the stars.” The 16 stars represented the number of young activists jailed over 2014 protests. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

“The hardest part will be not being able to see my wife,” he said. “Even though I know I’m wrong, I still worry that she will not be able to take care of herself.”

Wong said he planned to make video instructions showing his wife how to use a vacuum cleaner before going to jail during the interview in May. “I don’t want her to suffer,” he said.

“That’s just how prisoners are like. You don’t want to suffer yourself, and you feel guilty for making those come visit you suffer.”

At the end of Wednesday’s hearing, Wong was handed a 14-month sentence. “Tell my wife that I love her,” he said, before the guards hustled him out of the defendant’s dock and took him off to begin his fourth prison term.

Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.