Two groups of people took position on opposite sides of East Point Road, one of the busiest streets in Causeway Bay. Above them, a giant TV screen outside the SOGO shopping complex played commercials and a promotional clip for the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s Handover.
One group which assembled last Saturday, outside an MTR exit, was made up of three uniformed police officers. They set up a camcorder on a tripod, pointed directly at the two women and two men on the other side of the street.
Under the eye of law enforcement and their camera, some passers-by chose to watch the four from afar. Others accepted the publication they were handing out – the 58th issue of Disobedience, a regular publication from one of Hong Kong’s last active pro-democracy groups, the League of Social Democrats (LSD).
The latest edition consisted of a mere four pages printed in black and white. The LSD’s street booth was also low-key – there were no flags or donation boxes, and a banner was left furled and hidden under the table.
But a black-clad woman in front of the booth, a microphone in one hand and a copy of Disobedience in the other, was unfazed by the police presence. Chan Po-ying, the current leader of the LSD, kept her voice calm.
With the recent issue, the 66-year-old told HKFP she wanted to publicise developments in the city’s human rights situation and civil society, as Hong Kong headed towards its 25th Handover anniversary on July 1.
“We don’t want there to be only one narrative in society, singing praise and papering over the cracks,” she said.
Last protesters of Hong Kong
For years since 2003, street protests were a staple part of the Handover anniversary. The busy Causeway Bay street was a stage for various political parties and civil groups to make their voices heard.
But almost 60 civil society groups have folded since Beijing’s sweeping national security legislation came into force in June 2020. Among them was the Civil Human Rights Front, once a main organiser of the traditional July 1 march.
Many prominent pro-democracy figures, including a founding member of the LSD and Chan’s husband “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, became entangled in the city’s new red lines and ended up behind bars.
Two years after the law came into force, the LSD is the only pro-democracy group that still rallies on the street. Its members are seen by many as the “last protesters” in Hong Kong.
Even they had to refrain from protesting on July 1 this year, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited the city. Some members were summoned by national security police for a meeting three days before the anniversary, while on Wednesday, the homes of several LSD members were reportedly searched.
“The situation is difficult, [I] cannot give more details,” Chan told reporters. It was the first time for the LSD not to hold any protest on the Handover anniversary.
Founded in 2006, the LSD has long been seen as a relatively radical branch of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp. Members were not shy of using force, such as throwing objects at government officials and engaging in physical clashes with police or security guards.
HKFP met Chan and Avery Ng, who headed the LSD between 2016 and 2020, at the group’s office two days before it set up its street booth.
The group’s headquarters is located in an industrial building in Cheung Sha Wan. There is no shortage of loudhailers or protest banners, but books dominate the space.
After LSD founding member Leung lost his status as a legislator in 2016, the group had to find space for the hundreds of books he had accumulated in his Legislative Council office.
But Leung had little time to enjoy his collection. “Now he’s inside [prison]; its a pity,” Ng said.
Ng, dressed in a black T-shirt and dark shorts, told HKFP that while the group might appear “very radical” or even “very excited” on screen, its every action was planned ahead.
“We… all calculated clearly how much [risks] we could bear, and where to draw the line,” the 45-year-old said.
But Ng admitted that drawing the line has become more difficult. People could be charged with sedition or even with national security offences merely for chanting slogans.
They might even be penalised for setting up street booths. A court recently fined Chan and three other members between HK$800 and 1,200 each for collecting donations without prior approval from authorities.
As legal risks became harder to assess, Chan and Ng said their main consideration was no longer about potential consequences, but what they believe in.
Chan said one of the LSD’s core ideas was civil disobedience. “We very much value our basic rights of expression and assembly,” she said. ”Whenever the government cracks down on these fundamental rights, we will resist.”
This belief, said Chan and Ng, was part of the group’s DNA.
But in order to survive in the current political atmosphere, Chan said the LSD had to adjust its activist strategy.
“The LSD is not all about ramming forward,” she said. But even with a toned-down approach, core principles can be preserved.
“Even with a very small, mild action, such as going out on June 4th… to be in everyone’s sight, this to some extent is indeed a form of resistance,” Chan added.
Going forward, Ng said the LSD – and civil society as a whole – will have to get used to the new legal boundaries. “In some sense, you are risking it all to go around blindly, and you will get caught when you are unlucky,” he added.
Apart from potential legal consequences of their actions on the street, the LSD faces a series of other challenges. Manpower and cash are in short supply, with none of the donations that used to flow in during large-scale demonstrations. The LSD must also work harder to publicise its ideas since there are fewer media outlets to cover their actions.
According to Chan, their resources are only enough to last until the end of this year.
“Obviously current conditions are increasingly difficult. Therefore we have to think about how to survive,” Ng said.
For comrades behind bars
Maintaining an active street presence and keeping the LSD alive is not just a personal mission for Chan and Ng – it is something they do for their comrades behind bars.
Chan still vividly remembers the words of Figo Chan – a member of the LSD and the former convenor of the now-defunct Civil Human Rights Front – before he went to jail. “When I come out, please don’t lose the organisation already!”
She hopes members and friends will still be able to gather under the LSD’s roof once they finish their jail terms.
Leung Kwok-hung and Jimmy Sham, former members of the LSD’s administrative committee, are in custody awaiting trial on national security offences, along with other prominent pro-democracy figures, for their participation in an opposition primary in July 2020. Figo Chan and Leung are also serving time in prison for protest-related cases.
Ng said that when they are finally released, it will be comforting for them to learn that people are still standing their ground. “In fact, right now… if you stand your ground and don’t back off, you are already nailing it.”
Ng completed his own sentence of 14.5 months less than two months ago. He said he was able to stay positive and use the time to read and write. “To some extent, you could say I took a rest.”
However, Ng said he knew that people facing a much lengthier sentence would think differently.
“Being in there long enough, they would know it is useless to think much [about the outside world],” Ng said. “All these thoughts are irrelevant to you.”
“You would still have to queue for your meals, and you would still need to go to bed when the lights go off at 10 o’clock sharp.”
Those facing a long sentence, or without a release date, are living in the moment to try to keep their spirits up, Ng said. “At the very least, if their friends, family, sons and daughters are all right, that will be good enough already.”
Comrades in arms
Leung Kwok-hung is one detainee facing an uncertain future. The case against him and 46 other democrats is still awaiting trial, even though they were first detained in February last year. A majority of the 47 have been denied bail.
Leung has also been sentenced to 22 months over a separate protest case. To make it easier to support him, he and Chan decided to register as a married couple after he was first arrested by national security police in January 2021 and briefly released on bail.
For years, the pair had been “comrades in arms,” which according to Chan meant “more than friends and more than lovers.” They had not married earlier because they saw matrimony as a prop for the status quo and private ownership, as well as oppressive to women.
“If he wasn’t facing imprisonment, we would not think about marriage,” Chan said.
For most of Chan’s life, she was happy to play a supporting role. Yet in July last year, she had no choice but to take over the leadership of the LSD and bear all the attendant responsibilities and risks because other prominent figures in the party were either in prison or about to be.
If Chan ends up in jail as well, it will be much harder for the two to see each other. But all Leung said when Chan went to visit him and asked his opinion was that she should “take care.”
A vessel only
Although the LSD keeps striving to make its voice heard, members know they are not making much of a difference.
Under the current curbs on public gatherings, a maximum of four people can gather on the street holding protest slogans and chanting. “Therefore in a practical sense, it is not too meaningful,” Ng said.
After all, Ng said, the LSD and Hongkongers as a whole are in a very passive position because power is not in their hands. Nevertheless, he is not concerned the party could be the last remaining voice of protest in the city.
“Everyone has to remember: any organisation or political party, just like what Long Hair always said in the past, is nothing but a vessel… holding together people with common ideas,” he said.
Both Chan and Ng believe that individuals, as well as other civil groups, will always find a way to join forces and express their views, even when faced with the new social norms and pressures.
Whenever the distribution of resources is unjust, there will be social conflicts, and whenever there is a conflict, there will be opposition voices, Chan told HKFP.
Ng said currently the LSD is holding on as much as it can, “hoping that we won’t immediately die from suffocation when they start to strangle you…”
“So we keep on wheezing and squeezing in one or two more breaths while we can.”