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Hong Kong's District Champions

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

How Hong Kong’s Lowliest Politicians Turned Into Its Champions of Freedom

[This article appeared in Tell Us Daily, 3 February 2021, New York Times 2 February 2021]

HONG KONG — Some days, Cathy Yau wanders down darkish alleys searching for rats to poison. Different days, she helps meal banks ship meals to older individuals. Typically her cellphone rings with calls from constituents: neighbors asking about their rights throughout a police stop-and-frisk, or find out how to navigate the town’s welfare paperwork.

Such is life for a Hong Kong district councilor.

“I do issues that no person’s directed you to do, however which nobody else would do if I didn’t,” she stated.

Ms. Yau, a 37-year-old former police officer, is among the many pro-democracy candidates who had been elected to local government offices in Hong Kong in November 2019 on a wave of anti-establishment sentiment that adopted months of street protests.

Because the local political weather in Hong Kong has quickly modified, the councilors’ advocacy for the Chinese language territory’s fragile democratic establishments has made them the newest goal of Communist Social gathering officers in Beijing. In current months, about 50 of the town’s 392 opposition councilors have been arrested on [their] expenses associated to the 2019 protests, marketing campaign funds and violations of a contentious anti-sedition regulation.

For the reason that passage in June of the national security law — laws that grants Beijing broad powers to crack down on political crimes in Hong Kong — pro-democracy activists have been surveilled and arrested. In November, Beijing pressured the ouster of 4 elected pro-democracy lawmakers from the city’s major legislative council, a purge that prompted the remainder of the opposition to resign en masse.

The job of district councilor, the bottom rung of public workplace opportunities in Hong Kong, was by no means a very political place. Councilors usually tended to mundane neighborhood issues like pest management and the placement of new bus stops. Now, they’re the final line of protection in keeping the town’s pro-democracy opposition alive. And Beijing doesn’t plan to make it straightforward.

“When the opposition walked out of the legislature, the district councils grew to become one of many final remaining establishments that might voice public pursuits,” stated Edmund Cheng, an affiliate professor of public coverage on the Metropolis College of Hong Kong. “What occurs to them will put into check Hong Kong’s resilience as a pluralistic society and the way it’s ruled.”

Since taking over their posts 12 months ago, many district councilors have sought to redefine the workplace — with combined outcomes. They’ve boycotted conferences with senior officers, accused the town’s police chief of mendacity and extracted information concerning the surveillance infrastructure of their neighborhoods. In reverse, authorities representatives have staged walkouts when the councilors tried to debate political points at conferences.

Next month, for the first time, all 452 district councilors will have to swear a loyalty oath, a new requirement under the national security law and the latest test for the remaining elected opposition leaders.

Some pro-establishment district councilors have grown impatient with the pro-democracy bloc’s techniques. “In the event that they refuse to speak with the central government, are they nonetheless finishing up their duties?” requested Frankie Ngan, a pro-Beijing councilor. “I’m uncertain.”

The marketing campaign of the pro-democracy councilors that tackled the central government underscores the way that right now in Hong Kong everything — from sustaining the street culture to accumulating rubbish — is political.

Ms. Yau, the district councilor, works out of a cluttered workplace within the downtown district of Causeway Bay, a stone’s throw from Victoria Park. Within the early days of the 2019 protests, she patrolled the neighborhood as a police officer. That June, Ms. Yau watched as a sea of protesters calling for democracy and police accountability streamed before her, shouting: “Corrupt cops! Corrupt cops!”

At the time, Ms. Yau thought to herself: “This isn’t who I’m. And if I didn’t have to work, I feel I’d be marching with you.” Because the police cracked down on the protesters that summer time, she resigned, feeling disillusioned.

Although barricades haven’t been seen on the streets of Causeway Bay for more than 12 months, the space nonetheless bears the scars of the protests. Holes within the pavement left as demonstrators removed bricks to throw at the police have been filled with concrete, making a patchwork of crimson and grey. The streets remain devoid of trash cans after the authorities hauled them away when protesters used them to construct roadblocks. Ms. Yau lobbied to have the trash cans returned, and the HK government swapped them with much less imposing plastic bags.

Leung Ming-yu, a Causeway Bay resident who sells backpacks at a neighborhood road market, stated his expectation that district councilors prioritize serving residents’ on a regular basis over political engagement. However, he additionally stated he was disenchanted to see some establishment-backed officers “appearing as yes-men” and approving costly government projects that didn’t profit the neighborhood.

“After all it’s a great factor to have a really competent councilor who can resolve all of our issues,” Mr. Leung stated. “However we wish [to have] a real councilor, so we really feel like now we have the next degree of participation.”

Ms. Yau stated she had tried to walk the path between striving for democracy and ensuring that she will be able to survive to work another day for her constituents. In consequence, she has shied away from extra delicate political points. When a gaggle of fugitive Hong Kong activists had been captured at sea and held for 12 months by the mainland authorities — a case that touched a raw nerve within the metropolis — she left the work to different lawmakers who had the institutional standing and sources to advocate for the activists’ rights in custody.

Regardless of the divisions between the pro-democracy and pro-establishment camps, Ms. Yau stated she deliberately opts to concentrate on the small but common platforms the two camps nonetheless share.

“Regardless of our clashes with the authorities within the council conferences, we nonetheless have to work with authorities and their departments on a regular basis,” she stated. “I simply hope to work on issues that the authorities suppose make sense and that truly profit the neighborhood.”

[Additional Editing by Jeremiah B.]

Ms. Yau at a Lunar New Year event at a Hong Kong market 2020, days before the city’s first confirmed coronavirus infection. Credit...Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Ms. Yau at her office at Causeway Bay. She represents the district where she previously worked as a police officer. Credit...Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

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