8 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 46 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK
Kong's top protester is suddenly . . . respectable
By YULANDA CHUNG Hong Kong
A rise in political radicalism is rattling tycoons and the government.
Will it damage the territory's business competitiveness?
leader Gloria Chang on why hidebound official attitudes are feeding
Activist vs. Tycoons
When it comes to burning effigies, Leung Kwok-hung probably could claim
a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Over the years, Hong Kong's
most visible protester has torched thousands of likenesses, carried
hundreds of mock coffins and been pictured frequently in the newspapers,
his fist pumping the air against a welter of perceived injustices. Local
democracy icon Martin Lee once likened Leung or "Cheung Mo" (Long
Hair), as he is popularly known to a canary in a cage. Just as
underground miners would use the birds as an early warning system for
deadly gases (if the canary died, it was time to leave), Lee urged Hong
Kongers to watch how authorities treated Leung.
But at a time when the local establishment seems increasingly concerned
about protest and radicalization of the public, it is treating Long
Hair pretty well. Perhaps it has no choice. In September, Leung, 44,
running as an independent candidate, very nearly succeeded in his first
bid to win a seat in the legislature. Now he has been asked to join
a government advisory committee on home affairs. The territory's two
biggest dailies and its top Internet newspaper carry his often-incendiary
columns. "I don't mind being part of the establishment," Leung says,
sporting his trademark T-shirt with a likeness of Cuban revolutionary
Che Guevara and rolling his third cigarette in an hour. "I can still
make my demands to a bigger audience."
For more than 20 years the self-educated activist has been an equal-opportunity
protester. His April 5th Action Group named for the 1976 student
uprising in Beijing that mourned the death of Premier Zhou Enlai
has demonstrated against British colonialists and mainland authorities
alike. And sometimes for them. He shows no signs of slowing down. While
other election hopefuls did last-minute vote canvassing last September,
Leung spent the day far from his electorate protesting against
Hong Kong's restrictive polling system. "The fact that I got so many
votes [18,235 out of the 25,970 needed for victory] means people will
go for radicalization if it doesn't involve too much cost to them,"
The cost to Leung has been high. Politicized at an early age when his
mother, abandoned by his father, was forced to work as a housemaid,
Leung has long survived on part-time home-removal and translation jobs.
From his tiny public-housing flat, he plots an ambitious course, determined
to prevent exploitation of the underclasses. He wants an end to one-party
rule in China, full democracy in Hong Kong and a reversal of Beijing's
verdict on the 1989 Tiananmen killings. His electoral near-success hasn't
softened his Trotskyite stance. "I still believe in revolution," he
says. "It can happen in Hong Kong."
More people are now willing to listen to the man many once regarded
with contempt or annoyance. Leung's polls performance gives him legitimacy,
and his media columns often strike a popular chord on topical issues.
He takes to task pro-Beijing bureaucrats and Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa,
or bashes businessmen and others he considers spineless or blindly patriotic.
Leung's long hair, shorn when he was briefly jailed in May for interrupting
a Tung speech in the legislature, is growing back. But even when it's
back to shoulder length, he won't stand out so much any more. "I think
that everyone wants to be radical in a way," says Leung. He even sees
Tung Chee-hwa as a soul mate of sorts: "He initiates so many policy
reforms and makes hasty important decisions all the time. That's radical."
And radicalism like that will provide targets for Long Hair's protests
for years to come.
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