Former pro-democracy district councilors wonder how they can help Hong Kong from exile in the UK.
By Chun Yam and Jing Bo Wang
Former Hong Kong pro-democracy politician Carmen Lau is shown in a file photo.
Writer and taxi-driver Cheung Jing Ho and career politicians Yau Man-chun and Carmen Lau were all members of a District Council elected in a 2019 landslide victory for pro-democracy parties after months of mass protest and resistance to the loss of Hong Kong's promised freedoms.
The political freedom and peaceful exuberance of that poll, widely seen as a ringing endorsement of the demands of the 2019 protest movement for fully democratic elections and meaningful official accountability, are already a thing of the past in a city where anyone seeking public office must take an oath of allegiance to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Hong Kong authorities, and where election candidates must be pre-approved by a Beijing-backed committee.
Yau told RFA he has had trouble settling into his new life, and wonders if he can do anything to help Hong Kong.
"I miss my family and neighborhood. I always loved going back to the district on the weekends to work. Since I came to the U.K., I have felt at a loose end, and I haven't yet found my way in life," Yau told RFA.
"But I have really left for good. I don't know if I'll be able to do anything for Hong Kong again."
"I have been in conflict with myself over the past two or three months, and it feels as if I can't get out of this dead end," Yau said. "I used to love doing constituency work in my district; we were like a family."
"I loved Hong Kong so much ... leaving it was worse than dying."
Yau, who sees himself as a member of the "last District Council," to be elected by the people, who returned a majority of pro-democracy candidates, couldn't stay because the government was disqualifying pro-democracy councilors via a compulsory oath-taking process.
"I keep asking myself what I'm going to do here in England, an elected politician [from Hong Kong]."
"It's a question I hardly dare to answer, because I feel as if I have let down the people who voted for me by leaving," he said.
Cheung, Yau and Lau left amid a city-wide crackdown on political opposition and public dissent under a draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by the CCP from July 1, 2020, that has seen dozens of pro-democracy politicians, rights activists and media figures arrested for "subversion," "sedition," and "collusion with a foreign power."
Some are being charged merely for taking part in an unofficial democratic camp primary aimed at selecting the best candidates for Legislative Council (LegCo) elections, originally slated for September 2020.
The authorities responded by postponing the election, changed the rules to require vetting of candidates, and arrested 47 participants for subversion. Now, 90 members have been returned to LegCo under the rules, which ensure that only pro-CCP "patriots" can take part in Hong Kong's political life.
Former Hong Kong pro-democracy politician Cheung Jing Ho is shown in a file photo. RFA
'Now there's no criticism at all'
For Lau, watching from the U.K., Hong Kong's political life seems irrevocably changed since the mass resignation of opposition politicians in late 2020, in protest at the expulsion of some of their colleagues.
"In the LegCo with no pro-democracy camp, they can pass any bill or budget very rapidly," she said. "In the past, there would at least have been some debate between pro-democracy and pro-establishment members, but now there's no criticism at all."
"Sometimes they don't even comment; maybe they're scared to, scared that something bad could happen if they say the wrong thing," Lau said. "It's pretty obvious that this is only going to get worse in the new LegCo and those that come after it."
"Eventually, it'll be just like the National People's Congress, where there is no opposition at all," she said.
"The people who are still living there are going to have to get accustomed to the new Hong Kong, while the Hongkongers who came to England are going to find it equally hard to get used to living there," Lau said.
Cheung, who has worked a number of different jobs in recent years, as well as writing about his life as a taxi-driver, left Hong Kong in August 2021 after it became clear that the new oath-taking process could result in his being expelled from the District Council like many pro-democracy colleagues.
"For me to stay and swear that oath, there would have to be something worth staying to do," he said, adding that the arrest of the 47 pro-democracy politicians and activists was among the things that made him decide to leave. "The District Council had no real power, so we decided to resign instead."
"Resigning and then staying in Hong Kong felt like a dangerous choice, so I came to the U.K., thinking it would be better to live somewhere that has more freedom rather than being under constraints laid down by others," he said.
He said many of the people who voted for him in his district were doing the same thing, and briefly helped redistribute their second-hand furniture to those who were staying, before saying goodbye to his home himself.
For Cheung, the District Council landslide of 2019 didn't feel like a victory, so much as staving off the inevitable advance of CCP influence in the running of Hong Kong.
"I never felt it was a victory; at the time we knew it wasn't really a positive development, just the avoidance of a more negative outcome," he said.
Cheung doesn't feel too unhappy about his decision to leave.
"If we say that leaving Hong Kong was a price I was forced to pay, then it is no worse a price than anyone else has had to pay," he said. "I'm shouldering the burden of the times we live in."
"Compared with our brothers and sisters who are in prison, it's not really a price at all," Cheung said.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.