Popping the Red Pill: Hong Kong Professionals Get Organized for Democracy Post-Occupy

By Larry Ong
Larry Ong
Larry Ong
Larry Ong is a New York-based journalist with Epoch Times. He writes about China and Hong Kong. He is also a graduate of the National University of Singapore, where he read history.
February 10, 2015 Updated: February 11, 2015

Hong Kong’s professionals barely, if ever, let their thoughts stray to politics. This year though, the switch was flipped.

Over the past several weeks, doctors, lawyers, and financiers have started forming pro-democracy groups, seemingly spontaneously.

More than a dozen young doctors founded Médecins Inspirés late last December.

“Before the Occupy movement, Hong Kong professionals rarely got openly involved in pro-democracy activism.”
— Ching Cheong, veteran Hong Kong journalist

And in January, about 70 Hong Kong bankers and financiers headed by hedge fund manager Edward Chin teamed up with 50 lawyers, academics, and others to form the multi-professional group 2047 HK Monitor.

A week later, two solicitors and a barrister, Kevin Yam, Jonathan Man, and Wilson Leung, launched the Progressive Lawyers Group, a 50-member group of young legal types.

These professional groups are concerned about democracy and Hong Kong’s core values—civil liberties like a free press, freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, and the rule of law.

They are also demanding that the Hong Kong government stop backing a proposal by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, which ruled on Aug. 31 that Hongkongers must pick their leader from a shortlist of two or three candidates vetted by a pro-Beijing committee.

It was the protests in reaction to this decision—the Umbrella Movement, also known as Occupy Central, occupied streets for 79-days—that ultimately resulted in these professionals taking the future of the city’s democracy into their own hands.

Pressure Builds

“Before the Occupy movement, Hong Kong professionals rarely got openly involved in pro-democracy activism,” said prominent Hong Kong journalist and commentator Ching Cheong, in an email to the Epoch Times.

Professionals instead focused only on the issues impacting their own professions, and expressed their views during the elections held once every five years for their “functional constituencies”—fixed seats in Hong Kong’s legislature that are supposed to represent professional and special interest groups.

It took a year of Beijing ramping up its suppression in Hong Kong for professionals to realize that they had to get serious.

But as the Chinese communist regime got more aggressive in its encroachments on Hong Kong’s governance and civil liberties in recent years, some concerned professionals became more civic-minded, and active.

Worried that the conservative teachers’ union was not speaking up enough about China’s meddling in Hong Kong’s education system, some teachers formed the Progressive Teachers’ Alliance, a pro-democracy pressure group, in 2013.

That same year, Edward Chin rallied finance professionals who were concerned about the proliferation of shady mainland China business practices in Hong Kong, and wanted fair play in the financial industry, to form a support group for the “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” campaign, a series of planned protests that effectively turned into the student-led Umbrella Movement.

The Tipping Point

Several high-profile events took place in 2014 that gave impetus for professionals to start raising their voices.

In February, Kevin Lau, the former chief editor of Ming Pao, a respected Hong Kong newspaper, was brutally hacked by cleaver-wielding assailants and left bleeding in the street, an event that shocked many.

Shortly after the incident, Ching Cheong, a news veteran, helped set up the Independent Commentators Association, a press freedom watchdog.

“Before the Umbrella Movement, we were living in an idealized world.”
— Wilson Leung, Progressive Lawyers Group convener

In June, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee released its White Paper, declaring Beijing’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong and the need for judges to “love the country and love Hong Kong.”

Legal professionals were particularly troubled with the “love the country” requirement for judges—it was like calling them a mere part of the city’s administration, rather than independent, politically neutral dispensers of justice.

About 1,800 lawyers marched through the streets in protest, only the third time in Hong Kong’s history that legal professionals have done something like that.

And after solicitors supported a rare no-confidence poll to oust then Hong Kong Law Society president Ambrose Lam for publicly supporting the White Paper, lawyers Kevin Yan and Wilson Leung set about creating the Progressive Lawyers Group, a political platform for legal professionals who care deeply about democracy.

But they had to put their plans on hold after police fired 87 canisters of tear gas into a crowd of tens of thousands on Sept. 28, the event that kickstarted the Umbrella Movement.

Inspired by ‘Occupy’

An estimated 1.2 million Hongkongers journeyed to Admiralty, Mong Kok, and Causeway Bay to join the Occupy protests over nearly three months, beginning in late September. People of all ages and backgrounds got a unique opportunity to come together and interact.

At the three Occupy zones, many middle class, young professionals “learnt more about the society, what they can do, and what they should do,” said Alfred Chan, the vice-convenor of the Progressive Teachers’ Alliance, in a telephone interview.

The Umbrella Movement was “very human,” Wilson Leung recalled. “Everyone was very touched by that experience.”

Young professionals initially started ad hoc groups during the Occupy movement to support the student protesters, said Ching Cheong, but they soon began to think about issues “beyond their own fields.”

“After the movement,” said Ching, “they decided to develop the original support groups into more permanent ones.”

Organized for Action

And these new professional groups are not planning to be mere talk shops.

Shortly after its rebranding in January, the 2047 HK Finance Monitor made “10 requests” to the Chinese Communist Party, based on what it said were Hong Kong’s core values. The letter was addressed to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and published in the Asian Wall Street Journal.

The first move made by the Progressive Lawyers Group was to call out the Hong Kong government for closely backing the Standing Committee’s Aug. 31 decision, publishing a position paper dissecting and rejecting all of its legal arguments.

Médecins Inspirés, the Progressive Lawyers Group, and 2047 HK Monitor all took part in a mass rally on Feb. 1, the first large-scale pro-democracy activity after the Occupy protests.

The lawyers and teachers groups are planning school speaking tours and other forms of community engagement, aimed at raising public awareness about the rule of law, civil liberties, and human rights.

Many people still “don’t understand the aims and objectives of the Umbrella Movement,” said Alfred Chan of the Teachers’ Alliance.

But at least an increasing number of professionals do.

Wilson Leung, the Progressive Lawyers Group convener, summed up the impact of the Occupy movement on his generation of politically aware professionals.

“Before the Umbrella Movement, we were living in an idealized world; everything was going perfectly and happily,” said Leung. “After you take the red pill, however, it awakens you to what is actually going on.”

Larry Ong
Larry Ong is a New York-based journalist with Epoch Times. He writes about China and Hong Kong. He is also a graduate of the National University of Singapore, where he read history.