HKFP Reports Hong Kong Interviews Politics & Protest

Interview: ‘We are our biggest enemies,’ says student leader Alex Chow

A year after the Occupy movement, Hong Kong remains divided on how the event should be viewed, though more than 1,000 people showed up for the commemoration events at Admiralty on September 28. Others condemn those who look back on the memories fondly, calling this a ‘self-indulgence in failure’ and saying that there was nothing worth celebrating. Alex Chow, one of the Occupy student leaders and former secretary-general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, refuses to label the movement a failure.

“I remember I was quite depressed and frustrated – back in early September 2014, Hong Kong was like a dead city and we didn’t know how to deal with the White Paper. Before the tear gas, you wouldn’t think that Hong Kong people were capable of doing something like this…a community was born. People really enjoyed going to Admiralty, because they had built a community and reimagined the space. I think it unlocked a lot of ideas we had about what a community could be like. I think these are achievements,” he said.

Alex Chow

Photo: HKFP.

“Instead of just trapping ourselves — thinking only about the August 31 decision and backing ourselves into a dead-end where we’re at a loss of what to do when they refuse to give us the political reforms we want — there’s also other things like [a sense of community] that came out of the movement. People don’t talk about this so much any more.

“Of course, this isn’t the only thing we should focus on – there are limitations too – but now it seems like people like to deem the entire thing a failure. I think that this is still pretty damn encouraging, the fact that so many of us came out onto the streets.” Chow said that one of the moments that touched him the most during the 79-day movement was when he saw, after being released from the police centre at Wong Chuk Hang, that crowds of people had poured into Harcourt Road in Admiralty. “This unique personality – it deserves to be articulated and praised. It’s a foundation that we need to build on during our fight of resistance.”

Alex Chow occupy

Alex Chow. File photo: HKFP.

Chow, however, admits that even after the movement, more needs to be done. “Hong Kong people need tactical empowerment. The Occupy movement empowered people, but then it seemed like we didn’t really know what to do next. I think if we have a winning streak even with the smaller issues and slowly build our energy up, we can later tackle the bigger problems and not just be completely defeated when the difficulty level goes up. Now it seems like we’ve lost with the most important issue and then no one is really coming out to take the initiative to tackle the smaller ones in a different way.”

What tactics did the social activist have in mind? “First of all, there has to be a good foundation established in society, and secondly such localised campaigns should pave the way for discussion on issues such as universal suffrage after there is stronger political power and unity among the citizens. We need to be a stronger force of resistance against the government,” Chow said.

alex chow

Alex Chow. File photo: HKFP.

With the District Council elections coming up, Chow said that there needs to be more participation in local community affairs to strengthen civil society and reshape politics.Our past democratic movements were always focused on fighting for universal suffrage for Chief Executive and Legislative Council elections. But under these circumstances the social landscape is overlooked. From things such as how the land is used to how the community is designed, it’s all up to the government or District Councillors to handle. I think there needs to be a breakthrough.”

“A lot of people are quite detached when it comes to elections – they’re like, what does this have to do with me? We have this misconception that democracy is only about elections, and most people doesn’t feel an immediate connection between that and their lives. Ultimately, democracy has to tie back to one’s own district or community, and the immediate problems that one faces in life – say lead in water, lack of recreational space, or urban redevelopment. There’s a lot of problems in the community, but we take it for granted that it’s like that, and we need to change that mentality and get creative.

“Look at To Kwa Wan – there are so many areas there that will undergo redevelopment, and it could hypothetically get destroyed by anyone. Places like that and Tai Po actually have a lot of space for development of resistance ideas. I remember that there were weird slogans that came out of Tai Po during the last elections – like ‘Hong Kong’s Tainan’ or something – but it’s this sort of imagination that we need, otherwise we’ll be stuck in reality and box ourselves up.”

District politics isn’t the only area where Chow is calling for more creativity. Chow also reflected on the fact that during the Occupy movement, the only real act of civil disobedience the protesters had was blocking the road. “But if we have only one tactic, it’s quite weak and the government can’t really feel our resistance. They also have different ways of stopping you, such as using police, triads, their own pressure groups, legal injunctions. I think the most effective method is to strike – it doesn’t really happen in Hong Kong. Even after tear gas was deployed last year, there wasn’t a strike when it comes to the businesses – the students did, but only partially. I believe that we need more experience and creativity when it comes to methods of resistance.”

When asked about his opinion on what the next step is for Hong Kong, Chow believes in a bottom-up approach. “The Hong Kong [citizens’] charter – the idea of people coming together to draft a plan and then have the plan endorsed by a referendum – it could give us a clearer picture of the change we want for Hong Kong in the future, not just with democratic reforms but also socially and economically.”

alex chow

Chow speaking at a forum last week. Photo: HKFP.

“I think we are our biggest enemies, when it comes to Hong Kong’s development and future. We focus a lot on the ‘self’ – we don’t appreciate others. We don’t cooperate with each other and there’s a lot of mistrust. I think all of us need to take a step back and look at this vicious cycle we’re in. It’s quite spiritual, but also quite practical. We have to realise that even with people we don’t agree with on certain things, they’re acting this way because they really care about Hong Kong and they’re suffering.”

Chow said that he has been learning how to achieve inner peace through studying Buddhism. “I don’t want to be overtaken by emotions when I make decisions – I want to have a clear head. When emotions overburden you, they could have destructive consequences.”

Chow, who still has two courses to go before he graduates with a Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong, wants to pursue a postgraduate degree in cultural studies overseas. He said that there needs to be people who look at Hong Kong from a different perspective. “How we decipher Hong Kong’s past also determines how we understand our problems today. I’m interested in a post-colonial reading of Hong Kong. I think I want to be a scholar who takes part in social movements…I don’t think I’ll be running for office.”

Interview: 'We are our biggest enemies,' says student leader Alex Chow