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Interview: Veteran ‘post-80s’ activist Yip Po-lam looks back on a decade of social movements in Hong Kong

These days, many young people in their late teens or early 20s may cite the 2012 anti-national education demonstrations or the 2014 Occupy protests as their moment of political enlightenment, with activists such as Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow at the forefront.

But a decade ago, it was a wave of resistance against the government that resulted in the awakening of many of today’s current activists. The calls to preserve the Central Star Ferry Pier and Queen’s Pier, the backlash over the plans to redevelop Lee Tung Street (“Wedding Card Street”), the demonstrations against the express rail link plan and the fight to save Choi Yuen village, were among the events bringing protesters to the streets.

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Bobo Yip Po-lam. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

“These past couple of years, there would be a lot of people – [democracy activists] Avery Ng, Raphael Wong, Kwok Wing-kin – who’d say that the anti-express rail link protests were their enlightenment. But back then, when we stormed the road, I was on stage, and I was so scared that I didn’t move for ten minutes,” veteran social activist Bobo Yip Po-lam recalled.

“When people turn up to a gathering at 8:30 in the morning, we’d already think, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ We didn’t have the awareness or set it as our objective that what was ‘amazing’ then or what we were doing would have an impact of later generations,” Yip said with a laugh.

“Even now, I still haven’t been able to reach a conclusion on what this impact or importance is on the future of Hong Kong or my role in all of this.”

Post-80s

Yip is a prominent “post-80s” activist – a term then coined to describe a new generation of young activists who cared deeply about society and believed that there was more to Hong Kong than its status as a financial centre and its “central” values which stressed development.

During the fight to save Queen’s Pier, when activists camped at the site and chained themselves together ahead of its demolition – a month after the 10th anniversary of the handover – ideas such as collective memory, cultural heritage and decolonisation became widely discussed topics in the city.

The anti-development sentiments were epitomised in the action to save Choi Yuen village. Plans to demolish the village and evict residents in order to make way for the rail link caused an uproar amongst Hongkongers, who recognised that there is value in the rural way of life and that it was unjust for residents to be forced from their homes. The village was eventually “relocated”.

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Bobo Yip Po-lam during the anti-XRL demonstrations. Photo: Tse Pak-chai.

“The decision to label ourselves as ‘post-80s’ was conscious decision – we knew that it would be more eye-catching to use a generation in a name, and we hoped that it would generate more discussions on what this generation cares about and the problems they face.”

The post-80s activists come from a variety of backgrounds – artists, young activists from social movement initiatives such as 8A Commons and FM101, and others like Yip, who seem to have stumbled into politics at a young age and never looked back.

See also: ‘King of Votes’ Eddie Chu says it’s time for a real Hong Kong democratic movement

Yip’s own introduction to politics came in secondary school, when the uncertainty over the handover in 1997 sparked questions of identity and frustration – she also learned about the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. After her A-levels, she bumped into pro-democracy lawmaker Cyd Ho, who asked her to help with the elections.

“Because I was so young back then, everyone showered me with praise and approval – and I had a great sense of fulfilment. The participation sparked my interest in public affairs, and I thought I’d maybe end up in media or social work in the future.”

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National Education Protests in 2012. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Yip attempted both after she graduated from the University of Hong Kong with a social work degree. She had a brief stint working as a reporter in the now-defunct The Sun newspaper, and when she helped with the setting up of digital news outlet InMedia she was able to explore the relationship between independent media and social movements.

In 2003, she quit her job as a social worker to take part in the District Council elections at the age of only 23, losing with 1,203 votes. “We were already thinking about questions such as how we could have democratisation within the community, as well as urban planning and the use of public space… we had valid criticism, but we didn’t know how to counter-propose something constructive or take part in community work after the elections.”

By the time of the anti-express rail link protests, Yip has already had many years of social activism under her belt. She had been on the frontlines of almost all movements in 2000s – from the World Trade Organization conference protests in 2005, when tear gas was deployed after South Korean farmers engaged in heated clashes with the police, to the express rail link demonstrations.

Korean farmers jumped into the harbour during the WTO protests in an effort to swim to the Wan Chai Convention Centre, where the talks were being held. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

“There are so many unforgettable moments – we occupied a highway for the first time during the WTO protests, to the extent that people had to relieve themselves on the streets. During the anti-express rail link demonstrations we surrounded the Legislative Council and stormed the Government House – despite the police’s attempt to block us off – something that still hasn’t been attempted today,” Yip said. “And in Choi Yuen village, we had patrol teams blocking the Lands Department from entering the village, and we occupied the construction site.”

From marginalised to mainstream

Yip came from a time when politics had yet to enter mainstream consciousness – or perhaps, when things were not bad enough for the public to care. “Our peers thought we were very weird – we were a very marginalised bunch. So were movements back then. Even for the action to save the Queen’s Pier, at its peak there was just 1,000 attending the gathering,” Yip said.

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Local activists hold up a banner with the words “Preserve Queen’s pier” as they stand on top of Queen’s Pier, in Hong Kong 30 July 2007. Photo: Samantha Sin/AFP.

There are hidden advantages to this. “Because we were a minority, in order to please the mainstream – whether it’s the general public or the media, we had less pressure. We only needed to focus on how to present our message. So when it comes to the sophistication of our ideas and debates, they were a lot deeper [than they are today.]”

One such example Yip gave is the 2011 Occupy Central movement at HSBC headquarters – a 10-month long occupation known for its flat organisational structure and discussions on issues that went on late into the night.

Yip said that, after the anti-national education and Occupy protests, politics is more commonplace. “These days, [activist parties like] Demosisto would emphasise the PR, and the design [of promotional materials] is more sophisticated – but there’s less emphasis on their ideologies – such as whether they’re left or right wing, their position on grassroots rights, what economic system they favour, wealth distribution and so on.” They are also less outspoken on rights of asylum seekers, domestic workers, and new immigrants, she added.

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Yip during the anti-national education protests. Photo provided by interviewee.

“Mainstream society also does not demand this of them anymore, which is very different from before. Instead, politics has become nationalism-focused,” Yip observed, referring to the focus on identity as a Hongkonger and the relationship with China.

The methods of resistance have also evolved over the past ten years, according to Yip. “The peaceful, non-violent type of mass movement – such as the protests against Article 23 [the national security law] on July 1, 2003 – have been kept; it has a low-bar of entry, the majority of people can take part, and the legal risk is relatively low.”

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Yip at a forum on Occupy Central with other pro-democracy and Occupy leaders. Photo provided by interviewee.

Yip said that, in a way, the 2014 Occupy protests exposed the weaknesses of the social movement. “Its strengths were the people, and its shortcomings were us activists. Our organisation was weak, and… relied heavily on the media. There was an inability to build a discussion platform amongst factions – for example, if the main protest stage was not democratic, shouldn’t we be discussing what a democratic one looks like?”

“Because of the weak organisation, when we were attacked we couldn’t defend ourselves. The Occupy co-founders, the student organisations and even between Scholarism and Hong Kong Federation of Students – there was no foundation for discussion… We also had a fear of real change – we had no confidence in our action plans, such as surrounding the chief executive offices. In the end, the merits of the movement – like the resource station – was not the doing of the activists, but the public.”

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The early days of the 2014 Occupy protests in Admiralty. File Photo: HKFP/Tom Grundy.

After Occupy, clashes seem to have become less peaceful – from the anti-parallel trading clashes in the New Territories to the Mong Kok unrest in 2016 over the clearing of hawkers, when bricks were thrown in the street. “Of course, there have also been more violent protests, but they were not organised nor planned. Rather, they were guerrilla-style, response-based protests, a sudden outburst of frustration – Hong Kong has not really progressed to the kind of planned demonstrations that involve breaking windows,” Yip said of the trend.

“If it is planned or organised, at least we can discuss what situations call for such measures but, regrettably, these resistance methods are not discussed under these circumstances, and it becomes a shouting match of what method of resistance is ‘useless’. Even if I’m for peaceful methods, at least I could have a conversation with you about this.”

‘Left plastic’

It may be this tendency to always favour discussion as a means of resolving conflict that has led Yip to be, in recent years, painted as a “left plastic” – a term that roughly implies one is a useless liberal.

Increasingly, localists have criticised this peaceful, non-violent, pro-discussion approach for its inability to yield results. Yip is also one who doesn’t mince words, preferring to say what’s on her mind – even when it may offend different political factions.

Perhaps this is why despite Yip’s best efforts, she remains a figure of controversy; gone were the days when she was a teenager working for a lawmaker and receiving recognition from others for her work.

She has no political inclination – “There really isn’t a party that I felt compelled to join” – but admits that she could be considered a “pro-China plastic” – referring to those who are critical of the Communist Party’s regime and its political oppression, but still feel a tie with the history and culture of China.

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Yip during a protest demanding the late Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo to be freed. Photo provided by interviewee.

This has attracted many attacks, from pro-establishment papers as well as localists. Yip’s page on the Hong Kong Encyclopedia of Virtual Communities website is filled with details of her behaviour during protests or comments she posted on social media – most of which portray her in an unflattering light.

Yip said that there have even been instances when her face was photoshopped onto the bodies of porn stars, as well as false rumours that during Occupy she had asked for protesters to make way so that a police vehicle could come through – when, in actual fact, she had been doing it for the transport of resources. She later issued a statement on InMedia to clarify the matter.

“On a personal level, I feel very frustrated… I’m not calculating, I’m the ‘let’s love everyone’ type – I’m not good at political infighting. Maybe I don’t know how to express myself well,” she said.

“In social activism, you only have to be concerned with how you spread your message and communicate well, but in politics there are other considerations, people will launch personal attacks on you, criticise your background or intention – like whether I’m being financially backed [by questionable sources.]”

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File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Such insults against her character and in some cases, harassment, have been hurtful – affecting not only her, but also those around her. “Some people are now scared of working with me… because it might invite unnecessary attacks.”

Like the female activists that have come after her – Willis Ho, Agnes Chow, Yau Wai-ching, for instance – Yip has been subjected to objectification. “As a woman, you’re subjected to a greater likelihood of becoming a topic of discussion in order for others to use it as a political tool,” Yip said.

Perhaps that’s simply the nature of the media, she mused. “When the 13+3 [activists jailed in Civic Square protests and northeast New Territories protests] were released, the media would only talk about their boyfriends and girlfriends, or their parents… it doesn’t even talk about what the northeast New Territories issue is about, and the current status of the proposals.”

Frontline and backup

Today, many of the post-80s activists have returned to their trades: artists went back to being artists, some became teachers, and others ran community initiatives – such as the Mapopo Community Farm.

While another activist who emerged during the movement, Eddie Chu, went on to become the “king of votes” at the Legislative Council elections in 2016, Yip eventually retreated from the limelight, taking up mostly supporting roles, engaging in grassroots work such as promoting hawker culture and community cinema.

She has a day job at the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, and is behind a campaign to collect letters from the public and mail them on their behalf to jailed protesters.

She also played a key part in the setting up of the Imprisoned Activists Support Fund, which was launched this year to provide those in need with a monthly subsidy. “In a civil society, there should not only be good frontline activists, but backup support – both are equally important,” Yip said.

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Yip Po-lam with the community cinema team in 2016. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

This is especially so given the harsher attitudes towards activists in recent years. “The police used to be more civilised – even to me – and even after arresting me they would follow through the proper procedure. I have been shouted at in an insulting manner before, but it’s fine as long as you ignore them. There were no cases like those during Occupy, when someone would be beaten up – after that, there really is no trust left between the people and the police.”

Law enforcement and courts are also gradually becoming less merciful. Years ago, the Department of Justice usually charged protesters under the Public Order Ordinance or police assault – friends of Yip’s have been sentenced to jail sentences over the pier action. But these days more ambiguous offences are used, such as the nine Occupy leaders who have been charged with public nuisance, said Yip. And while there may be magistrates who agree with civil disobedience in the first instance, things are usually less favourable at the appeal stage, and not all manage to make it to the Court of Final Appeal, Yip stated.

She herself has narrowly escaped jail several times in relation to demonstrations, and is currently appealing her two-week jail sentence relating to a sit-in over the northeast New Territories land rights controversy on June 6, 2014. She said the rally was “very peaceful” – making her sentence all the more unreasonable. Yip said she feels both indignant and blessed, when she considers the 13 month jail terms handed to the other northeast New Territories protesters over a later demonstration that month.

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Yip and other activists outside the Eastern Law Courts Building. Photo provided by interviewee.

What is next for Yip and her role in activism in Hong Kong?

“That’s something I’d like to know too. I’m still in a process of exploration – I think there’s still work to be done with regards to support. There should be more organised support [for activists] in the areas of economic support or support to their families, whether they are imprisoned or not. There also should be sustainable NGOs for activists with good ideas such that they can finance themselves, so that not everyone [who chooses this line of work] is poor as hell,” she said.

“There also needs to be spiritual and psychological support for activists – there was not much support in the past, and many activists were lone fighters and they couldn’t see the future. And in a mature society, it shouldn’t just be up to the activists – we need to think about what we ourselves can do in the community. The change does not always have to be top-down.”

Yip had been optimistic about the city’s future; in an interview in 2013, she said, “Whether we could have universal suffrage in 2017, it all depends on our determination. I don’t believe that nothing will change if a million people take part in Occupy!”

Instead, between 2016 and 2017, Hong Kong saw a controversial Basic Law interpretation from Beijing over the oath-taking cases, the disqualification of lawmakers, the election of Chief Executive Carrie Lam by the same small-circle election committee members, and the jailing of protesters. And while many turned up to protest against the express rail link a decade ago, recently the controversial joint checkpoint arrangement – which involves Hong Kong giving up jurisdiction in the West Kowloon terminus – has just been passed.

But Yip remains hopeful.

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Bobo Yip Po-lam. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

“I’ve experienced a lot of frustrations these two years, but I still think what I said is valid – it’s just that the line of determining what is hopeful or useful has to be stretched a bit further. In the past, we would think about whether we can achieve something in one or two years – the timeframe is shorter.”

“Now, the ‘hope’ doesn’t lie with us looking for anything immediate… We’re facing a more difficult time under Xi Jinping’s dictatorial regime. Under these circumstances, it would matter how ready we are, or the level of our preparation, and if the quality of our character strengthened us,” Yip said.

“I do think that the 13+3 have emerged stronger with the support of the public… the prison environment has made them tougher both mentally and spiritually. This is a different kind of hope – not that policies will change soon… but whether we could build up our endurance now and we’ve become mature in our views towards politics.”

“After all, democracy and universal suffrage are not easy things to achieve – if we can be first encouraged to start building it in our lives, or we could have more positive attitudes towards those who are of different stances – that may not be a bad thing.”

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Interview: Veteran 'post-80s' activist Yip Po-lam looks back on a decade of social movements in Hong Kong