Localist activist Edward Leung says he held an “election parade” on the night of the Mong Kok unrest in 2016 because he wished to protect the public from the police.
Leung’s trial over his involvement in the clashes began in January. The incident, which saw bricks being hurled and a policeman firing warning shots into the air, took place over Chinese New Year two years ago over the government’s clearance of street hawkers. Leung was a Legislative Council election candidate at the time.
Leung has denied three counts of rioting-related offences, but pleaded guilty to one count of assaulting a police officer. He has been remanded in custody since January and faces up to ten years behind bars should he be convicted of rioting.
The localist, appearing in a suit and his trademark round-rimmed glasses, told the High Court on Tuesday that – although he was not born in Hong Kong – the city shaped his values. Leung’s birthplace is Wuhan, China and he came to Hong Kong when he was 1.
His interest in politics began in 2003, when tens of thousands poured onto the streets during the annual July 1 pro-democracy march. After his public exams in 2008, he became an active participant in the protests. He said he was touched by the passion Hongkongers harboured for pursuing democracy.
Leung added that at these protests, he would see participants cheer each other on, and they would remove plastic bottles and flyers from the street after the event: “I felt that I was part of a special group, a force of energy that pushed society forward. I felt very honoured.”
Even early on, however, Leung said his father warned him against standing on the frontlines, and that the authorities usually target those who stand out.
Leung also said he took part in protests against the funding of the high-speed rail system in 2009 and against the political reform plan in 2010. Both plans passed amid great controversy – he said he felt very helpless as a result: “I started to ask myself… what I should do so that the government will listen to the people?”
Leung said he later witnessed the police chasing after and beating up his friends and classmates during the 2014 Umbrella Movement. After the July 1 rally in 2015, he accepted an invite from localist group Hong Kong Indigenous to join the party.
In 2016, he decided to join the New Territories East by-election to provide a quantitative indication of the support localism has in Hong Kong, Leung told the court. He also wanted to debate other political groups in an open platform and encourage more young people to take part in politics, he added.
The night of the events
Prior to the night of unrest in Mong Kok, Leung said Hong Kong Indigenous had been undecided over whether to support the street hawkers as they had done a year ago, as there was insufficient manpower with the elections coming up. But on the evening of February 8, he woke up to a text message from Hong Kong Indigenous saying that they needed more people to support the hawkers, so Leung boarded a taxi to Mong Kok.
Leung said there was an implicit understanding that street hawkers could put up stalls over Chinese New Year, and he believed it was part of local culture. Apart from a minor incident involving a taxi which drew the police onto the scene earlier that evening, Leung said the atmosphere on Portland Street was mostly relaxed, with people eating and celebrating the holiday.
But as he was chatting with friends he had bumped into, he suddenly heard loud shouting and what sounded like metallic clashing, the court heard. Leung said he then saw a white elevated platform and the police, appearing well-equipped, marching onto the streets at around 11:45pm.
Soon after, the police and the crowd clashed, and the police waved their batons at the people at the scene, as well as fired pepper spray, Leung said. He added that he was concerned there would be violence similar to the clearance action during the 2014 Umbrella Movement and said the police action was unnecessary. Before that point, he said: “The scene was calm… nothing was happening. Most people were just eating.”
As Leung described the scene, the nine-person jury was shown footage from the night, including news clips from RTHK and TVB.
“[I]t was a street hawker carnival on the first night of Lunar New Year. Hong Kong Indigenous were there to support [the event]. If the people are being treated violently, I believe I had the responsibility to protect them,” Leung told the court.
Believing it may ease tensions at the scene and in the hope police may treat him differently due to his status as an election candidate, Leung said he then agreed with the suggestion of his fellow Hong Kong Indigenous members to hold an “election parade” despite initial hesitation.
Leung said that he had previously held a election carnival in Sheung Shui without notifying the police, as Legislative Council candidates were allowed to do so. However, under the guidelines, such parades were limited to 30 participants.
Leung also said he wished to do so in order to place himself, and the parade, between the police and the crowd, as he believed the police may be less inclined to take action against an election candidate. He then announced the “election parade” to the crowd over a loudspeaker.
As tensions escalated later that night, Leung recalls being hit by pepper spray as well as the police baton several times, smashing his glasses. After he cleaned himself up, the court heard, he walked along Argyle Street and – when angered by a police officer who was pressing a protester onto the ground – he assaulted the officer. He said he soon smelled gunpowder as warning shots were fired nearby.
He said he was arrested after attempting to help a girl whose neck was being held by an officer waving a baton with their other hand.
The trial continues on Wednesday.