To Terry Yeung, the 25-year-old former assistant of disqualified lawmaker Yau Wai-ching, if their party did not commit that mistake in 2016, their lives could have turned out completely different.
In October of that year, Youngspiration’s Yau and Baggio Leung took their oaths of office as lawmakers in controversial ways – which some considered derogatory to China – and spurred Beijing to take action. During a legislative meeting three weeks later, the pair and their assistants tried to barge into a meeting room of the Legislative Council to retake the oaths and failed.
Eventually, Hong Kong courts ruled that Yau and Leung should be kicked out of the legislature. But the fallout from the incident continued until June this year, when Yeung, the two ousted lawmakers, and two other assistants were among those sentenced to jail for four weeks over the storming of the meeting room.
Speaking to HKFP after he was released from jail, Yeung – who has now withdrawn from the party – reflected on their actions in the past few years and concluded that their efforts should have been spent on practical advocacy on livelihood issues, rather than on protesting.
“We should not have been so far in the front. We were an advocacy group and not an activist group. An advocacy group becoming an activist group would attract a lot of trouble,” he said.
“We were going further and further and we could not turn back. We became more and more aggressive,” he added. “We have to admit what was our mistake. We were suddenly rushing things too quickly too soon.”
He was referring to Youngspiration’s initial goal of formulating policies and gaining seats in the government through elections in order to protect the interests of Hong Kong people. Instead the party got carried away by its success in attracting public attention, as well as supporters’ expectations for them to participate in protests.
The oath-taking incident sparked anger in Hong Kong society and even alienated some localist supporters. Pro-Beijing groups launched protest after protest demanding an apology.
Yeung said if they had known that the incident would be followed by an intervention by Beijing, disqualifications, and the legislature’s demand to return their salaries and subsidies, they would not have done it.
“We would instead betray our conscience, bite the bullet, and take the oath. We would use the resources from the four years [lawmakers’ term] to help localists in doing district community work or to support activists. At least we would have helped by developing the camp,” he said.
As with many localist activists, Yeung said his political awakening occurred in 2014 during the Umbrella Movement, when protesters occupied main Hong Kong roads for 79 days demanding genuine universal suffrage.
Yeung said 2015 was a key turning point for Youngspiration, when they joined the District Council election. He said initially, the party was formed as part of the post-Umbrella effort to gain ground and engage residents on the district level.
Former Youngspiration member Kwong Po-yin managed to win a seat in Whampoa West, and Yau only lost by 300 votes against pro-Beijing heavyweight Priscilla Leung in Whampoa East. Other members also lost but some received more than 1,000 votes – a good sign for newcomers.
Kwong and Yau’s platforms were hardly politically sensitive. Instead, they mainly concerned transport facilities and community matters in the Whampoa area.
But Yeung, who was introduced to the party through a hiking friend in 2016, said the party was caught up in an awkward position because of its own success.
“After the District Council election, the reaction was huge. We didn’t win the District Council election, and then we went for the Legislative Council election. Step by step, we went further and further, we couldn’t control our own arrogance,” Yeung said.
Yeung valued the role of those giving support to front line activists from behind. He helped campaign for activist Edward Leung, of the localist group Hong Kong Indigenous, during the February 2016 legislative by-election. The group first became known for campaigning in the North District in 2015 against parallel traders, before its members were arrested and charged for the Mong Kok clashes in 2016.
Yeung again played a supporting role in the September 2016 general election, coordinating street stands in Shek Kip Mei for Yau. Following her victory, he was invited to be her assistant at the legislature.
Yeung said the current situation was “very peculiar” as every localist group was seeking a conspicuous public profile, but neglecting the policy advocacy work that they should be focusing on.
Particularly, Yeung said he reflected on himself when he was in prison. He said the correctional officers – who knew he was Yau’s assistant – supported the pro-democracy camp to a certain extent, but the camp had not done much to help people like them.
“Their hopes were very simple – three meals and a home, and hoping that property prices would not skyrocket – but no-one in the opposition camp would achieve something on these practical issues,” Yeung said. “Everyone became an activist to protest in the front line, to protest on the streets, but they have not done anything in terms of policies.”
Although Yeung maintained that he still believed in localism after going to prison, he added that he planned to keep a low profile and would not participate in activism unless it was necessary.
“I understand that some people should stand in the limelight, but we need backup,” he said.
Reflecting on the birth of localism, Yeung pointed to an incident in 2012 when a security guard at a D&G store in Tsim Sha Tsui tried to stop Hongkongers from taking photos, but allowed mainland tourists to do so. On January 8 that year, more than 1,000 people protested outside the store. The brand initially refused to apologise, but caved to the pressure days later.
“It was the start of localist thought – but no-one assembled these thoughts together to make it a meaningful term,” Yeung said.
He said that, since the 1997 Handover, no-one had been able to “hit the bull’s eye” in providing solutions to the problems.
“The pan-democrats failed, the pro-establishment camp failed – they caused the development of localism after the Umbrella Movement,” he said.
Yeung could not go into details of his criminal conviction, since there were others who were still appealing the case, but when talking about his arrest, he mentioned his mother, who had cancer at the time.
She answered the door, instead of Yeung, who was sleeping, when police knocked at 7am on April 26 last year at their public housing flat in Wah Fu Estate, in the southwestern side of Hong Kong Island.
Yeung said his mother wanted to commit suicide by jumping off the building after he was arrested: “She only didn’t jump because she has mobility difficulties.”
Yeung pleaded not guilty during court hearings. He said his lawyer told him not to be too optimistic about the case, and Yeung began making arrangements for his family at the beginning of this year – six months before the ruling.
His lawyer’s advice was good. During the sentencing, the magistrate denied a suggestion from the probation officer that Yeung be given community service.
Yeung said his father – who was critical of communist rule – was supportive of him. He chose not to appeal and ask for bail because he believed the case had dragged on for too long, and feared he would not be able to find a full-time job if the case dragged on longer.
But Yeung said the month in prison was not easy for him – a day after the sentencing, his mother was scheduled to have an operation.
“I was quite worried about her psychological state. I was detained. The only thing I could do was to call her right after I entered [prison],” he said.
Yeung was sent to the Pik Uk Prison in Sai Kung, where he was surprised to find that he had a celebrity status. Everyone asked him three questions, he said.
“Is Yau Wai-ching pretty? Are Yau and Baggio Leung dating? Were you paid for protesting?” he recalled. Yeung started giving routine responses: “no; I didn’t see anything like that happening; does my salary count?”
“I did a ‘press conference’ there every day until the last day,” he said.
The differences in knowledge of the outside world and ideology separated him from the rest of the inmates. In prison, the few news sources available were mostly pro-establishment media such as the TVB news channel, Oriental Daily and Hong Kong Commercial Daily. Other than that, prison was repetitive and dull.
“They only received information from newspapers and television, [news] after it was whitewashed – so they thought people like me were opposing things for the sake of opposing them. I don’t blame them,” he said.
“They were very realistic – the most important thing for them was whether you get something in return,” he said, adding that many were jailed there for crimes related to money such as drug trafficking. “I was very afraid of becoming a person that only looks at money first. I would rather be poor than become someone who only seeks profit.”
Back to basics
After his release, Yeung is looking for a normal full-time job.
“Everyone wants a stable life. My family wants a stable life for me, away from [politics],” he said. “But if the situation was very dire, I think I would come out again.”
However, Yeung said the future was not hopeful for localists, since election officers would likely ban some from running in the District Council election next year.
“Street protests would be even harder. Few would risk their own future in hopes of a better future for all,” he said.
Yeung believes localists parties must prove themselves to all Hongkongers, and not only attempt to gratify supporters by championing political ideology.
“We should not just be responsible to our supporters – who would understand our difficulties – we need to answer to all residents,” he said.