Photographer: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

Six Thorns in Beijing's Side: Meet Hong Kong's New Young Lawmakers

  • Newly elected lawmakers support break from Chinese rule
  • Loose faction split on strategy for taking on Communist Party

Hong Kong politics have been upended by “localism,” a youth-led movement known for rowdy protests, denouncing mainland China and supporting independence. But not all localists are created equal. 

The six “self-determination” activists elected to Hong Kong’s 70-seat Legislative Council last Sunday all campaigned on the more moderate end of the spectrum, with the most hard-line candidates either barred from running or defeated at the polls. Even the winners disagree over how much to break with Beijing and cooperate with their mainstream counterparts.

The question now is whether those differences will be exploited by the Chinese government, which considers Hong Kong’s 1997 return from British rule a crowning achievement and sees independence talk as sedition.

Here’s a guide to the six new Hong Kong lawmakers causing headaches for Beijing:

Nathan Law, 23

Nathan Law.
Nathan Law.
Photographer: Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images

The youngest lawmaker elected since Britain began direct elections in 1991, Law is among the best-known advocates for self-determination. Last month, he was sentenced to community service for illegally participating in an assembly that sparked the largely non-violent Occupy protests in 2014. Law and ex-Occupy comrades including Joshua Wong had founded a party seeking a referendum in the next decade to decide Hong Kong’s fate after 2047, when China’s pre-handover guarantee of autonomy expires. Still, he has stopped short of advocating independence, saying only that it should be among the options.

“Everyone has different opinions about how we create an autonomous city,” Law said in an interview on Wednesday. “I believe it requires a deliberation and a referendum to really show the stance of Hong Kong people.”

Sixtus ‘Baggio’ Leung, 30

Baggio Leung
Baggio Leung
Photographer: Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images

After Occupy failed to win democratic concessions from the Beijing-backed government, Leung and other frustrated protesters formed the localist group Youngspiration to fight what they saw as the Chinese Communist Party’s encroachment on Hong Kong. He was the biggest beneficiary of government efforts to block the candidacies of pro-independence activists. Edward Leung (no relation), a prominent localist charged in connection with a February riot and banned from running, threw his support behind Youngspiration. Sixtus Leung says he wants a referendum on self-determination by 2021 and to enact its result before 2047. He says he “personally” supports independence.

“Hong Kong independence is not unrealistic,” Leung said in a joint response to questions with fellow legislator-elect, Yau Wai-ching. “Similar to other city-states like Singapore, we can import everything we need from water to food by buying them.”

Yau Wai-ching, 25

Yau Wai-ching
Yau Wai-ching
Photographer: Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images

A young activist drawn into politics after the government failed to impose national education in schools, Yau narrowly lost a district council election last year before Sunday’s win made her the youngest woman ever elected to Hong Kong’s legislature. She’s demonstrated a flair for colorful rhetoric during the campaign, promising to “liberate” the legislature and be “cruel” to the government. Asked whether she and Sixtus Leung agreed with Edward Leung’s statement that violence was inevitable in the city’s struggles, they said they preferred the term “valiant resistance.”

“During resistance against violent police officers who suppress legitimate direct actions, it is sometimes inevitable that acute clashes occur and there may be protesters who resort to the use of force to defend themselves,” they said. “We will use all means necessary to defend the people of Hong Kong.”

Eddie Chu, 38

Eddie Chu
Eddie Chu
Photographer: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

A journalist-turned-environmentalist known for his 2005 campaign to save the iconic Star Ferry pier, Chu’s main platform was fighting what he says is corruption in Hong Kong’s lush rural frontiers. Door-to-door campaigning helped him win some 84,000 votes -- the most in the 35 geographic districts -- but he has also complained about intimidation. On Thursday, he told police that he’s faced “escalating” death threats since the election. Chu says self-determination is a long-term goal that lacks necessary public support. Getting it, he says, requires recruiting mainstream democrats, welcoming mainland Chinese supporters and maintaining non-violent protests, positions that separate him from some hard-line localists.

“We are at the very first step of building up a spirit of self-determination,” Chu said by phone. “We need a period of maybe years to establish that sense before we can actually go into discussions about particular or specific proposals.”

Cheng Chung-tai, 33

Cheng Chung-tai
Cheng Chung-tai
Photographer: Alex Hofford/EPA

The passage of a controversial election overhaul in 2010 led Cheng to conclude that the “China-oriented” democratic old-guard needed to go. So far, he’s helped take down two of its leaders, playing spoiler to an ex-Democratic Party chairman in district council elections and displacing a Labour Party founder this time around. Cheng was among the organizers of protests last year against cross-border mainland traders that led the government to curb visitors. While his party, Civic Passion, has supported localists charged with participating in the February riot, it favors rewriting Hong Kong’s charter over a referendum on self-determination.

“We did not think that Hong Kong independence was the best choice at this moment,” Cheng told Bloomberg. “We still hope we can make use of political means to rebuild and promote Hong Kong.”

Lau Siu-lai, 40

Lau Siu-lai
Lau Siu-lai
Photographer: EPA

Instructing young protesters about social justice and democracy during Occupy sit-ins earned Lau the moniker “Teacher Siu-lai.” The Polytechnic University lecturer later took up opposition to government crackdowns on unlicensed street hawkers -- a favorite localist cause at the center of February’s riot -- and got fined for selling fried squid in solidarity. Still, she has criticized the anti-mainland rhetoric of some localists and has dismissed independence as unrealistic.

“We still need to keep a relationship with China,” she told the South China Morning Post newspaper in July. “Self-determination is not xenophobia. We don’t need to be anti-China.”

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