HONG KONG: As Hong Kong marks the second anniversary of the pro-democracy “Umbrella Revolution”, former protesters prepare to take office for the first time when the city’s Legislative Council (Legco) enters its new term Saturday.
At least five of the new legislators are openly pushing for the semi-autonomous city to have the choice to split from Beijing, as fears grow China is tightening its grip on the former British colony.
Here we look at three of the leading rebels in the pro-democracy camp.
The Youngest Lawmaker: Nathan Law
Softly spoken and never without his black-rimmed spectacles, 23-year-old Nathan Law is Hong Kong’s youngest ever lawmaker and is calling for self-determination for Hong Kong.
Law first made a name for himself as a student leader of the mass pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement” protests of 2014, alongside his friend and teenage political ally Joshua Wong.
Since then he and Wong have set up a new party called Demosisto, campaigning for Hong Kongers to have a choice over how they are governed, including the option of independence.
Despite his meteoric rise, Law says he never planned to go into politics.
Born in mainland China to a working class family, he moved to Hong Kong at the age of six.
He had thought of becoming a journalist or an actor, but says his parents taught him to prioritise making ends meet — and starting a family.
It was a lightbulb moment in a school assembly that set his course.
Law remembers a teacher at his pro-Beijing secondary school criticising Liu Xiaobo — a jailed Chinese dissident — in front of students after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.
Liu was banned by Beijing from picking up his prize.
“It agitated me,” Law told Agence France-Presse.
“What kind of government would ban someone great from leaving the country? It made me think a lot about power and politics.”
That took him into student politics at university, before he was catapulted into the spotlight in 2014, becoming one of the most recognisable faces of the Umbrella Movement.
He delivered speeches to thousands, calling for fully free leadership elections for Hong Kong — a demand that was refused by authorities in Beijing.
Law is still reading cultural studies at university but has deferred for a year to make time for his new responsibilities.
In what spare time his has, he likes to play video games and football.
He says he is not fazed by his new role.
“If someone likes movies, it would be what his life is all about… To me, politics and social issues are my aspiration,” he says.
The Environmentalist: Eddie Chu
Eddie Chu was best-known as an environmentalist who protested against the destruction of heritage properties and residents’ homes to make way for development.
Now, the 38-year-old has re-shaped his political profile and is calling for self-determination for Hong Kong, including the chance to choose independence.
He has also taken on the city’s shady rural politics, championing villagers whose homes have been targeted by construction projects.
It seems to be a winning formula — Chu took 80,000 votes in the citywide Legco elections earlier this month, the most of any candidate in any directly elected constituency.
But he has also paid a price, unable to return home with his wife and four-year-old child after receiving death threats. The family is now living under police protection.
“My life has changed totally… I did not expect it (death threats) to come to me in such a manner, so quick and severe,” he told AFP in a recent interview guarded by two police minders at a cafe on one of the city’s back streets.
But the city is facing an “important moment”, he added, and he feels obliged to take a part.
“If we stay silent and step back Hong Kong will become worse.”
Born in Hong Kong, Chu’s father was a tailor and he attended a Catholic school before going to university to study English.
He then went on to work as a journalist for a local newspaper before travelling to the Middle East to work as a freelance writer.
On his return to Hong Kong, he switched to green activism, rising to fame when he led protests against the demolition of the city’s historic Queen’s Pier in 2007.
But it was the failure of the Umbrella Movement to win concessions on political reform that made him want to challenge the nature of Hong Kong’s government.
“It finally comes down to the core issue, which is the political system,” he said.
Wiry and suntanned, Chu runs an organic farm plot in the rural New Territories, although his friends are in charge at the moment as he has little time.
“We have a second crop growing right now and I hope I can find time for the harvest in November,” he says.
The Independence Activist: Yau Wai-ching
Five years ago, new lawmaker Yau Wai-ching took little interest in politics.
Now she is one of the most strident pro-independence legislators in Hong Kong, backing a split from China as a viable option for the city.
The 25-year-old says her political awakening came as concerns grew in recent years that the city’s liberties were disappearing.
It was mass protests over the introduction of Chinese patriotism classes into schools that first sparked her interest.
Hundreds of thousands rallied against the move, which the government was forced to scrap.
“I felt that ‘brainwashing’ education was not far off and that it could happen in Hong Kong,” Yau said.
But it was not until the mass pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement” rallies of 2014 that Yau got directly involved.
She says she joined the tens of thousands on the streets of Hong Kong, and when the movement failed to win political reform, decided to go into politics full-time.
Yau adds that her parents worry about her decision, but that she feels it is worth the risk.
“I didn’t want to waste this momentum — I felt that if I wanted to encourage others to come out, I should take the first step,” she told Agence France-Presse.
The daughter of two retired civil servants, Yau said she was born and raised in the city, had a comfortable life and thought politics were none of her business when she was younger.
Now she believes pushing for independence could improve Hong Kongers’ lives, enabling them to take charge of the issues most important to them.
“Independence is definitely one option,” she says.
“It would allow us to think about how to change the current unsatisfactory situation, which includes livelihood issues that haven’t been resolved or white elephant projects that the government has forcefully pushed through.” AFP