‘Till prison we part’: Hong Kong crackdown pushes veteran activists to wed

HONG KONG: Both veteran Marxists who have spent decades campaigning for Hong Kong democracy, Chan Po-ying and Leung Kwok-hung viewed marriage as something of a patriarchal and unnecessary institution.

But when China’s crackdown on Hong Kong dissidents came for Leung, 63, they finally tied the knot.

The couple have been together for 45 years and are two of the most prominent faces on Hong Kong’s left, campaigning first against colonial Britain and then China’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

Over the years Leung – better known by his sobriquet “Long Hair” – has been in and out of prison on short sentences for his activism.

Last week, he was among a group of dissidents sentenced to 18 months in jail for organising an “unlawful protest”.

READ: Veteran Hong Kong democrats found guilty in landmark unlawful assembly case

But it was the sudden imposition last year of a sweeping national security law – which carries up to life in prison – that finally pushed them to wed.

“We never thought we needed to get married until long-term imprisonment came right in our faces,” Chan, 63, told AFP from the office of the League of Social Democrats (LSD), a leftist opposition party she and Leung helped found in 2006.

“It was the national security law that propelled us to make up our mind,” she added.

FILE PHOTO: "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung stands outside a counting center, in Hong Kong

FILE PHOTO: Lawmaker, activist and one of the candidates in Hong Kong council elections, Leung Kwok-hung stands outside a counting center, in Hong Kong, China November 24, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

“MORE THAN A WIFE”

As a married couple, the pair would have greater prison and court visitation rights should one of them be detained long term, they reasoned.

National security police came for Leung in early January. He was among dozens of opposition figures arrested on charges of “subversion” for organising an unofficial primary last year to decide who will run in local elections.

Chan and Leung wed soon after but spent just 40 days together as newlyweds.

Leung was officially charged with subversion alongside 46 others, most of whom have been denied bail. Since then, Chan has spent her days shuffling between detention centres, the courts and their office.

As an activist with her own long history of campaigning, she balks at being known as “Long Hair’s wife”. “I think I am more than that,” she said.

Born into a middle-class Hong Kong family, Chan abandoned a potentially comfortable life to pursue opposition politics, founding grassroots feminist organisations and working in garment factories to make ends meet.

Hong Kong police arrested eight activists this month, accusing them of being key instigators of a

(From left) Former lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, also known as “Long Hair”, convener of civil human rights front Figo Chan, former lawmaker Eddie Chu and district councillor Tsang Kin-shing arrive at West Kowloon court on Dec 17, 2020, to face charges of illegal assembly from a protest on Jul 1, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Issac Lawrence)

But she feels a sense of responsibility to continue advocating for Leung and others like him.

“As a family member who can sit through all his trials I think I have the more privileged position to speak up about his cases and the impact of the national security law,” she said.

READ: US condemns sentencing of HK activists on ‘politically motivated’ charges

“DRAWN INTO A VORTEX”

The security law is part of a double-edged sword that Beijing has used to quash dissent in Hong Kong since the city was convulsed by months of huge and often violent democracy protests in 2019.

The other side is a campaign dubbed “patriots ruling Hong Kong” where critics of Beijing are being weeded out by political vetting and public office bans.

With so many opposition figures arrested or fled overseas, Chan is one of the few female politicians still on the front lines. She was a constant presence at the mammoth – and mostly unsuccessful – bail hearings for those charged with national security crimes.

Born into a middle-class family, Chan (C) abandoned a potentially comfortable life to pursue

Born into a middle-class family, Chan (C) abandoned a potentially comfortable life to pursue opposition politics – first against colonial Britain and then China’s increasingly authoritarian rule AFP/Anthony WALLACE

Recently, she staged a small protest when a Beijing official came to Hong Kong. “I would have done the same even if Long Hair hadn’t been arrested because it is what I believe,” Chan said.

“I can’t sway you now but I will demonstrate my resistance,” she said of her philosophy towards Beijing.

READ: Hong Kong to vet political candidates’ past to ensure loyalty to China: Official

But Chan knows Hong Kong’s democracy movement is on the back foot.

The protests of 2019 saw swathes of Hong Kong’s population hit the streets calling for greater democracy and police accountability.

Officials are now busy rewriting that narrative, portraying the popular movement as an attempt by a small hardcore of subversives to try and topple China itself.

Chan admits sometimes feeling despondent. “It’s unprecedented for Hong Kong, the whole of society seems to be clueless about what to do next,” she said.

She says she has no idea whether the LSD can even survive. There are two upcoming dates that are usually big moments for opposition groups to hold protests and vigils: Jun 4 and Jul 1.

The former commemorates China’s deadly 1984 crackdown against pro-democracy students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The latter marks Hong Kong’s handover to China – a day when opposition groups traditionally hold democracy marches.

Chan is unsure whether either will go ahead this year – or in any other future year. “We have been drawn into a vortex that’s swirling us into dizziness,” she said.

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