Hong Kong’s Protesters Finally Have (Some) Power

Newly elected representatives are among those trying to turn the demonstrations into a permanent prodemocracy movement.

Nicolas Asfouri / AFP via Getty

HONG KONG—Prior to his second-ever district-council meeting last week, Napo Wong, elected just a couple of months ago, chatted with constituents who voiced concern for protesters arrested during recent demonstrations here. The residents who remembered Hong Kong’s wildly corrupt police force of decades ago worried about what might be happening to demonstrators once they were loaded onto vans or detained for processing, out of sight of onlookers and journalists. They suggested that Wong address the issue at the upcoming meeting.

Wong agreed, but before heading to the council offices, he stopped by a local market where his parents work as vegetable vendors. He wanted to ensure his questioning of the police would be memorable, so he procured a prop—a hunk of raw pork.

Later that day, as he sparred with Hong Kong Police Force Commissioner Chris Tang about allegations of police violence during ongoing demonstrations, Wong made his move, unpacking the meat from a red plastic bag and dangling it from a piece of string. Wong’s theatrics were a reference to Cantonese slang for framing someone, but even without the linguistic explanation, his actions made clear his displeasure with the way officers have been treating protesters.

Prodemocracy candidates such as Wong, buoyed by months of demonstrations, won huge gains in November’s district-council elections—the city’s only directly contested vote—capturing majorities in 17 of Hong Kong’s 18 district councils. Though the elections were for assemblies that have little power, the outcome was a sharp rebuke of Beijing and an embarrassing result for powerful pro-establishment parties, which have blamed the current political climate on Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, and her disastrous handling of a controversial extradition bill. Prodemocracy councilors, for their part, have reveled in the victory and discord: When they officially began their tenures this month, they made quick work of turning their positions into a continuation of the protest movement.

District councilors do not make laws, working instead on community-related issues and overseeing day-to-day neighborhood tasks. But already it is clear that the newly elected representatives have plans to seize their popular mandates and use their positions to aggressively challenge Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government. Generally formulaic meetings have become contentious, raucous events live-streamed to thousands of viewers. Councilors say they will continue to press police for answers on their actions, investigate a mob attack by alleged triads in July, scrap a proxy-voting system that they argue was used by pro-Beijing members to evade debates, and examine the finances of previous pro-Beijing councils, looking for irregularities in funding distribution. (One notable project that has drawn the prodemocracy camp’s ire is a proposed multimillion-dollar musical water fountain that was approved by pro-Beijing councilors.)

They have begun using the district councils to turn Hong Kong’s mass street protests into a lasting and permanent movement, one of several ways in which pro-democracy campaigners here are trying to shift political power in the territory. The momentum built up through one-million-strong rallies in June has also, for example, led to the formation of dozens of new labor unions that seek to end the dominance of pro-Beijing business lobbies and advocate for patronizing only businesses sympathetic to the protests. “I think that the district councils can be a base for the democratic movement in Hong Kong,” Wong told me after his encounter with the police chief.

Ma Ngok, a politics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told me councilors were in a good position to confront police brass and scrutinize finances, but he said they could also have a more profound impact. Ma said he had already seen some representatives in their neighborhoods, meeting and answering questions from residents, a sharp contrast to pro-Beijing councilors who largely interacted with and funneled funds to affiliated patronage groups, or what Ma described as “patriotic clients.” The assemblies’ lack of wide-ranging powers, he explained, even held some advantages: “The good thing about that powerlessness is that people don’t have a lot of expectations.”

On the day of Wong’s pork protest, Tang had been summoned by councilors to answer questions about police conduct during the protests, and anticipation of a showdown turned the meeting into a political spectacle. (Public trust in the police has collapsed since protests began, and there is widespread support for an independent inquiry into the numerous allegations of the misuse of force. Lam has rejected those demands, saying that claims of police violence are “a campaign smearing and demonizing the police.”) On the 14th floor of a drab office tower, journalists spilled out of the meeting room into narrow hallways and jammed themselves into doorways, holding their cameras above their head to catch the proceedings inside. Officials hurried to print a new batch of press passes to accommodate the influx of reporters. Outside the building, dozens of sunglasses-wearing pro-police protesters gathered, waving Chinese flags and holding posters depicting valiantly posed officers, clad in futuristic body armor.

Wong told me later that the issue of police misconduct was personal: He alleges he and others were beaten by officers in a police van in 2014, and he has sued the force. The case is ongoing. His pork stunt grabbed press attention, and a few laughs. He was happy to hear Tang say that the police were looking into expanding CCTV systems in police stations, but without a firm timeline, he remained highly skeptical that it would be implemented. Tang was more defiant on other issues, refusing to apologize for police actions and saying instead that “rioters” owed the city an apology. As prodemocracy councilors put forward a motion to condemn the force, government officials and police then walked out of the meeting, later saying that they did so because the proposal was based on “unfounded allegations.”

Seated near Wong was Sam Yip, another district councilor who in November ousted a pro-Beijing incumbent who had held his seat since 1988, the year after Yip was born. Yip, who was himself arrested in September, kept a white construction helmet on the meeting-room table and, during a brief break, strapped it on as he walked into the hallway. It was meant, he said, to serve as a reminder of the protesters. A lanyard around his neck held his identification card, serving not just its obvious purpose but also to needle police officers who frequently remove or obscure the IDs they are required to wear on their uniforms.

Yip told me he wanted to run for office after attending the Umbrella Movement protests in 2014 with his younger brother. Inside areas occupied by protesters, he said, activists and demonstrators shared similar ideas, but just outside, pro-Beijing parties had set up shop and were more organized, with greater resources to promote their own message. “It made me and my friends think, Where is our district councilor? Where are the prodemocracy district councilors?” Yip ran in 2015, but lost. Now in office, he said he had discovered the job was “way busier than what I thought before,” but he was adjusting to the pace and balancing more traditional council matters, such as traffic congestion and holiday decorations, with the broader prodemocracy fight.

“It’s a tough road,” said Jordan Pang, a university student who serves with Wong and Yip. “It’s our time to prove ourselves, that we can do a better job at district works and at the same time fight for democracy.” At 21, Pang is the minimum allowable age to serve as a councilor. He scored one of the elections’ most jarring upsets in November, when he defeated the vice chairman of Hong Kong’s largest pro-Beijing party, who is also a member of the city-wide assembly and Lam’s cabinet. The upset caught the attention of China Daily, a Beijing mouthpiece, which lamented that voters had not made a “rational decision.” Pang, who still lives in a university dorm, said he might need to skip a few classes to fulfill all of his duties.

At another council meeting, across Victoria Harbor in the Kowloon district, I waited for an elevator to take me to the floor where the council met. When it arrived, the doors opened and a crowd of pro-Beijing representatives and assistants rushed out. The council, I later learned, had moved to read a statement in support of the protests and observe a moment of silence for those injured during demonstrations. Opponents of the effort had walked out.

Upstairs, Timothy Lee, 26, a newly elected councilor, was taking stock of his first meeting. “It was a bit chaotic,” he told me. Prodemocracy lawmakers, used to being in the minority, have a history of protesting—half a dozen were disqualified from Hong Kong’s mini-parliament in 2016 after they demonstrated during the oath-taking ceremony—but this time, “there was some disorderly conduct by pro-Beijing members, which is very unusual.”

Lee had planned to run for his district council before protests began last summer, but said the demonstrations invigorated his efforts. He now wanted to use his newfound, albeit limited, powers to meet with imprisoned protesters. Like all the other councilors I spoke with, he had no illusions about how the protests had helped his campaign. “I don’t see this as my win,” he said. “I didn’t get elected on my own merits; it is because the people have a very, very strong desire for change.”