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The Past, Present and Future of Hong Kong: Brian Leung's Story

What was your impression of the HK government as a child?

When I grew up in Hong Kong, we certainly didn’t have a democratic government, but we did have a liberal society. It was a rising vibrant civil society that was full of nascent organizations, heated debates, and constant mobilizations. The 2003 July 1st protest was particularly memorable because it forced the government to yield to the will of the people, so was the annual June Fourth candlelight vigil that introduced to me the ideas of democracy and human rights. We thought we could change the government, and democratization was around the corner -- if it was not 2007/08, it must be 2012 when we would achieve universal suffrage for both our Legislature and Chief Executive, which obviously didn’t happen. 

Brian Leung in LegCo during the 2019 Anti-Extradition Protests | PC: HKFP


Was being a politician your childhood dream? If not, what was your Childhood dream, other than being a politician?

Yes, certainly. Politics, when I was still a teenager, was hopeful, vigorous, and exciting. I admired political leaders who were phenomenal orators in the Legislative Council, and student activists who led a new wave of protests and social movements. I have been very active in running elections for student bodies since my high school years. In fact, I received more votes as a student leader than what the past Chief Executives did (e.g. 689) -- and that says a lot about how normalized the expectation was for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. 

Moreover, my formative years were heavily influenced by my involvement in the Student Union of my alma mater, the University of Hong Kong (HKU). It was modelled after the British parliamentary system, where we had an elaborate structure comprising constitution, by-law, regulations, committees, and so on. I thoroughly enjoyed delivering speeches and arguing as a Councilor in our Chamber, and studied the rules and regulations as a law student. So, to me, checks and balances, accountability and self-governance were never abstract ideals -- we have been practicing them on a daily basis. Given this immersion, I certainly considered being a politician, though my academic interest later grew and changed my trajectory that I chose to pursue graduate study. 

Brian Leung giving a speech at the June Fourth Candlelight Vigil at HKU in 2015 | PC: CitizenNews


What led to your activism?

Two social movements galvanized me into activism. The first was the 2012 Anti-National Education Movement led by Joshua Wong. It forced me to question my identity as a Chinese that was inculcated into us so deeply. With other fellow students and mentors, we developed a discourse on Hongkonger as a distinct national and cultural identity, which turned into an edited volume with over ten thousand copies sold. 

Brian Leung in a debate with Lawmaker Eddie Chu on his book about Hong Kong national identity | PC: Initium


The second was the 2014 Umbrella Movement after Beijing rejected any meaningful democratic reform, led by Alex Chow and other student leaders. The motto of that time was “hope resides in the people; change starts with our resistance.” We and countless other Hongkongers were exposed to pepper spray, tear gas, batons, and riot police for the first time in our lives. We fought back, occupied major areas of the city for 79 days, and achieved something that had never been done in our history. It was a pivotal movement that drove me and my peers to think -- What more can be done to bring freedom and democracy to Hong Kong? It then even became a mission that has since been deeply ingrained in our lives. 

Protestors carrying the iconic yellow umbrellas during the 2014 Umbrella Movement | PC: Tyrone Siu (Reuters)


During the past 2 years in exile, what have you observed of the Hongkonger diaspora in the US politics realm? What has been great? What could improve?

Diversity abounds in the diaspora community. There are Hongkongers who have come to the US for a few decades and established their professional lives and families here, while others fled to the US due to imminent danger in the past two years. Though they share the same love for Hong Kong, their lived experience during the 2019 movement and their perception toward Hong Kong and US politics might exhibit some differences. How do we build trust and a sense of community among US-Hongkongers, while promoting the exchange of diverse life stories, political ideas, and strategic views? This is a critical question for all of us moving forward together. 

However, I am deeply encouraged by persistent activism by Hongkongers in many states in the US. Not only did they play an important role in the 2019 movement in terms of building a transnational resources network and conducting local mobilization and lobbying, they remain committed to building local communities and supporting the people in Hong Kong and the US. Furthermore, the wealth of talented Hongkongers in the US who have differentiated themselves into various professional sectors -- academia, business, technology, journalism, human rights NGOs, arts and so on -- is a huge advantage that will continue to enrich our work in shaping the global dialogue about Hong Kong from different professions and angles. 

Hongkongers and Los Angeles locals came together for the 2-year anniversary of the June 12th protest | PC: HKFLA


What are your goals as the new Director of HKDC? And how do you see yourself in the near future?

My goals are threefold. First, to strengthen the organization foundation of HKDC such that it is conducive to recruit more talent, expand its work, and establish a robust presence in the US to amplify Hongkongers’ voices for years to come. Second, to build on the past success in advocacy and lobbying and continue to fight for policies and legislation that would benefit Hongkongers and Hong Kong’s democracy and freedom. Third, to facilitate community contribution and joint effort among other leading organizations in our advocacy and lobbying work.


I see myself as the bearer of the spirit and legacy of the 2019 movement, where inclusiveness, belief in the complementarity of each other’s efforts, and solidarity despite tactical differences prevailed. I believe that HKDC’s work should embody those values, especially given HKDC was founded in September, 2019, at the height of the movement. 

HKDC with policymakers in Washington, DC in 2020 | PC: HKDC


What can Americans do to help to change the future of you and HK?

The US government and people must realize the challenges posed by an authoritarian China are pressing and multifaceted. They have to look no further than Hong Kong, which foreshadows the danger that other free societies are facing: the subversion of electoral and judicial institutions, the weaponization of financial and economic integration to stifle dissent, the united front work to co-opt social elites, the infringement of internet freedom, press freedom, data security and so on. The US government must devise a comprehensive foreign policy to counter China’s ambition in asserting dominance across numerous issues and sectors on one hand, and to buttress allies who embrace freedom and democracy, including Hong Kong, on the other. I think the experiences by Hongkongers can certainly enrich those conversations. 


This is not just about the governments though. People in the US should also be vocal in calling out politicians who remain silent about China’s atrocity, or US corporations that are complicit in China’s violation of human rights in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Putting pressure on Mayer Brown, a Chicago-based law firm, to stop partaking in the removal of the Pillar of Shame is one example; boycotting fashion retailers who use cotton that involves Uyghur forced labor is another. 

Mayer Brown, acting on behalf of HKU, sent a letter to the Hong Kong Alliance to remove the Pillar of Shame, which has been standing on campus since 1997 to pay tribute to the victims of the June Fourth Tiananmen Square crackdown | PC: CNN


Furthermore, the US government should fully utilize the reviewing and sanctioning mechanisms granted by existing laws, including the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, and the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, to hold all officials and financial institutions accountable for their complicity in violating Hong Kong’s freedom and autonomy. Further legislation should also be passed to protect the freedoms of Hong Kongers, such as offering humanitarian pathways and supporting press and internet freedom in local society, and to promote more rigorous compliance for higher human rights standards in business and technological sectors in the US.


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