Rachel Wong | Hong Kong Free Press

“I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I always imagine the police will be at my doorstep at 6 am the next morning to make arrests.”

Just over a year since she and hundreds of other democrats swept the board in Hong Kong’s district council elections, Leticia Wong is gloomy about the future — and unsure whether she can even escape arrest.

Many see the November 2019 polls, in which democrats took control of 17 out of 18 councils, as Hong Kong’s last democratic elections after higher-level Legislative Council elections scheduled for September this year were postponed for at least 12 months. Last month, four opposition LegCo members were ousted for alleged disloyalty and 15 more resigned in sympathy.

Wong said Hong Kong elections had actually been unjust since candidates were ousted in 2016. Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who is now in jail, was also barred from running in 2019.

The government’s fast-track clampdown made Wong fear that district councillors may be next in the firing line. Oath-taking requirements for public servants may be extended to district councils. The disqualification of LegCo lawmakers deemed disloyal to the city also creates fear among district councillors who were active in anti-government protests last year,

For the time being, she and many others are trying to safeguard their positions and fight for more resources within the system.

Several police officers barged inside her office when it opened, warning that the display of a flag reading “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” may be in breach of the new national security law. They did not bring charges.

Wong said she was grateful that residents of the district she serves in Shatin are understanding. They are experiencing changes in society and feeling equally frustrated, she added.

new town plaza sha tin june 12 2020
Credit: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The pro-democracy movement of 2019 galvanised many residents into turning out to vote in the district council elections. Wong said they were also eager for some new people to take over.

Many amateur politicians ran in hopes of transforming the usually less-politicised district councils into another battlefield against the government. All the council seats were contested in 2019, unlike previous elections.

Amid the city’s political polarisation, Wong admitted that interacting with or serving residents of opposing political views was a challenge. The pandemic also prevented her from organising events to bring the community together, such as a plan to turn her office into a public venue where residents can gather.

Her new identity as a councillor also constrained her actions, particularly during protester-police standoffs. Dozens of district councillors wearing passes were arrested during protests in the past year, even though they claimed to be monitoring police.

In November last year, the campuses of Chinese University of Hong Kong and Polytechnic University of Hong Kong saw some of the most violent battles between police and protesters. The events coincided with the final stretch of the elections and Wong felt “schizophrenic” about her roles. She eventually cut down on campaigning time and worked on something else related to the pro-democracy movement.

“District councillors have an ambivalent identity at protest sites. On the one hand, you don’t want the government to draw equivalence between councillors and protesters. It puts everyone at risk,” she said.

On the other hand, juggling her voters’ expectations and her constraints as a councillor became difficult. “It is hard not to confront the government.”

Some district councillors receive criticism for seeking help from the force in managing district affairs such as controlling crowds and illegal parking. 

“It is indeed controversial,” Wong said. “I would avoid cooperating with officers unless it is the last resort. But I am not judgemental about other councillors either.”

At the end of the day, she said, district councillors have a role within the establishment. She would not compromise her political advocacy and was carefully using her mandate granted by popular election.

Covid-19 crowd restrictions and the Beijing-imposed national security law, plus the mass resignations from the legislature, have curbed the pro-democracy movement and Wong questioned whether district councils could still propel it forward.

“It is in fact shaky to pin hopes on district councillors. We don’t even know when we will be arrested,” she said. “If we lost control of councils at all levels, can the movement still go on?”

The government’s Home Affairs Department, which is tasked with assisting district councils, can prove uncooperative if members broach political issues deemed to be outside their remit.

“The political movement now lacks push factors with only district councillors remaining to speak out within the system. By setting limits on various aspects, they wish to dilute the attention or impact we have on the public.”

The rent of Wong’s office forJuly has yet to be reimbursed, as the department claimed that it was used for holding democratic primaries, which the government declared to be unlawful.

“In the past there was too much emphasis placed on councils,” Wong said, playing down what they can achieve. “Having unrealistic expectations in any protest strategy is unhealthy.”