The leader of Hong Kong’s leaderless protest movement is a philosophy student behind bars

Jailed, but not forgotten.
Jailed, but not forgotten.
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu
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The past eight weeks of demonstrations in Hong Kong have been described as largely leaderless. And for the most part, that appears to be true. No single figure has emerged as the face of the movement; instead, protesters have collectively made decisions and plans through online forums and group chats.

But there is one person to whom many protesters have turned to for inspiration and guidance, even though he hasn’t been physically present at any of the demonstrations: jailed activist Edward Leung.

The 28-year-old is currently serving a six-year prison sentence, handed down last year in June, for rioting and assaulting a police officer during the so-called Fishball Revolution of 2016, when clashes broke out after police tried to issue tickets to unlicensed street food hawkers. A former philosophy student at the University of Hong Kong, Leung first rose to prominence as the founder of Hong Kong Indigenous, a localist group advocating for the city’s independence from China. He charted a meteoric, albeit short-lived, rise as a political figure, taking a surprise 15% of the vote in a February 2016 by-election—not enough to win, but still seen as a huge coup for the fringe independence movement.

Several months later, Leung, along with five other candidates, were banned from running in the September 2016 Legislative Council elections because of their pro-independence stance. This set the stage for the disqualification of six elected lawmakers in 2017, who were accused of not taking their oaths properly.

Though the current wave of protests in Hong Kong began in opposition to an extradition bill that would have allowed the city to send suspects to China to face trial, it has since morphed to encompass a broader set of demands, including greater democracy, an independent investigation into alleged police brutality, and the safeguarding of rights and freedoms that Hong Kongers are legally guaranteed.

Over the past two to three weeks, protesters have also begun to march with placards of Leung’s face. Meanwhile, Leung’s 2016 election slogan (link in Chinese)—”Reclaim Hong Kong! Revolution of our times!”—has roared back in full force, quickly becoming the clarion call of the current wave of protests (paywall).

The widespread use of the slogan marks a distinctive shift from targeted opposition to the extradition bill, and points to a re-emergence of localism as a mainstream sentiment. Localism emphasizes Hong Kong identity as separate to mainland Chinese, and fiercely protects the city’s values and traditions. On the extreme end of the localism spectrum are those who openly advocate Hong Kong’s independence from China.

In a letter dated July 26, Leung, who is currently studying for a social sciences degree from the Open University, addressed his missive to the people of Hong Kong. He acknowledged that the summer has been a “hot and endless” one of protests, expressed sadness at the recent violence, praised his fellow citizens for their love and “limitless courage,” and entreated his readers to “not let hatred overtake you.”