It’s lonely on the Left in Hong Kong

Amid continuing mass protests in Hong Kong, Bennett Murray speaks to Avery Ng, the leader of the city’s most leftwing party within the democracy movement.

Avery Ng does not have the air of an anti-establishment socialist party leader currently between stints in jail about him. Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, he has no problem blending into the crowd in the Starbucks when we meet at an upscale shopping mall in Hong Kong’s Admiralty business district on the second day of a city-wide strike in early September. Only his black t-shirt with a red rose and wheat stalk gives away his sympathies: Ng is chairperson of Hong Kong’s League of Social Democrats (LSD), which occupies the furthest left position in the democracy movement.

Our coffee date took place in the thirteenth week of mass protests that continue to rock Hong Kong, a pitched battle between a mass movement decrying mainland China’s encroaching control of the semi-independent territory and the city’s pro-Beijing (and mostly unelected) government. While the protests began over a bill, withdrawn on 4 September, which would have allowed extradition of Hongkongers to the mainland, it has since evolved into a general movement encompassing long-standing grievances toward the territory’s deteriorating ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement with the rest of China. It has proven to be, observers suggest, Beijing’s greatest domestic political challenge since 1989’s Tiananmen Square protests.

Weekend nights since June have featured, almost without exception, violent clashes between riot police and the more radical protesters on the city’s frontlines. Thousands have been arrested or injured, some gravely. Even when the city is relatively quiet, ubiquitous, freshly graffitied slogans such as ‘If we burn, you burn with us’ and ‘Chinazi’ remind passers-by of the simmering unrest. 

Yet in a city where leftism is associated with the oppressive Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Ng says the situation gets lonely for democratic socialists.

‘I think in the West there is this misconception that the Communist Party still has some elements of communism in it. It does not.’ Avery Ng. Photo: Bennett Murray 

‘That word “Left” has a strange, weird twist in Hong Kong historically,’ he says, with leftism often equated locally with the CCP, a party Ng considers to be far-right these days.

‘The moment you say “leftist movement”, they think of the 1967 riots,’ he adds, referring to riots by Hong Kong communists triggered by the Cultural Revolution just across the border from what was then a British colony. 

LSD, a party whose last legislator was disqualified from office in 2017, has always had trouble pushing its agenda in a city that Milton Friedman once described as a ‘laboratory experiment’ in unadulterated capitalism. While Ng says notions of universal healthcare and housing are popular, Hongkongers tend to deviate back toward the centre when push comes to shove. 

‘Because of the lack of political awakening or awareness, and because of the neoliberal ideological hold in Hong Kong for so long, people believe in contradictory ideas,’ he explains. 

LSD does, however, have prominent members at the forefront of the protest movement. Jimmy Sham, convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, is a member, while the flamboyant ex-legislator and activist Leung Kwok-hung preceded Ng as LSD chair. 

Ng’s own political career in LSD has included multiple run-ins with the law. In June, shortly after the beginning of the current bout of protests, he was jailed after losing an appeal against a conviction from last year of leaking information about an ongoing corruption investigation (Ng himself had been the one to initially report the alleged graft to authorities). He was imprisoned for one month before being released on bail, although he suspects that he will lose his appeal at his upcoming court hearing. 

Ng was also acquitted this year over a 2017 conviction for assault – he had thrown a tuna sandwich at the then Hong Kong chief executive CY Leung in 2016 but had inadvertently hit a cop instead. Additionally, he has an incitement conviction under his belt over a 2016 protest at Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong.

For the current protests, however, Ng says LSD does not promote street clashes, instead preferring to mobilize mass labour strikes to further the cause.

‘You are just creating clashes after clashes with no real message, so that’s why tactically we don’t agree with that,’ he says, adding he has no moral qualms about the frontline protesters. ‘Don’t get me wrong, LSD has for many years had clashes with police.’

Ng is also concerned that far-right activists have embedded themselves in the frontline. While he is quick to point out that the vast majority clashing with cops are not rightwing – many are leftist friends of LSD – the presence of some activists who Ng equates with Britain’s UKIP troubles him. These rightwingers, he says, are adamantly opposed to mainland Chinese immigration to the city, something that LSD wholeheartedly supports. 

Far away from the frontlines, there is also a tendency of overseas support for Hong Kong to stem largely from conservatives, which Ng attributes to a combination of conservative geopolitical sensibilities and a general ignorance on China issues among Western leftists. He laments that in the US it is usually the likes of Senator Marco Rubio or Vice President Mike Pence who make the most noise on Hong Kong.

‘These guys [are] speaking out in solidarity for Hong Kong, and I keep thinking, “Fucking hell, where’s Bernie? Where’s AOC?”’ he says, referring to US Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

Ng admits that some of the messaging from Hongkongers can be confusing for leftists. Images of protesters bearing American flags and appeals to Trump to ‘liberate’ Hong Kong have circulated in Western media, as have images of demonstrators waving the colonial-era flag.

‘The American flag guys pray for Donald Trump or the Americans to intervene and fight China to liberate Hong Kong,’ says Ng, adding that he sees the tendency as a false hope for salvation distinct from support for rightwing politics. 

As for the imperial flags, which Ng says he would like to burn, they are the result of misguided nostalgia among some youngsters with no recollection of Hong Kong under British rule. 

‘It is misinformed and not true because the colonial days were just as bad as today, if not worse,’ he says.

Neither groups are particularly numerous nor representative of the movement, he says, imploring foreign leftists to take a closer look at Hong Kong and China more generally. 

‘I think in the West there is still this misconception that the Communist Party still has some elements of communism in it. It does not,’ he says. ‘The Communist Party is the most rightwing, state-capitalist power in the history of the world.’