Worldview: Trudy Rubin: Hong Kong activists set example for U.S. counterparts

Can the energy of last weekend's postinaugural march be channeled into electoral politics?

This question becomes more urgent as President Trump lays the ground for wrecking-ball policies that will weaken America at home and abroad.

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Having recently returned from Hong Kong, I suggest that protest organizers study the approach of young activists there against a far more fearsome opponent - the communist government in China. When their massive demonstrations failed to budge Beijing, they tried a very different tack.

To understand their achievements, a little history is needed. Hong Kong, with its fabulous harbor and elegant skyscrapers set against Victoria Peak, was handed back to China by its British colonial masters in 1997. China agreed to let the city retain its capitalist economy along with many democratic freedoms for 50 years - including legislative elections, an independent judiciary, and a free press. Under this "one country, two systems" dispensation, the chief executive of Hong Kong was ultimately supposed to be chosen by "universal suffrage."

Bit by bit, China has encroached on those freedoms - squeezing educators, the judiciary, and the media - even kidnapping four booksellers who printed books critical of the Beijing government.

Beijing's advance rejection of fully democratic elections for the chief executive in 2017 led tens of thousands of Hong Kong students and other pro-democracy activists to take to the streets in the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. For 79 days the activists peacefully occupied major thoroughfares, clearing their trash each day and using umbrellas to fend off tear gas and rain.

Ultimately, the activists lost. China stood firm, the protesters dispersed, and Beijing further curbed Hong Kong freedoms.

"After the Umbrella Revolution, people were discouraged. They felt helpless," recalled Nathan Law, a slim, bespectacled 23-year-old. Then head of the Hong Kong student union, he was a key protest organizer. "Support for the democratic movement had grown, but people were tired of expressing that by protesting," he said.

Distraught, divided among themselves, the organizers could have given up. There was much finger-pointing between more radical elements and traditional democracy activists.

But finally, says Law, the various factions took the long view - they would try to change the system from within.

"A core group of people became very active in electoral politics," Law told me. They organized new pro-democracy parties (including Demosisto, which Law chairs) in order to run for seats for Hong Kong's Legislative Council last September. "This was David vs. Goliath without the slingshot," says Margaret Ng, a Hong Kong lawyer and longtime democracy activist.

The young people helped organize the largest voter turnout since 1997, which handed pro-democracy forces 55 percent of the popular vote. Beijing-imposed rules prevented them from gaining a majority of the 70 seats, but the 29 they won are sufficient to block government changes to parliamentary rules or Hong Kong's constitution.

Moreover, unlike previous pro-democracy candidates who sought to work within China-imposed rules, six people under age 40 were elected on platforms that called for self-determination for Hong Kong. One of them was Law, the youngest of them all.

The story doesn't end there, however, and the struggle has only gotten tougher.

Under Beijing pressure, two of the six young lawmakers have been expelled from the council for failure to swear allegiance to Beijing using the mandatory oath. Four others, including Law, have been taken to court on charges that they, too, failed to deliver the oath properly - even though they had already been officially sworn in.

"I said every word of the oath," Law recalled in his legislative office, whose windows look out at ships in the harbor. "But I also quoted words from Gandhi, saying, 'I will not obey a regime that murdered the people.' "

If Law loses his case, he will have to pay onerous court costs and return all the salary he has received. His parents are blue-collar workers who don't have money to help him. "I could be bankrupt before I graduate from university," he says. "This is an example to others in the future."

When I asked him how he sleeps at night, he responded with incredible calmness. "I'm not blindly optimistic," he said. "But it is important to recognize that we are fighting a long battle and everything we do gains a little for the future. I am not afraid of being defeated as long as we have the courage to continue the war."

Was he worried that the election of Donald Trump would mean less U.S. support for democracy movements elsewhere? "People here believe in liberalism and freedom," he said, "and are a bit disappointed in the U.S. elections, but I still have to see how it goes.

"Democracy has a self-remedying capacity, checks and balances, and you can kick people out who rule badly. It is time for that factor to shine."

Law's message should be taken to heart by those who fear a Trump presidency. Hong Kong activists swapped protests for participation in electoral politics despite immense odds. They were successful but now must keep struggling. They deserve our support, and U.S. government attention. As Margaret Ng put it: "Hong Kong is not a sideshow. It is the only city in China with rule of law."

More than that, with their determined entry into local politics, Hong Kong's pro-democracy activists offer a road map for how their American counterparts should proceed.

trubin@phillynews.com