Written by Elaine Yu
Some days, Cathy Yau wanders down darkish alleys searching for rats to poison. Other days, she helps meals banks ship meals to older folks. Often her cellphone rings with calls from constituents: neighbors asking about their rights throughout a police stop-and-frisk, or easy methods to finest navigate town’s welfare paperwork.
Such is life for a Hong Kong district councilor.
“I do things that nobody’s directed you to do, but which no one else would do if I didn’t,” she stated.
Yau, a 37-year-old former police officer, is among the many a whole bunch of pro-democracy candidates who have been elected to native authorities workplaces in Hong Kong in November 2019 on a wave of anti-establishment sentiment that adopted months of road protests.
As the political local weather in Hong Kong has quickly modified, the councilors’ advocacy for the Chinese territory’s fragile democratic establishments has made them the newest goal of Communist Party officers in Beijing. In current months, about 50 of town’s 392 opposition councilors have been arrested on prices associated to the 2019 protests, marketing campaign funds and violations of a contentious anti-sedition legislation.
Since the passage in June of the nationwide safety legislation — laws that grants Beijing broad powers to crack down on political crimes in Hong Kong — pro-democracy activists have been surveilled and arrested. In November, Beijing pressured the ouster of 4 elected pro-democracy lawmakers from town’s most important legislative physique, a purge that prompted the remaining of the opposition to resign en masse.
The job of district councilor, the bottom rung of public workplace in Hong Kong, was by no means a very political place. Councilors usually tended to mundane neighborhood issues like pest management and the places of new bus stops.
Now, they’re the final line of protection in maintaining town’s pro-democracy opposition alive. And Beijing doesn’t plan to make it simple.
“When the opposition walked out of the legislature, the district councils became one of the last remaining institutions that could voice public interests,” stated Edmund Cheng, an affiliate professor of public coverage on the City University of Hong Kong. “What happens to them will put to the test Hong Kong’s resilience as a pluralistic society and how it’s governed.”
Since taking over their posts a 12 months in the past, many district councilors have sought to redefine the workplace — with blended outcomes. They have boycotted conferences with senior officers, accused town’s police chief of mendacity and extracted details about the surveillance infrastructure of their neighborhoods. In flip, authorities representatives have staged walkouts when the councilors tried to debate political points at conferences.
Next month, for the primary time, all 452 district councilors must swear a loyalty oath, a brand new requirement below the nationwide safety legislation and the newest take a look at for the remaining elected opposition leaders.
Some pro-establishment district councilors have grown impatient with the pro-democracy bloc’s techniques. “If they refuse to communicate with the government, are they still carrying out their duties?” requested Frankie Ngan, a pro-Beijing councilor. “I’m doubtful.”
The marketing campaign by the pro-democracy councilors to tackle the federal government underscores a way that every part at this time in Hong Kong — from sustaining the streets to amassing rubbish — is political.
Yau, the district councilor, works out of a cluttered workplace within the downtown district of Causeway Bay, a stone’s throw from Victoria Park. In the early days of the 2019 protests, she patrolled the neighborhood as a police officer. That June, Yau watched as a sea of protesters calling for democracy and police accountability streamed previous, shouting: “Corrupt cops! Corrupt cops!”
At the time, Yau thought to herself: “This isn’t who I am. And if I didn’t have to work, I think I’d be marching with you.” As the police cracked down on the protesters that summer time, she resigned, feeling disillusioned.
Tear gasoline and barricades haven’t been seen on the streets of Causeway Bay in additional than a 12 months, however the space nonetheless bears the scars of the protests. Holes within the pavement left as demonstrators eliminated bricks to throw on the police have been full of concrete, making a patchwork of purple and grey. The streets stay devoid of trash cans after the authorities hauled them away when protesters used them to construct roadblocks. Yau lobbied to have the trash cans returned, and the federal government changed them with much less imposing plastic baggage.
Leung Ming-yu, a Causeway Bay resident who sells backpacks at a neighborhood road market, stated he anticipated district councilors to prioritize serving residents’ on a regular basis wants over politics. But he additionally stated he was disenchanted to see some establishment-backed officers “acting as yes-men” and approving pricey authorities tasks that didn’t profit the neighborhood.
“Of course it’s a good thing to have a very competent councilor who can solve all of our problems,” Leung stated. “But we want a genuine councilor, so we can feel like we have a higher level of participation.”
Yau stated she had tried to stroll the road between striving for democracy and ensuring she will survive to work one other day for her constituents. As a outcome, she has shied away from extra delicate political points. When a bunch of fugitive Hong Kong activists have been captured at sea final 12 months by the mainland authorities — a case that touched a uncooked nerve within the metropolis — she left the work to different lawmakers who had the institutional standing and sources to advocate for the activists’ rights in custody.
Despite the divisions between the pro-democracy and pro-establishment camps, Yau stated she deliberate to concentrate on the little widespread floor the teams nonetheless share.
“Despite our clashes with the authorities in the council meetings, we still need to work with government departments on everyday issues,” she stated. “I just hope to work on things that the authorities think make sense and that actually benefit the community.”