By-election a measure of support for 'Reclaim HK' group

With activist Edward Leung (left) chipping away at the pro-democracy base, barrister Alvin Yeung (centre) is now running neck and neck with pro-establishment candidate Holden Chow (right).
With activist Edward Leung (above) chipping away at the pro-democracy base, barrister Alvin Yeung is now running neck and neck with pro-establishment candidate Holden Chow.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
With activist Edward Leung (left) chipping away at the pro-democracy base, barrister Alvin Yeung (centre) is now running neck and neck with pro-establishment candidate Holden Chow (right).
With activist Edward Leung chipping away at the pro-democracy base, barrister Alvin Yeung (above) is now running neck and neck with pro-establishment candidate Holden Chow.
With activist Edward Leung (left) chipping away at the pro-democracy base, barrister Alvin Yeung (centre) is now running neck and neck with pro-establishment candidate Holden Chow (right).
With activist Edward Leung chipping away at the pro-democracy base, barrister Alvin Yeung is now running neck and neck with pro-establishment candidate Holden Chow (above).

Traditional Chinese dispensaries, peddling items such as infant formula, line the front of the shopping mall. Suitcase-toting Chinese tourists form part of the human crush.

It was here in Sha Tin, a massive suburb in the northern part of Hong Kong, that Hong Kong Indigenous got into rowdy altercations with mainland shoppers a year ago, in an attempt to "reclaim Sha Tin".

Yesterday, the radical localist group was back - this time as part of a broader bid to "reclaim Hong Kong". It was stumping on behalf of its spokesman Edward Leung, who is running against six others in a by-election to become the legislator representing Sha Tin and other areas in New Territories East.

About 43 per cent of some 940,000 eligible voters had cast their ballot about an hour before polls closed at 10.30pm.

Mr Leung, 24, a philosophy undergraduate from the University of Hong Kong (HKU), has catapulted into the limelight in the past few weeks following violent clashes between police and protesters in Mongkok during the Chinese New Year.

Hong Kong Indigenous, which said it was defending a beloved local festive tradition of street hawking, is accused of orchestrating the disorder. Mr Leung was arrested for rioting and is now out on bail.

The bespectacled student is one reason why the by-election, which will give the victor just six months in the Legislative Council (LegCo) before elections in September, has garnered so much attention.

How much support he attracts will indicate the extent to which mainstream society buys his group's argument that conventional methods to "safeguard Hong Kong's identity and democratic values from Communist China" have failed - and that street violence should now be deployed.

The group also calls for Hong Kong independence.

Such thinking, while still on the fringe, appears to have gained ground in recent times, especially among the young.

HKU law student Samantha Fung, 19, a first-time voter who supports Mr Leung, said: "He is the one we have hope in, the one who I think can lead to change. We need a shake-up in the status quo."

While she does not support violence, it could help to "attract attention" to the cause, she added.

In particular, any shake-up will be in the pro-democracy movement. Eyes will be on how many votes Mr Leung siphons off from Mr Alvin Yeung, 34, a barrister from the Civic Party and protege of Mr Ronny Tong, who held the seat for 11 years before resigning last year. Mr Yeung had been expected to sail to victory.

But with Mr Leung chipping away at the pro-democracy base, he was running neck and neck with solicitor Holden Chow, 36, from the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

At press time, an exit poll indicated that Mr Yeung might narrowly pip Mr Chow at the finish line. Mr Leung was in third place.

The stakes are high. A win for Mr Chow will neatly flip the razor-thin majority that the pan-democrats now hold in the LegCo's 35 geographical constituencies, granting voting power to the pro-establishment camp when it comes to legislator-proposed Bills.

Mr Chow has already promised that, if elected, he will push for a change in LegCo rules to ban filibustering - a tactic regularly used by pro-democracy legislators to block voting on government proposals.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2016, with the headline 'By-election a measure of support for 'Reclaim HK' group'. Print Edition | Subscribe