HONG KONG — Activist Edward Leung became prominent because of the now-banned slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times,” but he did not manage to see it become an outcry during the city’s mass protests in 2019.
The activist was in jail following a previous ruling on riots when protesters rallied in Hong Kong that year, adopting his philosophy of strong resistance in month-long clashes with police. Now the 30-year-old Mr. Leung, who left prison before dawn on Wednesday, stepped back to a deeply changed city.
The streets have become quiet. The dissent has been crushed and many opposition figures have been detained since the introduction of China’s national security law in June 2020.
The release of Mr. Leung – who was once a key figure in the city’s nascent independence movement – comes after authorities detained dozens of high-profile pro-democracy advocates over the past 19 months. Pro-Beijing politicians have expressed concern that Mr Leung has not repented and may continue to be influential in the city. Hong Kong’s protest movement, however, has almost been defeated and mostly keeps its voice through political exile abroad.
While in prison, Mr. Leung did not directly comment on his views or say what his plans may be for life after jail, although some supporters expect him to keep a low profile given the political climate.
Mr. Leung wrote on his Facebook page early Wednesday that he has been released and that he would leave the spotlight, stop using social media and turn down all media interviews. He added that he was subject to a surveillance order, a rule for inmates released early.
“Separated for four years, I want to cherish this valuable time to be reunited with my family and return to a normal life with them,” he wrote before deleting his Facebook account. “Thank you for everyone’s care and love.”
Mr. Leung’s influence grew after his role in short-lived street fights in 2016, unlike anything the city had seen in decades. In what became known as the “Fishball Revolution”, an angry mob besieged a busy commercial district after government workers tried to clear out unauthorized shopkeepers selling Hong Kong-style street food during the lunar New Year holiday.
The quarrel developed into an outcry against the loss of the city’s traditions and culture, and at one point, a police officer fired his gun into the air.
Mr. Leung and other activist Ray Wong were later charged with rioting. Mens Mr. Wong fled to Germany and later obtained asylum, Mr. returned. Leung returned to Hong Kong from the United States – where he was a fellow at Harvard University – to appear in court. In 2018, he was sentenced to six years in prison. Prisoners can be released early under certain conditions, but the city’s Correctional Services Department declined to comment on his case, citing privacy.
Sir. Leung’s willingness to serve time increased his appeal among young protesters, said Baggio Leung, a former pro-independence lawmaker who was expelled from Beijing and now lives in Washington, DC.
“I think it was his sacrificial spirit too … that made the discussions he led more convincing,” Baggio Leung said. “He had the right to leave Hong Kong at the time, but he chose to stay to meet his obligations.”
During a failed election to the city’s Legislative Assembly in 2016, Edward Leung promoted what he said was the use of force against political violence. His ideas, including a strategy of decentralized protests, gained ground during the 2019 demonstrations, Baggio Leung said.
In a documentary about Mr Leung called “Lost in the Fumes”, the activist talked about fighting depression while unemployed and living in a divided apartment – one of many of Hong Kong’s notoriously small residential areas. He slurped grocery noodles, clapped on his guitar and smoked, and often cursed.
Frances Hui, who worked on her campaign and now lives in Washington, DC, said Mr Leung was charismatic, eloquent and related.
“He embodied the character of our young generation,” said the 22-year-old Mrs. Hui, describing her openness in the film about his mental health struggles and how participation in social movements made sense to his life.
Mr. Leung was born in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and moved to Hong Kong, then a British colony, when he was a year old. He studied philosophy at the University of Hong Kong, but did not break into the political scene until after months of peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2014 proved to be unsuccessful.
He became a spokesman for the Hong Kong Indigenous, a pro-independence “localist” group, and emerged as a prominent figure in the growing political ideology of preserving and cultivating a Hong Kong identity. He withdrew from the group before the trial.
His message struck a chord with younger activists who were tired of what they saw as an ineffective campaign led for decades by an older generation of traditional and moderate Democrats. During the riots of 2019, thousands of protesters flew across the city to vandalize Chinese banks and subways and often clashed with police in clouds of tear gas.
The slogan “Liberate Hong Kong”, which was first invented by Mr. Leung’s election campaign, was often on signs and in song. Its significance was hotly debated, but a court has since ruled it violates national security law, which makes segregation a crime. Impressions of the slogan have led to immediate arrests.
As the clashes intensified, Mr Leung published an open letter from the prison that seemed to call for restraint.
“Because of your love for Hong Kong, you have shown incredible bravery and changed the history of Hong Kong,” Mr Leung said in a Facebook letter sent on his behalf in July 2019. “But please do not let hatred rule you . “
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London, said the proponent of more powerful resistance encouraged Beijing to react harder, although tighter control of the city was inevitable.
During a legislative session in October, Priscilla Leung, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, sought assurances from Hong Kong security chief that the city had ways of dealing with influential prisoners like Mr Leung after their release, and compared the need to crack down on potential unrest to ” to sail a boat against the current. “
Ms Hui, his election campaign leader, said she believes the authorities will keep a watchful eye on him after his release and is concerned that the national security law could be used retroactively against him.
“He had done nothing at all, but he still played such an important role in a movement,” she said.
Write to Elaine Yu at firstname.lastname@example.org
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