A Che for China

  • 11 February 2005
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Marxist revolutionary, former prisoner and now a member of Hong Kong's legislative council, the man known as Long Hair has become an icon for China's frustrated democracy movement. By Mark Godfrey

He's probably the only Hong Kong politician who rides the subway. And up in the New Territories, where the born-and-bred of Hong Kong live, they love Leung Gwok Hung for that. Here, the fast-talking, hippy-looking legislator is known affectionately by his nom-de-guerre, Cheung Mou, or Long Hair.

Pro-democracy, anti-Beijing, and in the front line of every demonstration against the city's unpopular ruler, Tung Chee-Wah, Long Hair's trademark is his grubby Che Guevara t-shirt. The 49-year-old self-described "Marxist revolutionary" was the surprise winner of a seat in last September's legislative council (LEGCO) elections in the city-state, running his campaign on a promise to "kick out the Protect-the-Emperor Gang". The Protect-the-Emperor Gang is an ancient Chinese way of referring to the officials and businessmen keen to keep a favourite emperor in power.

By his standards Long Hair was keeping a low key presence in the crowd when the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China (ADPDM) organised a vigil recently to mourn the death of Zhao Ziyang, China's former prime minister and the man blacklisted by his comrades for sympathising with the students who protested at Tienanmen Square in 1989.

Long Hair was seated on a box of candles amid the 15,000 gathered on a tropical January night in Victoria Park, passing white sticks of wax to passers-by.

Television cameras zoned in, newspaper photographers gathered and even here, at a memorial, locals asked him to pose for photos. None of the city's Democratic Party figures on the stage could command the kind of attention that follows this chain-smoking agitator. "Each time he goes to prison they shave his hair, so you know how long he's been out by how long his hair is," an old man holding a candle explained excitedly. He too wanted his photo taken.

Long Hair is the weird bright light in Hong Kong's polite but troubled political scene. He's also one of the most committed politicians in Hong Kong, where most legislators are part-timers bunking off finance and real estate jobs to attend legislative sittings. After the speeches were finished in Victoria Park we walked towards the pedestrianised shopping streets of Causeway Bay.

Long Hair handed out leaflets praising Zhao Ziyang for giving hope to Chinese democracy activists, his mobile phone number scribbled at the bottom of each flyer. A British-accented ex-pat walked up to shake his hand and tell him to "keep up the work… we've got a long way to go…".

Whatever the hippy appearance, Long Hair is a seasoned campaigner and an easy canvasser, switching between Cantonese banter and polished English to suit the audience. Long Hair wants the mainstream Democratic Party to get out on the streets too and to get more confrontational. He himself regularly grandstands at LEGCO meetings, shouting slogans such as: "Remember the Tienanmen martyrs!"

He's also developed policies on waste management, immigration laws and health welfare. "Democracy needs a platform, an agenda. The Democratic Party doesn't work hard enough to expand their platform and their appeal beyond simple suffrage and democratic rule. You have to give people a good reason why they should cast their vote for you. We had two huge pro-democracy marches last July but the Democrats held back afterwards. They didn't want to fight. We have to fight for democracy, for real and full democracy against Beijing."

There's no Long Hair and no fight in the mass of mainland China's 64 million Communist Party members. Politicians there are unelected Party officials, men like Gao Zhijie, secretary of the Qitaihe city Communist Party Central Committee, and Song Fatang, general secretary of the Communist Party in Heilongjiang province in northern China.

Short, tubby men with heavy jowls and hair dyed jet black, they're driven in black Audi 8 cars, the windows blacked out. Both prefer the white shirt and short black windbreaker favoured of Party officials around China when they're on public inspection tours. President Hu Jintao dresses like this too when he goes on walkabouts down in the provinces. Like Hu the two Qitaihe officials prefer black slacks pulled high with a shiny latched belt buckle.

Whenever there's a disaster or a coal mine accident Gao or Song will appear on site in their windbreakers and shiny buckles for the television cameras, to "direct operations" in state media speak. It doesn't seem to matter that either have no expertise in engineering or rescue work. China's provinces are ruled according to Party loyalty, not competence. A few hours watching and listening to him recently left this reporter as bored as I've been sitting through countless other Chinese politicians' speeches.

Gao was telling an audience of industrialists and foreign investors about the Party's "unrelenting efforts" to build a "well off society in an all-round way" for Qitaihe. Vague and admirable as it sounds that's become one of the most uttered phrases in China today because no Chinese journalist is trained to challenge officials like Gao for specifics, or to ask him about the pervasive corruption that mires the Party.

With dull leaders like Gao, it's no wonder the educated urban Chinese are apathetic about politics. A booming economy has delivered jobs and money for cars, houses and holidays. "As long as people have money they don't care, they work long hours and want escapism after work, not politics" says Chen Yuan Yuan, a secondary school teacher who moved to Beijing from the central province of Henan, 400 miles south.

"But if the economy collapses, people will get angry. Then the Communist Party will have trouble to control the social unrest that will definitely arise." Though she quotes the state textbook line on taboo issues like Tibet and Falun Gong (one a province of China, the other an evil cult). Chen says she's heard about protests against government policies in provincial cities. A protest in December by 70,000 locals over an official assaulting a local labourer turned into a riot in the south westerly city of Wangzhou. Communist Party offices were ransacked.

China is getting rich but the Communist Party will struggle to keep a lid on a disenfranchised, impoverished section of society. Over 80 million people live below the poverty line, according to official figures. Deng Xiaoping in his economic master plan for China said "a few people" should be allowed to get rich first. Twenty years on a minority of urban Chinese hold a majority stake of the country's private wealth. The farmers and laid off workers who have nothing to lose haven't shared in it.

Most Chinese will demure from openly criticising their government to a stranger, less to a foreigner. But jokes, cartoons and sexual innuendos about state leaders do the rounds of email inboxes in Beijing offices. A 27 year old party member, Eddy Chang is typical of the optimism of educated young Chinese.

The Beijing native has a degree in aviation science and works for the state flagship airline, Air China. But even though he drinks, goes to karaoke bars and prefers to be called by the western first name he gave himself in college, Chang is old-school Communist Party hack. "China isn't ready to follow the western political system. It must follow its own path. For the stability of the country we must follow what we're told to do by the Party. That's the system."

In poorer poor villages, less than a 100 kilometers from the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, impoverished, yellow-toothed farmers bitch loudly about taxes, polluted water, crumbling schools and non-existent healthcare. These people see Communist Party officials as self-serving and venal. In Xitiange, a hamlet of corn and goat farmers in Miyun county, north of the capital, the talk is of medical bills and taxes that locals can't afford. A Communist Party official "pocketed" money that was to be spent on surfacing the road connecting the village to the nearest tarred highway, one farmer told me, refusing to give his name. "The nearest hospital can't afford to pay nurses but the politicians spend money on big banquets anytime there's a festival or a bigshot visiting."

The standard excuse Communist Party gives for the absence of a free vote on the mainland is that the Chinese people aren't ready, aren't educated enough. But pilot programmes in local elections have shown the Chinese to be very capable of electing, and scrutinising their own village governors. Secret ballots are held in provinces every three years to select governing committees. Corrupt or incompetent governors can be recalled. Several cases have surfaced of villagers recalling officials who embezzled village funds. Aside from vague promises about "gradual progress" towards a free vote the Communist Party has shown no serious willingness recently to loosen the reins of power.

On the streets of Hong Kong, China's oasis of free speech and democracy, there's growing impatience too. Sixty per cent of the 1.7 million people who voted last September voted for the pro-democracy camp. They took 18 of the 30 seats up for a public vote. Hong Kong's legislative system, designed by the British to keep a grip on power, does the same thing today for Beijing. Of the 60 LEGCO seats, only 30 are directly elected—the other half of the seats are chosen by 200,000 members of "functional constituencies", from professions and industry. That suits the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, the pro-Beijing party which took most seats. Beijing helped it proxy out too.

Democratic candidates were labelled "unpatriotic Chinese" in the China Daily, the Communist Party newspaper which also sells in Hong Kong. Beijing was most likely behind the high-profile arrest of Democratic candidate Alex Ho in the mainland city of Dongguan, for picking up a prostitute. Ho was sentenced to five months "re-education through labour". His sentence seems particularly harsh considering how rife prostitution is in China, with officials often openly visiting hotel saunas and karaoke nightclubs to cavort with hostesses.

Down in Victoria Park, a young Shanghai man asked me to take a photo for him standing in front of a huge portrait of Zhao Ziyang. "The students were right," he murmured, giving his name only as Jerry, a generic English name often chosen by Chinese. "In maybe ten years things will change. In Chinese history the students have always led the changes." Jerry moved to Hong Kong shortly after the troubles of 1989. Here in Hong Kong he can bid farewell to a man who showed the world that China could be compassionate and could be democratic. Zhao Ziyang died a lost leader. Today what China needs is more Long Hair.