Edward Leung, an activist who advocated for Hong Kong’s separation from China, was locked up in a maximum-security prison in the summer of 2019 when his slogan—“Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”—echoed through the city’s streets. It was taken up as a battle cry by thousands of demonstrators challenging Beijing’s rule over the territory and pushing for reforms.
Those protests were significant in part because they departed from a tradition of peaceful resistance, a change inspired by Leung’s own confrontation with riot police in 2016. For that, he was sentenced to 6 years in prison.
But when the 30-year-old was released on Wednesday, he returned to a Hong Kong where pro-democracy activists’ hope for free and unfettered elections seemed all but extinguished.
In the two years since the summer of 2019, the authorities had seized on the violent protests as a justification not just to quell all street demonstrations, but also drastically trim the political freedoms Hong Kong had enjoyed since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule 25 years ago. Many democracy advocates were either jailed or forced into exile. Leung’s catchphrase was outlawed. And the jury is still out on exactly how Leung may have changed the city’s political fate, or if he simply accelerated the inevitable.
Underscoring the sensitivity of Leung’s return, Hong Kong’s prison authority released him before dawn on Wednesday, deviating from the usual practice of freeing inmates during work hours. As a result, no media was able to capture images of Leung. The Correctional Services Department said the arrangement was made “taking into consideration the wish and safety of the person in custody.” He has not made any public comments since his release, other than that he intended to lie low.
Born in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in 1991, Leung immigrated to Hong Kong at a young age and became an activist while studying philosophy at the prestigious University of Hong Kong. As a spokesperson of pro-independence group Hong Kong Indigenous, he campaigned against Hong Kong’s economic assimilation with mainland China and advocated for policies preserving local language, culture, and identity.
Leung’s call for independence and his suggestion to use confrontational tactics against law enforcement officers made him a radical voice in the pro-democracy camp that was long dominated by older activists seeking to build a democratic Hong Kong as part of China. But among the younger population, Leung gained stardom for expressing their pride as Hong Kongers and their frustration towards Beijing’s control over education, economic, and immigration policies.
At just 25, he looked set to ride on his popularity to win a seat in the Hong Kong legislature until election authorities barred him from running, citing his previous support for independence.
In 2018, Leung was sentenced to 6 years in prison for participating in a street protest two years before, when a police crackdown on illegal food stalls led to violent clashes between officers and protesters who claimed to defend local street food. The confrontation was later known as the “fishball revolution.”
While Leung has disappeared from the public view since then, he remains one of the most popular politicians among young people. During mass protests in 2019, protesters painted his name on walls and pavements and turned photos of him into posters. College students, many of whom participated in the demonstrations, screened a documentary about him to draw inspiration from his reflections on activism, fame, and depression.
Leung was widely admired in activist circles, but while behind bars he did not necessarily endorse the protesters’ methods.
Leung commented once on the movement in a letter from prison published on Facebook in July 2019. At the time, protesters were engaging in intense street battles with riot police that led to hundreds of arrests. Friends and family members were having fallouts due to different political stances.
The jailed activist, once considered a radical voice, appeared to be calling for moderation as he reminded protesters not to be carried away by hatred. “Working in politics is not only about sustaining the support from our supporters,” he wrote, “but more importantly, winning the support from our opponents and changing their minds.”
A 27-year-old Hong Konger who moved to the United States following the protests said Leung’s words reminded her to stay rational and true to the values of democracy and freedom.
“I hope he will be happy and free in the future,” she said on the condition of anonymity, citing fears of retaliation for participating in the movement.
When Leung briefly left prison to attend appeal hearings in October 2019, his fans packed the courtroom and surrounded his vehicle, waving banners and his photos. Such public shows of support are nowhere to be seen these days.
Beijing has cracked down on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement by imposing a powerful national security law, which has led to the arrests of opposition leaders, the closure of pro-democracy news outlets, and the banning of the protest slogan first used by Leung. Many activists who campaigned alongside him have fled abroad.
Chinese leaders have also rewritten Hong Kong’s elections rules to ensure Beijing loyalists dominate the legislature, and reduced the seats allotted to popularly elected lawmakers.
When asked about the activist’s upcoming release in October, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security Chris Tang said anyone would face severe punishment if they attempted to incite separatism.
Hours after his release, Leung said on his Facebook page that he had reunited with his family, adding that he would not use social media or speak to the press while complying with a supervision order. The entire Facebook page was soon taken down, along with all the comments wishing him safety.