Who are the 15 arrested Hong Kong pro-democracy leaders?

By Ryan Tang | April 22, 2020

Photo collage by John Oquist

On April 18, Hong Kong police arrested 15 well-known pro-democracy leaders for their roles in allegedly organizing and participating in unlawful mass assemblies last August and October. While thousands of protesters have been arrested since the start of Hong Kong’s pro-extradition protests last June, the coordinated round-up of relatively moderate opposition politicians came as a surprise to many.

These 15 opposition figures represent a broad swathe of the city’s pro-democracy movement, ranging from veteran politicians to youthful activists. Many of the arrested figures have been longtime stalwarts of the city’s pro-democracy movement dating back to the 1980s, and many had previously served on its Legislative Council.

Unlike the younger generation of localist, pro-independence activists, these politicians have tended to represent a more moderate tendency within the wider pro-democracy camp that is open to dialogue with the Chinese government and accepts China’s ultimate sovereignty over the city. For them, the role of the pro-democracy camp is to hold China to the promises and commitments outlined in the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration, and to secure the implementation of “One Country, Two Systems” in both name and fact.

Far from being at the forefront of the latest wave of protests, or even the Umbrella Movement in 2014, many of these figures have been the target of trenchant criticism by younger, more radical activists who embrace a more explicitly pro-independence agenda and have little time for establishment tactics.

To put it more simply, the barrister and ex-legislators arrested on Saturday have long stood for working within the system, using Hong Kong’s courts and legislature to advance their agenda; the younger activists who have taken the lead in the latest wave of protests are more inclined to storm the Legislative Council and question the independence of the city’s judiciary.

So who are these people, exactly? Let’s take a closer look.

Top row: Martin Lee, Yeung Sum, Yeung Sum, Albert Ho, Au Nok-Hin; middle row: Richard Tsoi, Margaret Ng, Jimmy Lai, Lee Cheuk-Yan, Cyd Ho; bottom row: Leung Yiu-Chung, Leung Kwok-Hung, Figo Chan, Avery Ng, Raphael Wong

1. Martin Lee

李柱銘 / 李柱铭 Lǐ Zhùmíng


Martin Lee is often described in international media as Hong Kong’s “Father of Democracy.” A veteran barrister and politician, he served on the city’s Legislative Council from 1985 to 2008 and again from 1998 to 2008. In the 1980s, Lee served on the Basic Law Drafting Committee as one of the Hong Kong representatives invited by the Chinese government, but resigned after the Tiananmen massacre in June 1989. He then helped establish Hong Kong’s Democratic Party — the city’s largest and oldest pro-democracy party — leading it from 1994 to 2002.

The Democratic Party is widely considered to represent the moderate wing of the city’s opposition camp and has long campaigned for the achievement of universal suffrage through working within the framework prescribed by the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

Lee’s international stature means that he is often viewed as the leader of the city’s democracy movement, but by his own admission, he has largely stayed out of the recent protests. Nonetheless, he continues to play an important role in raising global awareness of Hong Kong, including a much-publicized 2019 visit to Washington that included a high-profile meeting with Nancy Pelosi. Lee’s personal ties to Western politicians, built up over decades of advocacy, has made him a target for attacks from the Chinese government and its local allies in Hong Kong as a “race traitor” and “imperialist running dog.”

While Lee’s outspoken stance on China’s human rights record hardly endears him to Beijing, the irony is that Lee himself has not shown much sympathy for public calls for revolution or independence in Hong Kong, and has also called on protesters in the city to refrain from violence. He has also been criticized in the past by other members of the pro-democracy camp for his apparent willingness to work within the Chinese framework for political reform in Hong Kong in the past.

2. Yeung Sum

楊森 / 杨森 Yáng Sēn

Yeung succeeded Martin Lee as the leader of the Democratic Party in 2002 and served in this role until 2004, and also sat in the Legislative Council from 1991 to 1997 and again from 1998 to 2008. An academic by training, he has long been viewed as a relative moderate within Hong Kong’s democracy movement. As early as 2002/03, his leadership of the Democratic Party precipitated an internal split, with more radical members leaving the party in protest at his stance. Unusually for a pro-democracy legislator in Hong Kong, Yeung was awarded a Silver Bauhinia Star by the administration of Donald Tsang in 2009. Yeung was previously arrested in February 2020 for another offense relating to unlawful assembly, but he has not otherwise played a major role in the recent protests or frontline politics.

3. Sin Chung Kai

單仲偕 / 单仲偕 Dān Zhòngxié

Sin is another veteran member of the Democratic Party, sitting in the Legislative Council for a series of constituencies from 1995 to 1997, 1998 to 2008, and 2012 to 2016. He is currently the chairman of the Kwai Tsing District Council after the pro-democracy camp won control of the Council in last November’s landslide election. Sin narrowly lost the Democratic Party’s 2012 leadership election to Emily Lau — generally seen as a somewhat more radical figure within the Party — but has otherwise been a fairly anonymous backbench legislator over the years. As with Yeung Sum, Sin has been awarded a Silver Bauhinia Star by the Hong Kong government.

4. Albert Ho

何俊仁 / 何俊仁 Hé Jùnrén

Albert Ho is best known in Hong Kong as the pro-democracy camp’s sacrificial lamb candidate in the 2012 Chief Executive Election, where he ultimately came third. A long-time veteran of the Democratic Party, Ho first became involved in electoral politics in the 1980s when he unsuccessfully ran various local offices, before winning a seat in the Legislative Council in 1995. As the Democratic Party’s leader from 2006 to 2012, he was associated with its moderate turn in this period and was heavily attacked by other pro-democracy figures for supporting the Hong Kong government’s 2010 constitutional reform package — in his own District Council constituency, he was challenged by more radical activists in 2011 and 2015, contributing to his loss in the latter election.

Ho is currently the chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which organizes the annual June 4 rally in commemoration of the Tiananmen massacre. While the Chinese government has long vilified the Alliance and banned its leaders from visiting mainland China, younger “localist” activists have also attacked its work in recent years on the basis that the pro-democracy camp should not equate Hong Kong with China. In his work as a human rights lawyer, Ho represented Edward Snowden during the whistleblower’s stay in Hong Kong in 2013, an episode which saw Ho act as an intermediary between Snowden and the Hong Kong authorities, and indirectly the Chinese government.

5. Au Nok-Hin

區諾軒 / 区诺轩 Qū Nuòxuān

Au is regarded as a rising star in the Democratic Party and briefly sat in the Legislative Council from 2018 to 2019. Despite his relative youth, he has served as a district councilor since 2012. Elected in a by-election after the well-known student activist Nathan Law was disqualified from his seat over an oath-taking controversy in 2016, he subsequently lost his seat after Hong Kong’s courts overturned Law’s original disqualification, invalidating the result of the by-election.

Au is associated with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and has close ties with Demosisto, one of the more radical parties that emerged from the 2014 Umbrella Movement, where he played an active role in himself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Au has long been more skeptical of negotiating with the Hong Kong and Chinese governments to advance political change. No stranger to arrest, Au was convicted of assault earlier this month for repeatedly yelling at a police officer using a megaphone during a July 2019 protest.

6. Richard Tsoi

蔡耀昌 / 蔡耀昌 Cài Yàochāng

Tsoi is a long-standing member of the Democratic Party and first became politically engaged as a student leader in the 1980s. He is perhaps best known in Hong Kong as the convener of the July 1 protest march against proposed national security legislation in 2003. A longstanding advocate for recent immigrants from mainland China, Tsoi was forced to resign from the Democratic Party’s central committee for calling on Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission to investigate restaurants that had barred mainland Chinese customers amidst the COVID-19 pandemic — a position that attracted vehement criticism from other segments of the pro-democracy camp.

7. Margaret Ng

吳靄儀 / 吴霭仪 Wú Ǎiyí

Ng is a veteran barrister who represented the legal sector in the Legislative Council from 1995 to 1997 and 1998 to 2012. A founding member of the Civic Party, which has tended to appeal to middle-class professionals and includes a large number of barristers in its ranks, Ng was actively involved in the public campaign against the introduction of national security legislation in 2003. Ng has not been actively involved in the recent protests but serves as a trustee of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which provides financial support for protesters who require medical assistance or legal advice.

8. Jimmy Lai

黎智英 / 黎智英 Lí Zhìyīng

Lai is the owner and founder of Next Digital, the largest listed media conglomerate in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and publisher of the popular tabloid Apple Daily. One of the only high-profile business supporters of the pro-democracy movement, his publications have consistently been critical of the Chinese and Hong Kong governments and are vocal in their support for the anti-extradition protests. He has also been singled out by the Chinese government as a member of a “Gang of Four” (alongside Martin Lee, Albert Ho, and former Chief Secretary Anson Chan), purportedly responsible for “inciting” unrest in Hong Kong.

Frequently accused of collaborating with “foreign powers” to undermine China, Lai has come under increasing pressure from Chinese authorities in recent years. He has been arrested on multiple occasions during both the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the 2019 protests for participating in unlawful assemblies and allegedly intimidating a journalist from a rival publication. Notwithstanding the wide circulation of his publications in Hong Kong, it is widely believed that large corporations in the city are reluctant to place advertisements with Next Digital for fear of alienating Chinese authorities, undermining its profitability.

9. Lee Cheuk-Yan

李卓人 Lǐ Zhuōrén

Lee is a well-known activist in Hong Kong who first rose to public prominence for his role in coordinating donations for the Tiananmen student protests in 1989. In the immediate aftermath, he helped establish the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China and has been a constant presence at protests and vigils for the beleaguered Chinese human rights movement ever since.

A former legislator for the Labour Party until he narrowly lost his seat in 2016, Lee is also a leading figure in the pro-democracy Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions. Whereas the Democratic Party and Civic Party have a more middle-class image, the Labour Party has staked out more distinctively left-wing positions on socioeconomic issues over the years. Despite recent divisions within the pro-democracy camp over the relative emphasis that should be placed on human rights in mainland China itself, Lee has emphasized the importance of bridging the gap between moderates and radicals in the wake of the recent protests.

10. Cyd Ho

何秀蘭 / 何秀兰 Hé Xiùlán

Ho is also a former legislator for the Labour Party who lost her seat in 2016 alongside Lee Cheuk-Yan and has been outspoken on progressive issues, including LGBT rights and gender equality. Along with Margaret Ng, she serves as a trustee of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund but is otherwise not thought to have played a high-profile role in the recent protests.

11. Leung Yiu-Chung

梁耀忠 Liáng Yàozhōng

Leung is a veteran lawmaker who has sat in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council since 1995, with a brief interruption after the 1997 handover. His party is widely considered to be one of the most moderate voices within the pro-democracy camp and has historically focused heavily on grassroots issues, especially in Leung’s own political base in the working-class Kwai Tsing District. Leung has been criticized by younger activists, including from within his own party, for his apparent moderation, and was injured by protesters during the siege of the Legislative Council complex on July 1, 2019.

12. Leung Kwok-Hung

梁國雄 / 梁国雄 Liáng Guóxióng

Often known as “Long Hair” due to his hairstyle, Leung has been a veteran activist in Hong Kong for decades. He sat in the Legislative Council from 2004 to 2017 for the League of Social Democrats, when he was expelled on the basis that his oath of office was invalid. Leung is no stranger to prison, having been arrested and sentenced multiple times in the past for his activism. He and his party are generally considered to represent the more radical wing of the pro-democracy movement, but in turn has been attacked by younger localist activists.

Leung briefly considered entering the 2017 Chief Executive contest and was critical of the decision by most pro-democracy politicians to support moderate pro-establishment candidates. A prominent figure during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, Leung has long been a vocal proponent of utilizing mass demonstrations to achieve universal suffrage in Hong Kong and is associated with a more confrontational approach than the establishment-oriented Democratic Party or Civic Party.

13. Figo Chan

陳皓桓 / 陈皓桓 Chén Hàohuán

Chan is deputy convener of the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), the umbrella organization that coordinates the annual July 1 protest march and other rallies. The CHRF includes most of the mainstream pro-democracy parties and a broad array of civil society groups and primarily fulfills a coordinating function. At 23 years of age, he is the youngest member of the League of Social Democrats’ executive committee, and first became involved in political activism as a high school student prior to the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Nonetheless, Chan does not self-identify as a localist, and has been critical of some of their demonstrations against parallel traders, who are predominantly immigrants from mainland China.

14. Avery Ng

吳文遠 / 吴文远 Wú Wényuǎn

Ng is another senior figure in the League of Social Democrats and unsuccessfully contested the 2012 and 2016 Legislative Council elections. He was an active figure in the 2014 Umbrella Movement and was attacked by both police officers and unidentified individuals over its course. Ng is well known for his role in staging unorthodox protests against senior Chinese and Hong Kong officials, including a 2017 incident where he threw a tuna sandwich at then Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, for which he was arrested for assault but subsequently acquitted on appeal.

Ng is no stranger to prison, and missed some of the largest protests last summer because he was behind bars. Like his colleagues in the League of Social Democrats, Chan has expressed concerns over the rising popularity of separatist, nativist sentiments in Hong Kong, and has urged the protest movement to focus on the structural socio-economic issues.

15. Raphael Wong

黃浩銘 / 黄浩铭 Huáng Hàomíng

Wong is a veteran activist with the League of Social Democrats. No stranger to Hong Kong’s prisons, he was a leading figure in the 2014 Umbrella Movement and has been involved in various protest activities for the past decade. A self-proclaimed democratic socialist, he has credited his time in prison with broadening his horizons and is a vocal supporter of civil disobedience. Like many activists in Hong Kong, he has been critical of Hong Kong’s Department of Justice for pursuing politicized prosecutions and demanding custodial sentences for arrested protesters.

The arrests of internationally respected figures such as Martin Lee alongside younger, more radical activists indicates that the Chinese government is no longer prepared to tolerate any segment of the pro-democracy movement. With legislative elections scheduled for September, there is a worryingly high risk of Beijing intervening to disqualify pro-democracy candidates en masse. Such a move would almost certainly lead to fresh protests and confrontations on Hong Kong’s streets, further polarizing society and driving relative moderates on each side apart. As the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, Hong Kong looks set for yet another summer of discontent on a scale that might exceed that of last year.