Hui Lai-Ming, social worker and trade unionist, unites UK Hongkongers and carries on Hong Kong’s fight for freedom and democracy
Don’t be fooled by Hui Lai-Ming’s straight, waist-length hair and slim figure: She is anything but frail when it comes to her involvement in the democracy movement. In fact, it cost her her job. She was a mediator at the tense protest scenes in the 2019 Hong Kong Protests. Her involvement in the protests brought her a criminal charge. But her fight has not ended. After settling in the UK, she set up the organisation ‘Re-Water’ as a forum to rally Hongkongers in the UK and promote the spirit of Hong Kong’s pursuit of freedom and democracy.
Hui is known for standing up for labour rights in the social welfare sector. But not many people are aware that she was previously a teacher in primary and secondary schools. She later worked at the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union (HKPTU), the city’s largest teachers’ labour organisation. She recalled that on her first day there, she was tasked with organising a large-scale teachers’ march to voice concerns over the considerable pressure being placed on the profession by the government’s education reforms. In 2006, over 10,000 teachers took to the streets to protest. The government eventually responded by implementing a series of support measures, hiring more teachers and setting up a teacher counselling hotline.
Hui was a strong voice for her colleagues in the social welfare sector, handling labour disputes, voicing industry concerns to the government, and helping to organise protests. Hui herself has also benefited from union support. Back in 2014, she was working as a social worker in a rural primary school tied to pro-establishment interests. After her participation in the Occupy Central protest, the school forced her resignation under pressure from the Liaison Office of the Chinese government in Hong Kong. The impact on her mental well-being was profound.
Fortunately, friends from the Reclaiming Social Work Movement, members of the trade union, and the lawmaker representing the social welfare sector were able to offer assistance. Although she was not able to return to her job, the incident showed the power of unity and networks in fostering civil society. This ideal has continued to influence her, bringing her onto the streets together with like-minded social workers in 2019, where she helped mediate conflicts and provided emotional support to protesters.
The unfulfilled dreams of Hongkongers
However, when the National Security Law came into effect and civil society was dissolved, Hui found herself ensnared in a legal entanglement. She was initially accused of assaulting a police officer during a mass protest in September 2019, although the charge was later amended to obstructing the police. After enduring a prolonged wait of 15 months, she was acquitted in December 2020. However, her confidence about Hong Kong’s future was shaken when she witnessed high-ranking police officers Lee Ka-Chiu and Tang Ping-Keung, who had both been closely involved in the forceful suppression of protests, being promoted to significant government positions, Lee becoming Chief Secretary for Administration and Tang Secretary for Security. These unsettling developments contributed to Hui’s decision to leave for the UK in July 2021.
Before leaving Hong Kong, Hui lived in constant fear that the police might come knocking. Since the incident with her dismissal from work in 2014, she had been struggling with mild depression and was to some extent dependent on medication to control her insomnia. At the same time, she suffered from stomach pains which were becoming increasingly intolerable. She recognised that her body had reached its limit: ‘The pain was so bad it felt like I had a furnace burning inside me. The stomach-ache was unbearable. No matter what I ate or what medicine I took, nothing helped. It wasn’t until the plane took off that the burning finally subsided.’
After arriving in the UK, Hui remained deeply concerned about developments in Hong Kong. The arrests of her activist friends and the removal of the Pillar of Shame from the University of Hong Kong left her ever more saddened. Nevertheless, there was a glimmer of relief: she no longer had to live in constant fear of arrest. She was also beginning to be able to sleep without medication.
Having explored different UK cities, Hui chose to settle in Sheffield in October 2021, attracted by the city’s simple lifestyle and friendly people. Sheffield offered a more relaxed pace of life than the larger cities, with their hustle and bustle. More importantly, there were no organisations set up for Hongkongers there at the time.
Therefore, just two months after deciding to settle in Sheffield, she teamed up with a friend to establish the organisation ‘Re-Water’. Through cultural and art events, they aimed to share with the local British community the issues being faced by Hongkongers, promoting the values of democracy and freedom they cherished.
‘Re-Water’, a group to unite Hongkongers and harness the strength of civil society
Before she embarked on her journey to the UK, Hui’s physical and mental condition had reached breaking point. Given the chance to settle down, why didn’t she allow herself a break? ‘The moment I left, I decided I must keep working [for Hong Kong]. As long as I am safe, I must continue telling the rest of the world what we have been through in our fight for freedom and democracy.’ Hui wanted to carry a lamp for the unfulfilled dreams that she and her friends had fought for together. Although she can no longer communicate by letter with her friends in jail, she wants them to know that she has never given up.
Despite limited resources and manpower, Hui’s networks and prior experience in orchestrating public events proved invaluable when she founded Re-Water. The group held film screenings highlighting people’s struggle for democracy, including the films Inside the Red Brick Wall and 35th May. The screenings garnered positive feedback from the Hong Kong community in the UK, helping them to feel encouraged to carry on the spirit of freedom and democracy in their daily lives, and to find ways of partnering with like-minded groups in order to uphold these universal values. For example, teaming up with the Tibetan community in the UK, they urged Sheffield City Council to end its sister cities programme with China. Since its founding in 2021, Re-Water has become more and more widely known among Hongkongers. Over 200 people attended the group’s Lunar New Year party, held as a way of introducing the local community to the unique way Hongkongers celebrate the Lunar New Year.
Not all the group’s activities have gone smoothly. During a recent protest on 1 July, for instance, they were harassed by a few Chinese individuals claiming to be local university students; the protest was so disrupted that the police got involved. Moreover, some Hongkongers felt hesitant about participating because of their concerns about their families in Hong Kong and their ability to return there. Nonetheless, these setbacks have not dampened Hui’s spirit: ‘The road to democracy is a long one. We are still near the starting point. We used to say, “We might never see democracy in our lifetime!” Now, we find ourselves even more distant from it, and that’s the reality. But what I think matters most is working together, moving forwards together. We must keep on going, regardless of the result. We only have a chance of success if we do not give up.”