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Hong Kong's top protester is suddenly . . . respectable

 Hong Kong:
A rise in political radicalism is rattling tycoons and the government. Will it damage the territory's business competitiveness?
• Activist: Student leader Gloria Chang on why hidebound official attitudes are feeding the activism
• Activist vs. Tycoons

When it comes to burning effigies, Leung Kwok-hung probably could claim a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Over the years, Hong Kong's most visible protester has torched thousands of likenesses, carried hundreds of mock coffins and been pictured frequently in the newspapers, his fist pumping the air against a welter of perceived injustices. Local democracy icon Martin Lee once likened Leung — or "Cheung Mo" (Long Hair), as he is popularly known — to a canary in a cage. Just as underground miners would use the birds as an early warning system for deadly gases (if the canary died, it was time to leave), Lee urged Hong Kongers to watch how authorities treated Leung.

But at a time when the local establishment seems increasingly concerned about protest and radicalization of the public, it is treating Long Hair pretty well. Perhaps it has no choice. In September, Leung, 44, running as an independent candidate, very nearly succeeded in his first bid to win a seat in the legislature. Now he has been asked to join a government advisory committee on home affairs. The territory's two biggest dailies and its top Internet newspaper carry his often-incendiary columns. "I don't mind being part of the establishment," Leung says, sporting his trademark T-shirt with a likeness of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara and rolling his third cigarette in an hour. "I can still make my demands — to a bigger audience."

For more than 20 years the self-educated activist has been an equal-opportunity protester. His April 5th Action Group — named for the 1976 student uprising in Beijing that mourned the death of Premier Zhou Enlai — has demonstrated against British colonialists and mainland authorities alike. And sometimes for them. He shows no signs of slowing down. While other election hopefuls did last-minute vote canvassing last September, Leung spent the day far from his electorate — protesting against Hong Kong's restrictive polling system. "The fact that I got so many votes [18,235 out of the 25,970 needed for victory] means people will go for radicalization if it doesn't involve too much cost to them," he says.

The cost to Leung has been high. Politicized at an early age when his mother, abandoned by his father, was forced to work as a housemaid, Leung has long survived on part-time home-removal and translation jobs. From his tiny public-housing flat, he plots an ambitious course, determined to prevent exploitation of the underclasses. He wants an end to one-party rule in China, full democracy in Hong Kong and a reversal of Beijing's verdict on the 1989 Tiananmen killings. His electoral near-success hasn't softened his Trotskyite stance. "I still believe in revolution," he says. "It can happen in Hong Kong."

More people are now willing to listen to the man many once regarded with contempt or annoyance. Leung's polls performance gives him legitimacy, and his media columns often strike a popular chord on topical issues. He takes to task pro-Beijing bureaucrats and Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, or bashes businessmen and others he considers spineless or blindly patriotic. Leung's long hair, shorn when he was briefly jailed in May for interrupting a Tung speech in the legislature, is growing back. But even when it's back to shoulder length, he won't stand out so much any more. "I think that everyone wants to be radical in a way," says Leung. He even sees Tung Chee-hwa as a soul mate of sorts: "He initiates so many policy reforms and makes hasty important decisions all the time. That's radical." And radicalism like that will provide targets for Long Hair's protests for years to come.

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