HONG KONG — From afar, the red brick sidewalk along King’s Road in Hong Kong appears to be covered with a mottled white carpet that stretches for dozens of yards. Closer up, the white reveals itself to be a mosaic made up of sheets of paper glued to the pavement, each featuring a bespectacled man with a self-confident smile.
The faces belong to Junius Ho, a local legislator, and this is not an election campaign gambit. It is a very public gesture of disdain.
In recent weeks, Mr. Ho’s image has been plastered on sidewalks and footbridges across the city, and its purpose is immediately apparent: to force pedestrians to walk on his face.
“He’s human trash,” said Stella Wong, 57, a school administrator as she gleefully tromped on Mr. Ho’s nose one recent afternoon. A teenage boy, dancing on his brow, spit out an expletive.
In a city roiled by months of protest and increasingly riven by political animus, Mr. Ho, 57, has emerged as one of its most polarizing public figures. A pro-China lawmaker whose rural constituency leans right, Mr. Ho gleefully antagonizes democracy advocates while emboldening those who favor a more hard-line government approach to the ongoing unrest.
His growing stature as a provocateur coincides with a new and potentially perilous chapter in Hong Kong’s increasingly fraught political drama. The leadership invoked emergency powers for the first time on Friday by imposing a ban on face masks, standard gear for the protesters. After another round of violent clashes overnight, the city settled into an eerie quiet on Saturday, belying the undercurrent of anger over the government’s decision.
Though Mr. Ho’s extreme positions are not shared by most pro-Beijing leaders in the city, he has become the standard-bearer of an incendiary brand of politics that has been gaining traction as the protests grow ever more violent. Such views could help reinforce the thinking of Chinese leaders who have largely misread the source of protesters’ anger, repeatedly underestimating the yearning for genuine democracy and the broader public’s support for the movement.
Mr. Ho, who spent the politically important National Day last week celebrating with top leaders in the Chinese capital, has demonized the protesters as “thugs,” generously praised the city’s embattled police force and openly advocates closer relations between Beijing and this semiautonomous city-state, which enjoys liberties unknown in mainland China.
He was also one of the earliest advocates of criminalizing the wearing of face masks during protests.
“Why have so many young people forgotten their roots and ancestry and disavowed their Chinese identity?” he asked during a recent interview with Global Times, a nationalistic, government-backed newspaper on the mainland. “I hope people from both sides stop now and behave the way Chinese people should behave.”
Mr. Ho certainly knows how to shock. He has called for advocates of Hong Kong independence to be “killed without mercy,” merrily welcomed intervention by Chinese troops to quell the unrest and uttered profanities against his political opponents in the Legislative Council.
Public rage against him mounted in late July, after a mob of men swinging wooden poles rampaged through a train station in Mr. Ho’s district, indiscriminately beating protesters, passengers and journalists, and leaving 45 injured. As the city was processing the spasm of violence, a video emerged of Mr. Ho glad-handing with the thugs and calling them “heroes.”
Mr. Ho said he was simply greeting his constituents, but he also suggested the perpetrators were trying only to protect their community from the maelstrom of political protest.
“Guarding your homeland is a very basic thing,” he said at a news conference he organized the next day, during which he pushed back against those who accused him of having a hand in the attack.
The demonstrations, prompted by a now-abandoned bill that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland, have morphed into a cri de coeur against Beijing and its efforts to chip away at Hong Kong’s hallowed freedoms. The leadership’s decision to invoke emergency powers for its mask ban only heightened fears about the erosion of civil liberties, prompting more violent protests and clashes with the police on Friday night.
Though Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has refused to concede to demands of free elections and amnesty for detained protesters, she and other pro-Beijing moderates have nonetheless tried to soothe tensions by avoiding strident rhetoric and appealing for dialogue.
Mr. Ho does not seem to be interested in kumbayas.
“The mainstream parties in the pro-Beijing camp still value civilized behavior, but Junius Ho doesn’t care if he alienates people in the middle,” said Ivan Choy, a political scientist at Chinese University of Hong Kong.
His political opponents are more blunt.
“This is how Mao started the Cultural Revolution,” said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker. “Junius Ho is fanning the fires, which is unconscionable, but he seems to be seriously enjoying himself.”
Eddie Chu, a liberal legislator, echoed the sentiments of those who view Mr. Ho as a local proxy for China’s Communist Party, which regularly lionizes him in the state media as a defender of social harmony and Chinese dignity.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more militant figures like Junius Ho in the next legislative council elections,” he said.
Mr. Chu has had a firsthand taste of that militancy. Two days after the train station attack, he and Mr. Ho sat side by side on a television news program to discuss the incident. It did not go well.
The two men shouted over one another and Mr. Ho became especially enraged by Mr. Chu’s refusal to support a ban on future protests. The show ended abruptly after Mr. Ho pounded the table, ripped off his microphone and stormed away while calling his legislative colleague a profanity. Later that day, Mr. Ho issued what sounded to many like a death threat on Facebook.
Mr. Ho did not respond to interview requests by phone, email and text message. But since his election in 2016, he has avidly courted media attention, often by staking out contrarian positions on social issues like gay marriage (opposed) or by organizing rallies to support the adoption of patriotic “loyalty” tests for Hong Kong judges.
Mr. Ho has his defenders, especially among those of an older generation who tend to be more conservative. And he can reliably count on voters in so-called indigenous villages whose residents trace their roots back generations. Robert Chow, a former journalist who leads the group Silent Majority, said Mr. Ho gave voice to those too afraid to openly express their love for China.
“Junius is a patriot who gives people hope,” he said.
The son of a police officer who became wealthy off land deals, Mr. Ho grew up in the New Territories, a large, lush expanse adjacent to the mainland that has faced issues with organized crime. After earning a law degree in the United Kingdom, he returned home to join his brother’s law firm. He says he is a Christian, and the part owner of an Australian-bred racehorse named Hong Kong Bet.
Mr. Ho’s ascension to the Hong Kong legislature was not without intrigue; he won his seat three years ago after a rival candidate dropped out at the last minute, claiming he had received death threats from men he described as mainlanders.
Among those Mr. Ho thanked after his victory was the central liaison office, the Chinese government headquarters in Hong Kong.
During a recent visit to Tai Wan Tsuen, an indigenous village adjacent to the station where the July attacks took place, many people were uninterested in talking about politics or Mr. Ho. Several claimed they were out of town or sick in bed the night of the bloodshed, though a few defended the attackers. One man, stepping out of his house for a cigarette, quietly praised Mr. Ho.
“He represents those who stay silent,” he said.
Mr. Ho’s antagonists have been anything but silent. In the days after the train station violence, attackers ransacked his district office and vandalized his parents’ graves. A few days later, the city’s Lands Department said the tombs violated zoning rules and suggested that Mr. Ho could be forced to excavate his parents’ remains and reinter them in a smaller plot.
Two weeks ago, the Hong Kong Jockey Club canceled Wednesday night races after word spread that Mr. Ho’s horse was set to run and protesters threatened to besiege the iconic racetrack. Mr. Ho’s response, perhaps tongue in cheek, framed the cancellation as a violation of his horse’s right to gallop. “Animals have their basic rights too,” he told reporters.
Still, the recent blowbacks appear to have left him undaunted. Late last month, Mr. Ho organized volunteers to “clean up” some of the city’s so-called Lennon Walls, the agglomeration of Post-it notes and posters that are a hallmark of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
And earlier this week, amid public outrage over the police shooting of an 18-year-old protester, Mr. Ho made it clear that he not sympathetic. “We don’t know whether those madmen are students or just thugs,” he said of the young protesters during a Facebook live video he broadcast from Beijing, “but all of them have been seriously brainwashed.”