CN: police violence
The summer of 2019 in Hong Kong saw an explosion of protests, defending the city’s autonomy that had become threatened by the overarching arm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Awakening the political conscience of a new generation of students across the region, this marked a turning point for Hong Kong’s youth as well as the future of their city.
Politika News interviewed four university students from Hong Kong: Claire, Cici, Derek and Kin.*
They spoke to us about their past involvement in protests, their thoughts on the 2020 national security law and their future. For all of them, 2019 had been the first direct involvement they’d had with politics and, in general, hadn’t previously considered themselves ‘politically-minded’. The general sense of optimism they once shared has been dampened by a fog of helplessness as they watch their home become another city of the People’s Republic of China (PCR).
Kon is a student currently on exchange in Paris. During the 2019 protests he was involved with the HK International Affairs Delegation, helping to lobby international organisations and leaders. He was also involved in the student union-led mobilisation of students.
Clare is about to graduate in Translation studies and took part in the airport sit-ins in 2019. She sees little future in Hong Kong and plans to emigrate to Australia in a few years.
Dan was an active participant of the protests in 2019, often on the frontline. He continues to study but having been arrested in 2019 for taking part in protests, he is still awaiting trial. He faces four to six years in prison.
Cici was a member of a small team of activists taking part in protests through 2019 and 2020. Although she was arrested for gathering under COVID-19 restrictions, the charges were dropped earlier this year. She has just graduated in Fine Arts.
Gradual politicisation in 2019
These four students did not grow a political conscience overnight. Dan and Clare both describe harbouring a curiosity in current affairs and national politics, which grew into something much stronger as the government started taking steps in the wrong direction, towards Beijing.
By mid-June 2019, almost 2 million Hong Kong citizens joined a single demonstration opposing the controversial extradition bill which extended the judicial reach of the Chinese government across the border. Critics including human rights watch organisations, journalists and political leaders expressed concerns this would pose a great risk to individuals critical of the CCP and make it easier to silence subversive voices.
Clare suggests there was more to her politicisation than this. She says that ‘police violence was for me the main trigger’ in joining the protests, a sentiment shared by Cici and Kon. The intensification of the protests over the summer of 2019 encapsulated by the airport protests, sit-ins, and rallies faced increasing police brutality and signified a turning point in the protesters’ demands.
This was no longer a protest against one specific bill, but one defending the future of Hong Kong against the brutalising and antidemocratic forces of a CCP-backed government. A sentiment expressed by all four interviewees: they saw it as their civic responsibility to take to the streets. Clare suggests this led to some clashes among the young student population: “I went to protests because I wanted to go though I observe[d] peer pressure around me. [The thinking was that] Hong Kong is dying [so] people should care more.” Carrying on as usual was not seen as an option to most.
Role of student unions in solidifying democratic ideals
The support of student unions was fundamental in mobilising young people.
As a previous chair of the legislative branch of his SU, Kon describes these unions as playing an important role as civil societies in Hong Kong’s democratic history. Mirroring parliamentary-style democratic organisations, his SU was structured by two branches: one executive and one legislative.
As acting president of the legislative branch before the protests Kon held a vote on the committee and noted that the decisions regarding involvement in the protests had gone through a voting process. This meant decision-making reflected the values of freedom and democracy that these students wanted guaranteed in Hong Kong’s future.
In the first half of 2019, the protests were not yet made illegal, so calling on students to take to the streets was relatively easy: ‘they would spread messages, spread information about the protests on social media, contact academics […] and societies’, Kon explains.
But after the protests escalated in early July, the role of the SU shifted from one of mobilisation to a more supportive role. ‘The protests got gradually more radical’, Kon notes, ‘the unions started to provide material support’ as first aid kits to the frontlines and tear gas masks. Since not many other organisations were able to provide this kind of relief, the SU’s role was crucial protecting protesters.
Protesting under greater restrictions
Cici explains how, with her peers, she formed a team of around ten students who would go out to protest together.
While at the beginning of the protests this was relatively easy, gathering became more and more difficult. As the police armed themselves with tear gas and rubber bullets, looking after each other became the priority. The feeling of solidarity was also underlined by Dan as an important dimension of the protests. New to protesting and activism, Dan reflects on the first protests he joined: ‘It is really scary. I was not mentally ready.’
Cici explains that a lot of their strategy came from the expertise of one of their team members who had been involved in the 2016 Umbrella protests led by now-exiled activist Joshua Wong. The teams would split into smaller groups, some following the police and reporting their movements live through social media channels, and others would be in charge of logistics including organising access to protective gear. The rest would be on the frontline and encouraging people to stay on the streets for as long as possible.
For more radical protesters such as Dan or Cici, it would have been preferable to have more to defend themselves with, but access to weapons was too difficult.
One of Cici’s team members was eventually caught entering an office of the political organisation he was part of. Cici assumes the police followed him there and arrested him in the office with a bag containing explosive-making materials. According to Cici, he was held in custody for two days and then let go, suggesting ‘there were other more important people”.
Cici herself was arrested with her then-boyfriend in the autumn of 2020 for gathering in the street, which was then illegal under COVID-19 restrictions. The charges were dropped a year later. In the meantime, she settled for less frontline activities such as tailing police and reporting their actions, although this didn’t last for long: ‘we fe[lt] very helpless and we [were] more useful on the frontline.’
Dan, however, was in a drastically different situation. Without access to weapons as he had wished, he instead settled for a laser pointer, still classed as a weapon under Hong Kong law and enough for law enforcement to prosecute. Arrested during a protest in 2019 before COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, Dan is currently awaiting trial. He is likely to face four to six years in prison.
As well as ‘carrying a weapon’, the charges cited include rioting and illegal gathering which Dan insists are nonsense. Despite this dire predicament, he maintains that taking part in these protests ‘was the right choice’ and expresses no regret. There is a clear generational optic through which these protests can be seen. Dan justifies his actions in this way: ‘This is the price we must pay for the next generation’s future. You have to look at the bigger picture.’
A protest for the future
From the outset these demonstrations were evidently youth-driven and Dan takes the view that although young people lack the resources to enact change. This rhetoric appeared in all four interviews and appears to ease the feelings of frustration and helplessness these students expressed.
Their frustrations are only amplified by the national security law passed in June 2020. An expansive law, it gives Beijing more power over the city and criminalises, among other things, ‘collusion with foreign forces’, ‘secession’ and ‘subversion’.
‘The national security law means the death of freedom of speech,’ explains Claire in no uncertain terms.
For these students, the Hong Kong government has become synonymous with the CCP’s agenda, beliefs which these students stand staunchly against. In Cici’s words, the CCP ‘represents the power to repress human rights and it’s a power that threatens every human on earth’. She warns that ‘the threat is not only to Hong Kong’s people but to the whole world’. She believes the protests are about defending ‘something very universal: liberty, freedom, justice’.
Clare expresses worry at the consequences of the national security law, particularly the increased influence of Beijing on Hong Kong: ‘People have to filter themselves, it’s an intrusion into the mind […] it has a chilling effect’.
The vague terms of the law mean that any criticism can be termed as acting against the government, and therefore, in the state’s eyes, an act of treason. Penalties are heavy and the lack of outside help means that the fear of arrest stops people from expressing themselves.
Kon is pessimistic about the hope of renewed protests in the wake of the law, noting that ‘no one is thinking of street protests again. Most of Hong Kong’s people have already settled down. People aren’t able to mobilise anymore and resistance is very limited.’
For Clare and Kon, emigrating seems like the only solution for their generation. ‘People plan to study masters overseas, then they can apply for permanent residence’. Canada and Australia are top destinations, and since the UK’s decision to offer visas to Hong Kong residents, this has provided many residents with an option to leave.
But for Cici, leaving her people is not an option. ‘There is nothing I can do [to protect Hong Kong] if I leave and as long as I’m still in Hong Kong I’m still facing the situation with the people of Hong Kong together. I do not think I will see Hong Kong’s people freed from the CCP. There is a long way to go and history keeps on repeating itself […] it’s about seeing who will die first.’
Clare puts this depressing transition in plain terms: ‘We have experienced a liberal democracy, and we do not want the authoritarian repression of China.’
The mix of frustration and helplessness is marred by a sense of resignation. There is little these four can do to change the fate of their home. Despite the restrictions on democracy and free speech, they are committed to living their own lives by the values they wish were reflected by their government, whether that involves moving abroad or staying in Hong Kong. Without having completely given up these voices are, for now, muted. All the while, they wait.
*All interviewees have requested to remain anonymous. The article therefore refers to them using other names.
All views expressed are the writer’s own.
Article Image Credit: Studio Incendo