Home Features Democracy darkens: Hong Kong activists reel from Beijing moves

Democracy darkens: Hong Kong activists reel from Beijing moves

Prince Wong was still in her mother’s womb when the Chinese government reclaimed control over Hong Kong from the British in the summer of 1997. She was born nearly three months later, on Sept. 27, into what some here call the city’s “cursed generation.”

For her 23rd birthday this year, Wong posted a photo of herself on Instagram wearing a pastel-striped paper hat trimmed with pink pompoms. She has a slight smile on her face as she looks down at her birthday cake, a moment of celebration at odds with her words below: “There are great sorrows in life that cannot be washed away with tears. Is life always so painful? Or is it only when I was young?”

On a recent day, Wong spun a gold ring on her finger in continuous circles as she spoke quietly about the past year of her life. It has been a year filled with disappointment and dread.

She faces trial early next year on a riot charge stemming from the anarchic standoff between police and pro-democracy protesters at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University last November. Legislative elections were postponed after she won 23,000 votes in an unofficial protest poll organized by the pro-democracy camp this summer to get on the ballot. And she witnessed friends being arrested and detained — sometimes for little more than a Facebook post — under a new national security law that has raised the risks for those like her directly challenging Chinese rule.

Then last month, a fresh nadir. China’s parliament passed a resolution that will effectively bar any opposition politicians deemed subversive from Hong Kong’s legislature. City Chief Executive Carrie Lam immediately kicked four pro-democracy lawmakers out of office. Soon after that, the city’s democrats resigned en masse, leaving the legislature devoid of any opposition democrats for the first time since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule.

“Regardless of whether you are a front-line politician, anonymous protester, in the media, a teacher or in any profession, they are carrying out a serious political crackdown, and they hope to put everyone in jail,” Wong said.

Wong is part of a crop of young democrats in the so-called “resistance bloc” who aim to upend the political order through disruptive, unorthodox tactics: the nihilistic laam chau —  “If we burn, you burn with us,” a slogan in “The Hunger Games.”

Prince Wong gestures at an event to submit her nomination for the 2020 legislative council election in Hong Kong, China, July 27. She is standing next to various other democratic activists including Sam Cheung (2nd right) and Eddie Chu (left). (Photo by Jessie Pang/Reuters)
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“It’s the fate of our generation,” Wong said. “We were just born in a period of historical political change. This is something we have to face.”

A year after young activists, veteran democrats, working-class families and middle-class professionals collectively formed the boldest people’s revolt against Beijing in decades, Hong Kong is being “mainlandized” with shocking rapidity, democracy advocates say. The Chinese government, they say, is using the unrest that engulfed the city last year as a pretext for a so-called second handover: The first in the 1997 transfer of power, the second moving it to China’s vision of a police state.

A Hong Kong government spokesman adamantly denies that, saying that any accusation that the government is “‘crushing civil liberties’ is groundless.” Mainland authorities didn’t respond to questions from Reuters.

Beijing’s tough new paradigm has demoralized, damaged and divided the city’s democracy movement, which for decades sought to hold China to account on its historical promise to allow the city to exist as a bubble of liberalism. More than 10,000 people have been arrested, and protests have shrivelled. Some democrats are struggling with depression. Others compare the city to a giant prison. Hundreds have fled into exile. But even in dark days, they haven’t given up.

This is the story of four Hong Kong activists divided by age but united by a deep love of their city — and the toll the last year has taken on them. One is 23, full of passion and conviction. One is 82, and has seen it all. One is in his late 30s, and lives in fear of arrest. And one is 28, and has chosen a painful path — leaving the city of her birth.

All four speak of persevering, keeping the spirit of the movement alive among friends and family, and waiting for the day the city might rise up again.

The pioneer

Martin Lee’s apartment is airy and spacious, without clutter, each item — from English and French classical furniture to tall Chinese Qing vases — given the space to breathe, redolent of the East-West soul of Hong Kong itself.

Lee, 82, an anglophile whose father was a connoisseur of Chinese ink brush painting and calligraphy, was a key advisor to Britain and China during the crucial negotiations in the 1980s that paved the way for the 1997 handover and its “one country, two systems” equation for government that afforded the city a high degree of autonomy. A forceful orator, who helped found the city’s first major pro-democracy party, he has long advocated engagement with China, to seek common ground in moving forward.

But during a recent interview, the gaunt and gravelly voiced barrister was more guarded than at any other time we’d spoken since our first meeting near the time of the handover. His hair had whitened in recent months, and his steps were slow and deliberate.

“I can’t see any way out. Up until recently, there was always some reason for hope,” he said. “They don’t want Hong Kong people to have hope for a full implementation of one country, two systems,” he said of the mainland leadership.

His apartment looks over the hills of Hong Kong, forested with a mix of trees and skyscrapers.

“Every time I look at the beautiful scenery I ask, why are they killing our city?” he said.

Martin Lee, known as the “Father of democracy” in Hong Kong, stands in front of the city’s skyline during a recent interview in Hong Kong, in this undated image. (Photo by James Pomfret/Reuters)

Lee, a longtime pacifist embracing the activism and philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, is haunted by the Chinese military’s massacre of students and other civilians in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. He thinks it was a mistake for Hong Kong’s protesters to resort to violence last year, because “you give an excuse to the other side to use violence, and how can you beat them with violence?”

Instead, he thinks, by resurrecting mass peaceful protests, and bringing back the pacifist middle classes and grass roots, the movement could find new impetus, as long as authorities don’t begin to unilaterally bar public demonstrations, as in China.

But at the same time, he mused: “How can I blame the young people when they saw how we had failed to get democracy in the past 30 years by not using force? These thoughts of course are conflicting.”

Wong, the young activist nearly 60 years Lee’s junior who planned to run in the scuttled legislative elections, has no patience for the older generation of Hong Kong activists. She says they have clung to a political system increasingly rigged against them.

“They’ve completely failed to achieve anything over the past decades,” she said. “I could understand why they did what they did back then, as the time they were in was very different from us. But after all these passing years, if they keep using the same methods, I can’t really accept it.”

She saw her candidacy as a way to go beyond the street unrest of last year. Recent tactics by her bloc have included advocacy campaigns for those arrested, and provoking greater international pressure on Beijing with their runs for public office — and the subsequent, and expected, disqualification of 12 of their bloc from running. After the Hong Kong government postponed the elections for a year, the United States imposed unprecedented sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials.

Activist Finn Lau, 27, who developed the “if we burn, you burn with us” theory, said in a recent interview: “The situation is actually not that bad. It’s the best of the worst situations. … If we can continue to laam chau and weaken the economic power of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, it’s not impossible to make them back down.”

But many of the resistance bloc are paying a high price. Lau fled Hong Kong for Britain in January after being arrested on charges of unlawful assembly. Prominent activist Joshua Wong, another leader of the bloc, has pleaded guilty to charges of organizing and inciting an unlawful assembly and could be imprisoned for three years when sentenced this week.

Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran democrat and labor unionist, has come to believe that the democracy movement must evolve even if the outcome could be uncertain.

“They’ve changed the game in unthinkable ways, the radicals,” he said. “The whole world, the younger generation looks at them with awe. What they’ve done is something that we could never do, the older generation.”

Martin Lee accepts that this new generation will lead the way forward.

“I know my role is over,” Lee said. “The young people will take over, as they should.”

Lee, who was arrested earlier this year and charged with organizing an illegal assembly, is preparing for a trial slated for early next year. It’s the first time he’s faced criminal charges after more than 50 years as a barrister. He said at the time he was “proud” to stand alongside the thousands of other people arrested since the protests began last year.

Protesters attend a demonstration demanding Hong Kong’s leaders step down and withdraw the extradition bill, in Hong Kong, June 16, 2019. (Photo by Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

But the scope of the national security law and current moves against protesters and professionals such as teachers, journalists and academics have made the future of activism bleak.

Article 63 of the national security law states that Chinese law will “prevail” over Hong Kong laws in the event of any dispute, and that some trials could be conducted in closed courts and bail denied defendants. Under the law, suspects in complex cases could be extradited to mainland China and tried under the laws there. Chinese security agents operating in Hong Kong will enjoy immunity from prosecution. Judges hearing national security cases will be appointed by the city’s leader, breaking a longstanding separation-of-powers arrangement under which such appointments are overseen by the city’s chief justice. The law also applies globally, unnerving even those who’ve fled abroad.

In response to the democrats’ assertions, the Hong Kong government spokesman said it “will continue to implement the ‘one country, two systems’ principle,” maintaining that the rights and freedoms of Hong Kongers are well protected and that the legislature remains a place of pluralistic views.

As for last year’s protests, the spokesman said: “From mid-2019 to early 2020, unprecedented violence, reckless and organized destruction plagued the city. These unlawful and violent acts must be condemned, curbed and ended if Hong Kong is to continue as a vibrant international financial, business and logistics hub.  As in any society that believes in the rule of law, it is incumbent on the government to maintain public safety and order.”

Some Chinese officials with direct oversight of Hong Kong affairs say they’re satisfied with the impact of the security law in tamping down unrest. Longer term, they don’t rule out further measures to rein in the city’s dissenting voices, including a proposed law to allow Hong Kongers to vote at balloting centers in mainland China. Democrats say this is a ploy by authorities to further stack the odds against the pro-democracy candidates in the next legislative council elections, with most of the voters casting ballots from mainland China likely to back pro-Beijing candidates.

“Old and cunning people like Martin Lee use younger guys in the democracy camp to try to overthrow and destabilize the Chinese Communist Party,” said one Chinese official who spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the matter. “Beijing will only accept a loyal opposition.”

Lee shrugs off such a view, saying that even if his hope in the Chinese Communist Party living up to its promises on Hong Kong is gone, “I can see another hope: hope that comes from the way Hong Kong people, including young people, fought to defend their core values and their way of life … by sacrificing so much, including many years in prison.”

Lee understands he may not live to see his democratic ideals take root in Hong Kong. But he has faith that it will happen nonetheless.

“I never say die; I never give up,” Lee, a devout Catholic, said in a subsequent meeting at a church. “I may not be there to see democracy coming to Hong Kong or coming to China, but it will come one day.  For democracy will reach every shore.”

Police at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in the Hung Hom district of Hong Kong on Nov. 28, 2019. (Photo by Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)

The rescuer

Last year’s protests reached a zenith during the two-week siege of Poly U, as Polytechnic University is known.

For months, police struggled to contain the protesters, who moved fluidly through Hong Kong’s dense urban landscapes, deploying their “be water” strategy of staging flash protests mobilized on social media and encrypted apps. But at Poly U, all escape routes were sealed off by the police. The movement had no place to flow to, and thousands were trapped.

Clad in black with makeshift shields, helmets and gas masks, protesters remained defiant, chanting “liberate Hong Kong.” They hurled petrol bombs, fired arrows and lobbed broken bricks from giant catapults for days on end, and were met with a hail of tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. Giant fireballs occasionally ripped into the sky, and plumes of black smoke curled upward in columns visible across Victoria Harbor. In a Chinese military base next to Poly U, armed People’s Liberation Army troops watched the situation unfold while conducting anti-riot drills in an open forecourt.

On the outskirts, thousands of regular Hong Kongers came to the rescue, including Dave, a skilled diver. He described his role on condition that his last name not be used. Participants in the Poly U occupation have been arrested on rioting-related charges, carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Dave, who is in his late 30s, watched the standoff with dread on his phone, glued to his private Telegram group of regular Hong Kongers providing logistical, financial and medical support to the protesters.

He thought he might be able to scout a way into the campus from a submerged tunnel in Victoria Harbor via a labyrinth of sewers, to find a path out for those trapped inside.

He messaged several of his diving buddies but wasn’t 100 percent straight with them.

“I just told them, ‘We’re going diving tomorrow; I know a good place. We’re going to catch crabs.’ You always catch crabs at night.”

Dave and his fellow divers prepped their gear, then took a boat to the choppy waters near the Hong Kong Coliseum where Cantopop concerts are held. The group had obtained detailed subterranean maps drafted by the Drainage Services Department. They plunged in backward with their scuba gear and oxygen tanks. In the murk they made their way into the black hole.

The route that Dave and his diving buddies helped scout led roughly a kilometer underground from Poly U, below a crematorium, to manhole covers near the famous Kwun Yum Temple in the area of Kowloon known as Hung Hom, where subterranean waters can be heard gushing loudly after rainstorms.

The century-old temple, filled with coils of incense and hung with lanterns painted with tigers, is devoted to the goddess of mercy. Built in 1873 in the early decades of British rule, the temple survived Japanese bombardments during World War II. It is considered a place of miracles, as well as a preserve of Chinese traditions through a breathtaking century and a half of change.

“The way out is easy if you know where to go,” Dave said. “But without a map, it’s a terrifying labyrinth.”

In photographs of the sewer system later published by netizens, the waters were neck-high as the protesters edged their way out, connected by their Ariadne’s thread, a red climbing rope. Fluorescent sticks cast light on walls filled with cockroaches.

Dave estimates the mission saved hundreds of protesters through escape routes he helped scout with his team. Those emerging from the sewers jumped into waiting cars.

Some see the Poly U siege as a metaphor for what the entire city has now become under the security law: People trapped inside, with those on the outside, including the West, trying to come to the rescue.

Dave, a man with a big laugh and a penchant for Scottish single malts, represents a swathe of regular middle-class Hong Kong professionals who’ve increasingly aligned with the younger generation spearheading the movement. Though far less visible, these older people with wealth and skills risk arrest for assisting the protesters. Dave says he has spent large amounts of money on the movement, including for medical treatment for protesters.

Dave believes the movement is becoming increasingly radical, with many people now choosing to bide their time and go underground, preparing mentally and logistically for more mass protests or, potentially, a more violent path. He says he could leave Hong Kong anytime but won’t despite the darkening mood. He wants to persevere with the democracy movement, though he thinks the reality is grim.

“Hong Kong has become a jail. No one can get out. We’re all trapped,” he said. “Even those that get out are still trapped in their minds, for the city is trapped.

“We’ve become like a giant Poly U.”

A protester climbs out of a sewer entrance after crawling through one of its tunnels to see how wide it is, as he and others try to find an escape route from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in the Hung Hom district of Hong Kong, early morning on Nov. 19. (Photo by Anthony Wallace/AFP)

The exile

Eli, a 28-year-old who was arrested during the Poly U standoff, remembers the moment the protests changed her.

It was June 12 last year, and police were firing tear gas at peaceful protesters whose arms and sometimes necks were wrapped in cling film to protect themselves from getting burned. Something snapped inside her as she sent supplies of safety goggles, water, helmets and umbrellas to the front line.

At a protest a month later, she picked up a brick from a sidewalk, intending to hurl it at riot police. But she kept it in her hand for hours instead, eventually tossing it in a bin.

“When I held a brick with my hand, I felt so heavy. I wasn’t sure whether or not I should throw it,” she said. “I only knew that since that night, I understood I could protect myself and others if I held a weapon in my hand.”

After the Poly U siege, Eli was charged with rioting, facing a maximum of 10 years in prison. In March, she fled Hong Kong for Canada, fearing she might be charged with other offences.

She kept her plans secret from her family, who she says are all pro-Beijing and thought she was traveling abroad to study. She was also leaving behind her boyfriend. At the airport, she says, her heart was pumping as she feared customs officials might discover the documents she had prepared seeking political asylum in Canada.

“I didn’t have much feeling until the plane started flying. I began to cry. At first, I felt relieved. But I also realized that I wouldn’t have a chance to go back to Hong Kong anymore,” she told Reuters in a two-hour phone call on an encrypted app. “I felt like I have abandoned my loved one.”

Eli, who suffers from a defective heart valve, remains plagued by guilt for leaving. One time, she said, her boyfriend woke up from a nightmare and called her. She tried to comfort him, but he lashed out.

“‘What are you scared of? You have left already,'” he told her. “I was hurt by what he said… He later apologized and knew he said something wrong, but it’s also a cruel fact.”

After arriving in Canada, Eli finally had the time to recover from the traumatic experience at the front line. Advised by her doctor, she tries to take a walk every day for stress relief.

But she’s been buffeted by a stream of bad news on her iPhone. Other activists have gone into exile, some by plane, others by speedboat. Some have been caught fleeing, including 12 who were intercepted by the Chinese coast guard and kept incommunicado in a mainland jail, denied access to family, friends and family-appointed lawyers.

Still, Eli has plunged into advocacy work in her adopted country, helping organise rallies, designing protest art: little acts to sustain the West’s attention on Hong Kong.

Fellow activists have done the same in other countries, including Taiwan, Britain, the United States and Australia, forging an international front of resistance that follows those from other restive parts of China, including Tibet and Xinjiang.

“To Hong Kongers, there’s no resistance without paying a heavy cost,” she said. “I think Hong Kongers need to be like water, and try to find grey areas where they can continue to resist. … I’m still resisting here in a foreign country.”

The future

Prince Wong was a committed protester who went to almost every demonstration last year. Her time ran out at midnight on Nov. 18, 2019, during the Poly U standoff.

She was in Yau Ma Tei, a district close to campus. There were desperate calls online for reinforcements to save those trapped inside. A police van, its siren blaring, suddenly screeched toward the protesters, causing a stampede. She tried running away, but was pressed down by the strong arms of a cop and arrested.

“My life planning was messed up and greatly affected by the rioting case. I could be put in jail at any time. I was pushed to the edge by the regime,” she said.

Prince Wong campaigns during the unofficial “primary” election organized by the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong, July 12. (Photo by Jessie Pang/Reuters)

She suffered from depression after her arrest. When some of her friends arrested in other protests learned that, they encouraged her to go hiking with them in the hills, valleys, islands and shores of Hong Kong’s wilder places. She started to heal and reflect on what more she could do.

“I wanted to use my situation to do more, to speak out more, and so I started to think about running for the election.”

She decided to run in the now-cancelled legislative council elections, to become the face and voice for the anonymous protesters.

“Running for the election was never my final goal,” said Wong, a final-year student at Lingnan University. “I want to continue the momentum of the protests. It’s a medium to continue my role, or to speak for those who might not be able to show their face.”

Reuters first interviewed Wong back in 2015, a year after she staged a hunger strike outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong during the so-called “umbrella movement” fighting for democratic rights. That movement, which saw protesters blocking major roads in the city for almost three months, failed to wrest any concessions from China, but sowed the seeds for the bigger battle last year.

“The elderly often say that my generation will be the ones to live long enough to see a democratic Hong Kong,” she said at the time. “But I am not so naive to fully believe that it will happen in our time, either.”

Five years later, she still feels the same, except there’s more responsibility on her shoulders to pass on the light in the darkest hours of Hong Kong’s democracy movement.

“I won’t feel depressed because we can’t achieve it now. You will influence the next generation, and maybe they will know the answer.”

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