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The personal cost of protest in Hong Kong

Posted By on August 11, 2021 @ 06:00

On 9 June 2019, David* joined street protests, like other Hongkongers who feared for their future under plans to introduce extraditions to mainland China. He thought it was reasonable to hope that the government would withdraw the controversial legislation. After all, Hong Kong has a history of successful protesting.

David recalled that in 2003, the last time the government tried to reform national security laws, free-speech concerns triggered a demonstration of half a million of people. Then, the government listened and suspended the reform.

What David struggled to understand was why, little more than a decade later, the government chose to ignore its people when there were over a million of them trying to be heard. But after the protest on the 9th, he knew that his hopes were misplaced. Everything had changed, and now he would need to fight harder.

David says the protests really started to escalate from 12 June as more people became angry about the government’s passive attitude and the police violence against protesters.

That day, he and other people started to gather in Admiralty district, close to Hong Kong’s centre, in the early morning, trying to impede the Legislative Council from starting the second reading of the bill. Although the reading was rescheduled, protesters remained, withstanding police using tear gas and rubber bullets.

On 15 June, Leung Ling-kit, a pro-democracy social activist, became the first person to die during the demonstrations. His death, still mired in controversy, was believed by many activists to be suicide, triggered by despair with the direction of the government.

The next day, more than two million people gathered on the street, and from then on different protests would happen every weekend.

David says that he and other protestors—who called each other ‘siblings’ as a way of expressing solidarity—didn’t have a clear plan or outcome in mind at that point. Most joined protests separately, but from time to time he would go with friends.

‘“Be water” is a method we adopt’, David says. ‘We don’t have a leader; we play it by ear. And sometimes it’s easier to leave the scene if the situation turns dangerous.’

Protest information was circulated on social media platforms like Instagram, Telegram and Facebook and using AirDrop. Encrypted Telegram accounts, which don’t require traceable phone numbers, allowed ‘siblings’ to alert each other to dangerous locations and places with available food or protective equipment like helmets, respirators, gloves and goggles, sometimes supplied by ‘parents’.

‘Parents’ were older supporters whose various family, work and health problems prevented them from protesting. However, their contribution and support for young people was immense. Many arranged ‘school buses’—private cars—to conduct ‘afterschool pick-ups’ for protesters. For example, on 1 September as protesters were fleeing mass arrest at Hong Kong International Airport, online supporters used the hashtag #backhome to call for public support to protect the safety of protestors. ‘Parents’ along with other volunteers on the road organised private cars to rescue protestors. This operation was later called ‘Hong Kong’s Dunkirk’.

Eventually, David was arrested in a demonstration in Wan Chai district, after being held down by several police and pepper-sprayed as he tried to speak to the crowd around him. The crowd intentionally recorded his name, to let his friends know he was arrested and enable them to contact lawyers.

When David was being interrogated, he was asked to sign a search warrant against himself. He initially refused, buying time for his friends and family to delete sensitive content on his computer and conceal his protesting equipment.

Legally, Hong Kong police can only detain suspects for 48 hours. David was eventually allowed to meet a lawyer and receive hospital treatment for minor wounds. He spent more than 40 hours in detention but regarded himself as lucky. David says he was ‘only’ intimidated and humiliated by police, but he later heard that others had experienced violent or even sexual assault.

David suspected that police had infiltrated Telegram group chats to target protesters by first gaining their trust, gathering written evidence, and then arresting entire groups. In physical protests, police cordoned off areas for mass arrest. Police were relatively peaceful in the beginning, he says, but as protesters became more frustrated with the government the police got more violent and were accused of having connections with gangsters.

Looking back on the past few years, David says he’s very confused about both his own future and the country’s. The enactment of the national security law and the shutdown of the pro-democratic newspaper Apple Daily have spurred hopelessness and even migration.

‘Hong Kong to some extent has become an authoritarian government—they have attempted to promote people with police backgrounds into government,’ he says.

‘The government decided to pass the national security law to intimidate and mute Hong Kong citizens, making it easy for the government to control people. In the past, the government might to some extent pretend to be democratic, and now they just don’t bother anymore. Everything in Hong Kong is made to be convenient for Beijing. The divide between people and the government is expanding.’

However, David has never thought to leave; Hong Kong is his forever home.

David’s family couldn’t understand why he risked his life to voice his opinion.

‘I never talked about protesting with my family, even after I was arrested. They only asked me if I’m coming home for dinner or do I need to bring lunch for work,’ he says.

‘In fact, we don’t talk about politics. I think they still love China because they were one of those who were forced to migrate to Hong Kong illegally because of difficult economic circumstances in China, and we still have many relatives in the mainland. Although from time to time they complain about the government, they don’t hate it.

‘For some Hongkongers, they are fed up with the government’s pro-China policy and tired of the Chinese central government’s influence and the flooding of mainlanders into Hong Kong. For example, some Hongkongers have waited more than 10 years for a government subsidy to buy a house, but mainlanders only have to wait for one or two years.

‘Some people do care about the society and politics, but they don’t have time or energy. They work three jobs, and after paying their rent, they can only afford one or two meals. If they participate in the protests for just one day, this probably costs them three days of living budget.’

After his release, David still has to check in at a police station regularly and could still be prosecuted if new evidence is found. Living in the shadow of a possible 10-year conviction for rioting, David does his best to appreciate his freedom and his family and friends. ‘I feel like my freedom is borrowed,’ he says.

Public gatherings and demonstrations are even less tolerated in Hong Kong now, partly due to Covid-19. David still doesn’t know how best to help his home, or how far Beijing will go in limiting citizens’ rights under the ‘one country, two systems’ policy.

‘I appreciate the attention that the international community has given to Hong Kong. However, I hope people can also pay attention to other countries such as Thailand and Myanmar that are still struggling to have democracy.’

* The interviewee has not been identified by name due to potential risks to his personal safety.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-personal-cost-of-protest-in-hong-kong/

[1] reform: https://edition.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/asiapcf/east/07/01/hk.protest/

[2] police: https://www.thestandnews.com/politics/6-12-%E4%BD%94%E9%A0%98-%E5%9C%96%E8%BC%AF%E4%BA%8C-%E9%87%91%E9%90%98%E6%94%BB%E9%98%B2%E6%88%B0-%E9%9B%A8%E5%82%98%E5%8F%A3%E7%BD%A9%E6%8A%97%E6%A9%A1%E8%86%A0%E5%BD%88%E5%82%AC%E6%B7%9A%E5%BD%88

[3] mired: https://www.bbc.com/zhongwen/simp/chinese-news-57238691

[4] parents: https://www.epochtimes.com/b5/19/10/18/n11597252.htm?fbclid=IwAR3dIce-tYiXkER2tNp7tZrGnHNRUIOhInfmLe9flOEjIqolxkw8WmfRoKo

[5] #backhome: https://www.storm.mg/article/1663767?page=2

[6] Dunkirk: https://international.thenewslens.com/feature/hkantielab/124303

[7] gangsters: https://globalnews.ca/news/5665860/hong-kong-triad-attack-police-protesters/

[8] migration: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-10/expats-are-fleeing-hong-kong-as-china-tightens-its-grip-they-may-never-return