They’re dressed in an all-black uniform, faces distorted behind gas masks, using umbrellas as shields, and following a sophisticated set of hand motions that act as their form of communication.
For more than three months, millions of civilians have been protesting the Hong Kong government.
What began as a rally against legislation that would have allowed for the extradition of Hong Kong residents to China to face trial has ballooned into a much more symbolic battle to fight Chinese encroachment in the semiautonomous region.
One study conducted from June to August found that nearly 60% of protesters were younger than 29, and nearly 75% had some form of higher education. And for many young protesters, weekly demonstrations have become an increasingly more desperate, sometimes violent fight against what they see as a shrinking view of their future.
Unlike the city’s high concentration of superwealthy, the youth of Hong Kong are struggling to afford to live in one of the world’s most expensive cities. A recent economic shift hit “educated, white-collar professionals” particularly hard, The New York Times reported. “Wages stalled or declined,” The Times’ Max Fisher wrote. “What they made bought far less. Many became less well-off than their parents had been.”
The average price of a home in Hong Kong in 2019 is $US1.2 million.Graffiti near a protest site calls out the average rent for a small room in a shared apartment: “7K for a house like a cell and you really think we out here scared of jail,” referring to 7,000 Hong Kong dollars, or $US893.
Many also feel uncertain about their future in the Chinese territory once the “one country, two systems” agreement ends in 2047. The agreement affords Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and separate economic and administrative systems to China.
The protesters who spoke with Business Insider saw the continued demonstrations as a matter of life and death.
“We believe this is the last stand for our future and freedom,” Chan, 22, a recent college graduate and protester who requested we use only his last name, told Business Insider over the messaging app Telegram in early August. “We’d rather die in the fight than slowly suffocate to death after we lose the fight.”
Protesters have 5 key demands
Protest groups have put forward five key demands, which continue to fuel demonstrations and have become a rallying cry for many protesters:
- A full withdrawal of the extradition bill;
- Retraction of the characterization of protests as riots;
- The release of protesters arrested by the police unlawfully;
- Establishing an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality and excessive use of force against protesters;
- The introduction of fair and free elections in the city.
Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, scrapped the incendiary extradition bill on September 4 in a long-awaited concession, promising to formally withdraw the legislation without debate or voting in the next council, which is set to resume in October.
Still, some pro-democracy activists have called the move “too little and too late,” and protests, particularly among students, have continued with growing ferocity.
Large-scale demonstrations took place ahead of two anniversaries: the five-year marker of the Umbrella Movement on September 28 and the 70th anniversary of the formation of the People’s Republic of China on October 1. Clashes between police and protesters erupted across the city – officers fired tear gas and water cannons at crowds in Wong Tai Sin, while police shot an 18-year-old protester at point-blank range in Tsuen Wan, marking the first time that live fire was used since protests began in June.
Police say that violent protesters used “corrosive fluid” in the Tuen Mun area, injuring multiple officers, and also hurled “firebombs and other objects.” Police commissioner Stephen Lo said at a press conference that over 180 protesters were arrested on October 1.
Violence on the ‘front lines’
Chan considers himself a “frontline protester,” someone stationed at the forefront of demonstrations directly facing off against the riot police, who are armed with tear gas, batons, rubber bullets, beanbag rounds, and live ammunition.
“I believe almost all frontline protesters, including myself, are ready to be arrested or die in protests,” Chan told Business Insider in August.
Though a portion of protests over the past 17 weeks have been peaceful and largely without incident, offshoot groups of protesters – growing more and more infuriated with government inaction and allegations of police brutality – have frequently clashed with the police, throwing bricks, umbrellas, and other objects at law enforcement.
Hardline activists have been criticised by the police for their violent tactics. In recent months, groups of protesters have stormed and ransacked the city’s Legislative Building, surrounded the city’s police headquarters, and occupied the city’s airport for days, disrupting flights and causing tourism to plummet.
The police have ramped up their responses to protests, firing tear gas and rubber bullets at crowds, infiltrating protest groups using disguises, and arresting people en masse. Protesters have also suggested that the police have turned to organised gangs to carry out attacks on commuters.
On September 19, Amnesty International released results from a field investigation that revealed instances of severe beatings, arbitrary arrests, and threats of violence toward protesters by the police.
While peaceful activism has helped the movement spread their message to the mainstream, many protesters are wary that demonstrations alone will actually achieve results without disrupting the status quo.
The 2014 Umbrella Movement, also known as Occupy Central, saw similar scenes of peaceful protests interlaced with violent clashes. The protests ended after 79 days, but the movement’s core goal, establishing true, universal suffrage, was never actualized. Nine pro-democracy campaigners were convicted for their leadership roles in the protests, with four handed jail sentences this past April.
“It’s proven that violence, to some degree, will be useful,” a 30-year-old protester told Reuters in August.
More than 115 days have passed since protests began. In that time, more than 1,700 people have been arrested, according to Bloomberg, and at least 70 people have been charged with rioting, the South China Morning Post estimates, a criminal offence that carries a jail sentence of up to 10 years.
Protesters are willing to die for freedom
A protester actively working on the frontlines who requested anonymity because of fears for her safety told Business Insider that protesters, including herself, saw the current fight against Chinese influence as an “end game,” and she said she had engaged with protesters who had expressed readiness to die in continued clashes.
“They say that if Hong Kong has no future, I have no future either,” she told Business Insider. “So I may as well fight or die for it.”
She said she had spoken with several protesters under the age of 20 – some as young as 12 - who turned up to protests anticipating violence. Some carry suicide notes or a last will and testament in their bags.
“They fight, they’re very ready to die,” she said.
Chan said he, too, always had a note addressing his family inside his bag in case confrontations turned violent.
In July, masked assailants with links to organised crime stormed the Yuen Long metro station in the city’s north and attacked commuters returning from protests.
“It’s just a matter of time before they eventually kill someone,” Chan said. “There have been multiple times that riot police claimed that they will hit us to death. We Hong Kong citizens are frightened, every frontline protester is frightened.”
For Chan, the current climate is a win-or-lose scenario.
“This time is our last effort to fight for our democracy,” he added. “We have been shot, beaten, overwhelmed with tear gas. We are risking our life and future. We just wanted to enjoy democracy. We are prepared to die. Because Hong Kong is our home, our beloved home.”
Experts say protests have left people feeling hopeless and helpless
Protests have not only consumed Hong Kong’s physical space, but according to experts, they are taking a mental toll on protesters.
At least four protesters have died in apparent suicides in the past few months. Several suicide-prevention groups previously shared that they had received more calls since protests began, the South China Morning Post reported.
“This is a public mental health situation,” Clarence Tsang, the executive director of the suicide-prevention group Samaritan Befrienders, told the Post.
Protesting appears to dominate the daily discourse for Hong Kong’s youth. A teacher and a youth psychologist who work closely with protesters told Business Insider in August that they had encountered students who expressed distress over the state of affairs in the city.
Henry Ng, a lecturer at Hong Kong University who is an expert in social psychology, told Business Insider that there had been a “general sense of hopelessness and helplessness” among protesters, many of whom are students or young adults. “The two feelings may cause people to become numb to the situation,” Ng said.
He added that in terms of cognitive development, young protesters, particularly teenagers, might be more susceptible to group influences and might be less developed in terms of inhibitory control. Ng says this may explain why the city’s youth have been drawn to more violent means of protest.
Another lecturer at Hong Kong University, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution at work, told Business Insider in August that the general sentiment among protesters was that violence was “inevitable” because of lack of response by the government to more peaceful methods of protest.
She added that in her experience, many young protesters felt as if they had “nothing to lose” and that “blood is ready to be shed because there is no future ahead.”
A youth psychologist who requested to be identified only by his last name, Ching, told Business Insider in August that a combination of feelings – fury over police use of force, confusion about the government’s lack of response, distrust toward the Hong Kong legal system, and worry over Hong Kong’s future – dominated the mindset of protesters that he had spoken with.
Ching recalled an incident in July during a memorial service for one of the protesters who died by suicide, in which he was on hand to give “psychological first aid” to those in attendance. He said as the evening wore on, he tended to a 14-year-old protester who expressed concern over retribution toward his family for his activity in protests, which progressed into suicidal ideation.
“Overwhelmed and feeling helpless, Hong Kongers are inexperienced in facing such large-scale protests and desperation,” he said. “They are using different methods and ways to express their anger and frustration.”
Ng said steps were being taken to address the mental well-being of young protesters, including the creation of task forces in local universities to address the psychological needs of their students.
Ching said those within his organisation were conducting psychological first-aid training and had set up public outreach services, like counseling, for teachers and students, as the city’s youth had been most affected by protests.
“We as health professionals can help repair the injury and the psychological impact” of protests, he said. “At the end of the day, only the government is in the position and has power to prevent the movement from further escalation, and stop tragedy from going on and on.”
In an attempt to better understand protesters, Lam in July offered to hold closed-door meetings with university students from across the city to address their concerns. In late September, she held an “open dialogue” town hall, where 150 people in the movement shared their feelings about her leadership. Protesters then blockaded the stadium where the meeting was held.
Though the extradition bill has been withdrawn, protesters are preparing for the long haul
Ching told Business Insider on September 11 that protesters would continue to turn out until their five demands were met “and not one less.”
“The withdrawal has only made a small difference on the movement from the protester’s point of view,” he said.
A protester actively working on the frontlines told Business Insider in September that while protesters had begun to shift their focus onto the other key demands outlined, her mindset on protesting remained the same.
“I think our methods have changed a lot since August,” she said. “But I think one thing that really has shown itself to be more clear is that we do not separate from each other.”
“Whether we are peaceful or whether we are on the frontlines,” she added, the methods “are inseparable.”
She said that while uncertainty lay ahead, the situation in the city for her remained a matter of life and death.
“The fight,” she said, “is definitely not over yet.”