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5 years ago they protested for freedom in Hong Kong. They want us to remember them

Roy Kwong Chun-yu, a pro-democracy member of Hong Kong's Legislative Council at the time, spoke over a loud-hailer to the police as he joined protesters in Hong Kong on July 1, 2019. Demonstrators pushed barriers and dumpsters into the streets in an apparent bid to block access to a ceremony marking the anniversary of the handover of the former British colony to China.
Kin Cheung
/
AP
Roy Kwong Chun-yu, a pro-democracy member of Hong Kong's Legislative Council at the time, spoke over a loud-hailer to the police as he joined protesters in Hong Kong on July 1, 2019. Demonstrators pushed barriers and dumpsters into the streets in an apparent bid to block access to a ceremony marking the anniversary of the handover of the former British colony to China.

HONG KONG — Five years ago, on a sweltering July 1, enraged protesters in Hong Kong smashed their way into the local legislature and ransacked the building.

It was a bold act of violence that laid bare high levels of frustration among the demonstrators, fed up with a government that they felt was not listening to the demands of the people, and instead was dragging the territory closer to China politically. Their freedom, they felt, was on the line, and the at-times violent street protests continued for months.

The protests ended after a sweeping crackdown underpinned by tough national security legislation imposed upon Hong Kong by China’s Communist rulers in Beijing in 2020. Thousands of people have been arrested or jailed. A once-feisty opposition movement favoring universal suffrage has been decapitated. And the populace is largely cowed, reluctant to engage in even the smallest displays of dissent for fear of arrest.

NPR recently visited Hong Kong, and talked with more than a dozen people to understand how life has changed. Here are the stories of three — a former student leader, a former teacher and a former local politician. Two of the three were not comfortable letting NPR use their full names, let alone photos, out of fear the government could find fault in their remarks.

A student becomes active the first time

Jason, 24, was in college at one of Hong Kong’s leading universities when the protests erupted, and he got involved early.

“The first time I participated in a protest was April 2019. That protest was very peaceful,” he says.

He didn’t want NPR to use his full name because he was worried his comments could get him in trouble with the authorities.

At the time, demonstrations were erupting over a government proposal that would have allowed authorities in Hong Kong to extradite certain criminal suspects to mainland China for prosecution.

Protesters flood the streets in Hong Kong on July 1, 2019.
Kin Cheung / AP
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AP
Protesters flood the streets in Hong Kong on July 1, 2019.

The former British colony and China have different and distinct legal systems — a feature of the “one country, two systems” model under which Hong Kong has been governed since Britain returned it to China in 1997. Opponents of the proposed extradition law feared it would erode Hong Kong’s judicial independence, and that extradition could be used as a form of political control.

The protests escalated through the summer of 2019. In mid-June, by some estimates, around 2 million people took part in one march through the center of the city. The demonstrators demanded the government drop the proposed extradition law, and added calls for the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, to step down, and for universal suffrage.

Jason got swept up in it. He became more involved in student leadership, organizing and speaking out.

After Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong at the end of June 2020, Jason and his classmates railed against it and continued to advocate for democracy. But it soon became clear that the authorities would use the law as a cudgel.

A woman walks past a promotional banner of the national security law for Hong Kong, in Hong Kong, June 30, 2020. China imposed the law that allows authorities to crack down on what they deem subversive and secessionist activities in Hong Kong.
Kin Cheung / AP
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AP
A woman walks past a promotional banner of the national security law for Hong Kong, in Hong Kong, June 30, 2020. China imposed the law that allows authorities to crack down on what they deem subversive and secessionist activities in Hong Kong.

“We received some death threats from, you know, some numbers. We assume that it’s from the mainland,” he says.

The threats got worse, and he left school.

“I decided to leave Hong Kong for a while and go travel, because I don’t think staying in Hong Kong at that moment would be a wise choice,” he says.

Many people left Hong Kong after the protests, according to official statistics, which show the population dropping by more than 200,000 people from mid-2019 to mid-2022. The population ticked back up last year, partly because of migration from the Chinese mainland.

Jason went to Europe, but a few months later, after friends and others signaled that he would not be arrested if he came back to Hong Kong, he returned.

His hometown felt like it had lost its soul.

He tried to emigrate to Canada, but couldn’t. He grappled with depression.

“And [it’s] like a really cliché quote, but freedom is like air,” he says.

“You didn’t notice it when you can breathe, but you certainly notice it when you got suffocated. And that is exactly the case … right now.”

He is a changed person; more cautious about his words than before, he says, more guarded.

Later this summer, he is starting law school. And he wants to be a human rights lawyer, working for disaffected groups, like Hong Kong’s homeless population, so he can make a difference in the community. But he knows it will be on a much smaller scale than when he was involved in a movement fueled by a dream of universal suffrage.

Still, he has hope.

“I'm not sure when and how or why, but I think Hong Kong one day [will] become the place that I'll be very comfortable living in. Not because I change, but the city changes,” he says. After all, he points out, nobody expected the Berlin Wall to fall.

“I cannot expect anything. I have no anticipation. But I have, you know, an unrealistic hope,” he says.

But he keeps it locked away in his heart.

She teaches high school history

On the grimy, narrow walls leading up the stairs to a hidden bookstore in the crowded Kowloon part of the city, there’s still some pro-democracy graffiti — reminders of a past that feels more distant than it is.

Inside, Kimberly, who attended the same college as Jason, flashes a bright smile. Like Jason, she asks not to use her full name in this story given the political climate.

Kimberly, 27, was involved in the protests, but not as a leader. After graduating with a degree in history, she took a job teaching Chinese history at a local high school.

She loved working with the kids, but left the job last fall after three years.

“They were great. They’re good. So the problem is not about them, I would say,” she says.

She left mostly because she says she couldn’t teach what she wanted to. High school history was becoming a battlefield, and the narrative was changing.

“One thing is that I want to tell them more about what is happening now and what [was] happening in the past. I want to make connections between the past and the present,” she says.

Official school curricula in Hong Kong, though, were becoming more restrictive, by design. It started before the protest movement, and has accelerated. The territory’s colonial past was being downplayed, as were sensitive political events, like the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing.

Kimberly says she could talk about them with the students, but there wasn’t much time to do so, given the official curriculum and the test preparation that the students were all engaged in.

After the protests, “national security” became a buzzword that the authorities required teachers to fold regularly into their lessons.

Kimberly says it was easy in her history classes, but harder for teachers who taught physics or math. The authorities took it seriously, and conducted audits.

“There’s documents, leaflets and stickers even to distribute to the students … for the National Security Day,” she says, referring to an annual day of commemoration to raise awareness of national security across China.

Pamela Lam plays with her son on the way to school in Hong Kong, July 3, 2020. Lam's 6-year-old son fell in love with the Hong Kong protest anthem, <em>Glory to Hong Kong</em>, the first time he heard it and sings it often. But because of a sweeping new national security law, singing it in public is now risky. Lam agreed to be photographed only if her face was not shown, fearing possible retribution from authorities.
Kin Cheung / AP
/
AP
Pamela Lam plays with her son on the way to school in Hong Kong, July 3, 2020. Lam's 6-year-old son fell in love with the Hong Kong protest anthem, Glory to Hong Kong, the first time he heard it and sings it often. But because of a sweeping new national security law, singing it in public is now risky. Lam agreed to be photographed only if her face was not shown, fearing possible retribution from authorities.

While it was largely a box-checking exercise, Kimberly says, she felt a noose was tightening.

“I'm not very optimistic about [getting] more freedom in the future in education,” she told NPR.

So, she is shifting gears, going to the United Kingdom soon to get a master’s degree in museum studies. She says she may even end up staying overseas.

In her hometown, though, as a student and former teacher of its history, she says it can be sad walking down the street, passing places that evoke memories of the demonstrations.

“I know that many people are trying to keep the memories. Many of us are using different ways to try to remember these events,” she says.

But, she adds, nobody dares to do so openly — at least not now.

He ran a funeral business

Richard Chan, 50, recently suffered a heart attack which he says was probably related to stress from the past few years. NPR met him at a hospital two days after surgery.

“A pacemaker, right here,” he says, pointing to his chest with a grin.

Chan ran a funeral business. But he was inspired when the protests erupted and got involved. One day in August 2019 he found himself between front-line demonstrators and police during a standoff at the Hong Kong airport.

His attempt to mediate was caught on camera, and he was soon given the nickname “Airport Uncle.”

Protesters stand at a barricade blocking the freeway to the Hong Kong International Airport on Sept. 1, 2019. Pro-democracy protesters rallied on the streets of Hong Kong against a controversial extradition bill starting June 9 of that year.
Chris McGrath / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Protesters stand at a barricade blocking the freeway to the Hong Kong International Airport on Sept. 1, 2019. Pro-democracy protesters rallied on the streets of Hong Kong against a controversial extradition bill starting June 9 of that year.

That fall, he decided to run for district council — the lowest rung of elected office in the territory. The idea was to enter a race for a constituency where a pro-establishment candidate would win if there were no competition.

“I didn’t think I could win at that time,” he says. But he did.

In 2021, though, the authorities parried with a new law requiring councilors to swear an oath of allegiance to Hong Kong’s government and its laws.

“They claimed my oath wasn’t acceptable, and I was stripped of my position and couldn’t work as a district councilor,” he says. Others faced the same fate.

But Chan vowed to continue to serve the community informally.

“Back then, I thought, the voters’ authorized me to serve them for four years, so I used my savings to complete the term,” he says. He even opened a butcher shop to raise funds to keep his office open.

Last year, he says he served out his term — and paid his debt to his supporters.

“The four year term is over, so what next for Hong Kong? What can Hong Kong do? And what can I do here in Hong Kong? It’s an issue to deal with now,” he says.

Chan wants to stay engaged — but like Jason and Kimberly, he’s had to scale back his ambitions. He’s now involved with a cat rescue organization in the suburban district of Taipo, where he lives.

He says it helps him get to know the people in his community better.

But he knows any difference he makes in the community, for now, is going to be on a much smaller scale.

Copyright 2024 NPR

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.