“Check out that security guard,” Alex said, nodding to my left.
Alex (not his real name) is a protester in his early 20s, and I was meeting him for coffee at the only “yellow” pro-democracy cafe in New Town Plaza, Hong Kong, a once quiet shopping mall in my home district that last year became a battleground in massive anti-government protests. I turned to look: sure enough, there was a guard standing to the side of the main square, staring out into the crowd. I hadn’t noticed him before. Now I can’t help but catch him in the corner of my eye every time I pass through.
It was November 2020, and I’d just returned home for the first time after a year of tumultuous change.
This time last year, Hong Kong was at the peak of its protest movement, and the square was covered by an enormous display of pro-democracy posters and artwork. I remember tip-toeing around the confetti of rainbow origami cranes sprinkled across various printouts, trying not to crush their tiny paper wings.
Before that it was the site of a huge strike rally and clashes between protesters and police. In one, riot police stormed the floor with batons and pepper spray. In another, protesters beat up a man they accused of being a mainland Chinese spy, and defaced a Chinese flag. Last Christmas, protesters vandalised the shopfronts of various “blue” chain shops, owned by companies deemed complicit in the system of economic and political oppression that keeps Hong Kong one of the world’s most unequal cities.
Now the square is empty; a negative space around the weight of what once was.
Sitting by me in a secluded spot, Alex seemed cautious at first, clutching his takeaway cup as if unsure of how much to say. But he soon relaxed and began talking freely, reflecting on the rapid changes and how – in the absence of protests – he’s been channelling his energy into one of Hong Kong’s many new labour unions. After an interview that ran over by an hour, we parted ways. He might move to Taiwan but he’ll keep in touch, he said.
It was one of many candid and, for me, unexpectedly generative conversations I had with protesters, journalists and activists invested in the pro-democracy movement. On the plane from London, I’d braced myself for a broken Hong Kong: one silenced and stripped of dissent, worse than in the period of fatigue I’d witnessed as a reporter in the aftermath of the 2014 umbrella revolution. And, on the surface, that’s what I found.
Since the pandemic enabled local authorities to successfully clamp down on mass protests and Beijing passed a sweeping national security law in June criminalising secession, subversion and other ambiguously-defined actions, the pro-democracy movement has experienced almost daily crackdowns. Hundreds of mostly young protesters have been put behind bars, including high-profile figures Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow. Chinese authorities have detained 12 Hongkongers who attempted to flee to Taiwan by boat. There have been newsroom raids, cancelled elections, the disqualification of pro-democracy lawmakers on the grounds of national security and more.
Censorship, both external and self-imposed, has choked my city – now irrevocably cracked by the invisible lines of yellow and pro-Beijing blue. People are sanitising their social media output, surveying their surroundings before speaking, and rejecting even anonymous media interviews. The fear is palpable; the silence shocking for a city that once prided itself in being the bastion of free speech in China.
Yet beneath it all, there’s a thread of resistance, strung tightly together by the resilience of people who continue to care about human rights, express their beliefs and quietly do what they believe to be right, despite intensifying pressures.
There’s the teacher who is worried about academic freedom, and plans to make “alternative” open-source course materials available online. There’s the reporter who has pro-Beijing parents but continues to cover political news, even as her family drifts further apart. There’s the artist who had a breakdown after helping friends flee the city, but is slowly creating theatre projects again, telling local stories. There’s the civil servant who feels persecuted at work but wants to stay and hopefully change the culture from within.
There’s also the mainland Chinese journalist who is saddened by anti-Chinese sentiment, and exhausted from balancing her job with the safety of herself and her family in China. “When I arrived 10 years ago I was naive. I wanted to cover human rights – maybe return home and change things. Now I don’t even know if I have a future here,” she confessed to me quietly, after a long day at work. Still, like everyone else I spoke to, she’ll carry on.
In Hong Kong, there’s no denying that political life is severely under threat: the structures we have to advocate for rights are being rapidly eroded. But solidarity is a powerful force. Even under the most crushing conditions, it survives, breathing life into thoughts unheard, actions unseen.
Solidarity is a precondition for both the preservation and creation of mechanisms for change. Hongkongers who care about democratic freedoms will continue to establish and utilise existing sites of political struggle: for instance, through the district council – the only body where representatives are directly selected by voters – diaspora organising, unionisation or grassroots mobilisations. From migrant and prison justice to the plight of street cleaners, many socioeconomic struggles are being tied to the movement, keeping it alive.
Censorship is only total with our consent and complicity. To those who are carrying on and speaking out: I’ll be here, with many others, listening. I only hope you will be too.
Jessie Lau is a writer and journalist from Hong Kong covering identity, politics, culture and human rights.