Listen to this article
When the United Kingdom handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, Nick Wu was barely five years old. He grew up in a conservative, working-class family in the territory and, on graduating from university, found a job in marketing. This summer, when pro-democracy demonstrations erupted, he became a front-line protester.
For more than four months, Wu, a mild-mannered, bespectacled 28-year-old, has spent his weekends in a gas mask and helmet, fending off tear gas, pepper spray and prying police cameras, as he dodges rubber bullets, bean-bag rounds and beatings.
It wasn’t always like this. In 2014, while at university, he participated in 79 days of mostly peaceful protests when pro-democracy activists occupied parts of central Hong Kong in what became known as the Umbrella Movement.
“During Umbrella, we didn’t escalate our protests so we failed. It was stupid — we sat, holding hands, waiting for the police to take us away one by one. It’s kind of funny to look back on it now,” he says. “We believed in the system then, we thought our votes could make a difference. But now we’ve learnt the system is stacked against us so we’ve become less peaceful. We’ve lost patience.”
Wu is one of hundreds of thousands of people caught up in this moment of global significance. His ostensible adversaries are Hong Kong’s police and government. But everyone knows that in reality, the protesters’ actual foe is China, a bristling superpower with the world’s largest army and a furious leadership that has likened the demonstrations to terrorism.
The protests, which began in June and have plunged the former British colony into its worst political crisis in decades, represent the biggest insurrection on Chinese soil since the pro-democracy movement in 1989, which eventually led to the Tiananmen Square massacre, when the Chinese Communist party ordered its troops to kill hundreds — perhaps thousands — of people in Beijing.
The stakes for China’s future — and the way in which the world interacts with the superpower — could hardly be greater. If Wu and his fellow protesters prevail in wresting concessions for a more democratic future for Hong Kong, it would indicate that Beijing is ready to tolerate diversity. If it cracks down again, as it did in 1989, it will not only jeopardise the viability of Asia’s financial hub but also create a new crisis in relations between China and the west.
One thing is certain: this youth-led movement of people fighting on the streets for democracy against the world’s most powerful authoritarian state has changed Hong Kong for ever. To many, the protesters’ position appears hopeless, as demonstrators, some not yet teenagers, battle tear gas and even gunfire, often with just umbrellas and hard hats. “If we burn, you burn with us” has been one of their rallying cries — an ominous quote from the dystopian teenage fiction series The Hunger Games, in which young people launch sometimes suicidal missions against an all-controlling government.
This is a movement that erupted from a place of frustration and anger, rather than because protesters believed they could win a fight against the Chinese Communist party. “I don’t think the Hong Kong people stand a chance of winning against the government — they’re experts, they have the resources, it’s not a fair fight,” says Wu, the first time I meet him in August. He allowed the FT to spend eight weeks following him, on condition of anonymity because he fears arrest.
As the situation on the ground evolves from street protests into a movement, it is shaping a distinct Hong Kong identity among its followers, who increasingly see themselves as separate from mainland China. Beijing risks losing the hearts and minds of several generations — not just the young — and faces growing, if nascent, calls for Hong Kong independence, despite China’s vehement opposition to any separatist movements on its soil.
For the Chinese Communist party, Hong Kong’s value lies in it being an international financial centre and a gateway connecting China and the world. But the recent protests have hurt this reputation, with the economy facing its first recession since the global financial crisis, as business confidence, tourist numbers and retail sales plummet.
To date, more than 2,500 people have been arrested, the youngest only 12 years old, while a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old have both been shot. Although there have been no confirmed deaths, violent clashes between police and protesters have escalated recently. Last weekend, the first home-made bomb was allegedly detonated and a police officer was slashed in the neck.
Over recent months, the FT spoke to pro-democracy advocates ranging from front-line radicals to moderate professionals and high-school students about this turning point in the territory’s history. What began as protests in June against a controversial bill that would have allowed criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China has now become a fight for genuine, universal suffrage and a battle over the future of the territory.
Under a framework known as “one country, two systems” — designed to allay fears that Hong Kong would be completely subsumed by China when it was handed over in 1997 — Beijing granted the city a high degree of autonomy for 50 years. This included freedom of speech, assembly and protest.
But as Chinese president Xi Jinping has strengthened political control across the whole country over the past few years, many in Hong Kong have lost belief in the system. Since the Umbrella Movement ended, its leaders have been jailed, pro-democracy lawmakers have been disqualified from the legislature and businessmen abducted by the Chinese Communist party.
“We grew up influenced by the British government, which promotes freedom and fairness, social justice and the rule of law,” says Wu. “But in China, the Chinese government promotes slogans like ‘Without the Communist party, there would be no New China’, ideas which are very difficult for us to get behind. It’s very reasonable they can’t understand us and what we’re fighting for. We have different conceptions of freedom, fairness, justice and how a government gains legitimacy.”
He is dressed completely in black, the uniform of the protesters, as we sit in a Japanese bakery before demonstrations start. By 3pm that day, most of the nearby shops are already shuttered.
On the first day that police used tear gas this summer, Wu and his friend were standing on one of the main arteries outside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. “We were just being peaceful protesters when, suddenly, we saw a guy carrying two boxes of helmets. We each took a helmet and followed him to the front line. I look back and realise — oh, how far I’ve already come,” he says.
His phone buzzes. He glances down, hesitates, then answers. It’s his mum, asking where he is. The conversation is brief. “Every time my mum calls, my immediate reaction is I feel annoyed. When I don’t answer her calls, she bugs my dad to call me. And when I don’t answer his calls, he tells my sisters to call.”
The protests have created rifts between families; an older generation, who often fled poverty and upheaval in mainland China, found stability and freedom in Hong Kong but a younger generation sees these very freedoms being eroded as social inequality grows.
Wu’s parents and older siblings came of age during the boom years. “My father is extremely pro-government, he doesn’t think the police are being brutal enough. He thinks we protesters are trying to destroy Hong Kong. My mother just wants me to stay safe and my older siblings are focused on making money. I’ve tried to explain to my parents, to the older generation, why we’re so angry, why our fight for freedom is so important, but you only get one life and they can’t experience ours,” he says.
Vickie Lui, 39, the spokeswoman for the Progressive Lawyers Group, a group of lawyers committed to upholding democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong, attended an elite international school and grew up in a family that staunchly supports the pro-Beijing establishment. Her parents were furious when they saw a YouTube clip of her energetically explaining the legal problems arising from the extradition bill. They worry about her safety and career prospects. As a barrister, she is careful not to attend illegal protests, which would violate her professional ethics code, although she has participated in several approved rallies.
Lui experienced her political awakening during the Umbrella Movement, catalysed by a decade-long struggle with a brain tumour that almost cost her life. “There are things in the world that are more important than just living your life, going to work, going home, receiving a salary, going on trips,” she says. “That really was my epiphany, that was my turning point in life.
“For people who are moderate like me, we still believe in ‘one country, two systems’,” she adds. “But the Chinese government has to do something to show that our trust is worthwhile and that what we believe in — sticking up for ‘one country, two systems’ — is meaningful . . . If they continue to escalate the situation, it’s going to drive more and more moderate people towards the radical bunch.”
Genuine universal suffrage remains one of the key demands of the protesters and its gloomy prospects are fuelling an embryonic independence movement, particularly among younger generations. “The government isn’t elected by the people. They are only responsive to rich people, large companies and the Chinese government. They aren’t responsive to the general public and the younger generation,” says Wu, who, like many protesters, argues universal suffrage is guaranteed under the Basic Law, the territory’s mini constitution.
In 2014, Beijing rejected calls for fully democratic elections in Hong Kong, instead proposing voting reforms that would have allowed people to elect a chief executive from three candidates effectively vetted by the Chinese Communist party. The proposal, which sparked the Umbrella Movement, was defeated in Hong Kong’s legislature and the chief executive continues to be elected by a 1,200-strong committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.
“Thank goodness we didn’t give them democracy in 2014, it would be so much harder for us to get out of this mess now if we had,” a Chinese government official tells me over the summer, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job. “Universal suffrage isn’t going to happen for a very long time, if ever at all,” he adds.
The face of Hong Kong’s independence movement is Edward Leung, 28, an activist currently serving a six-year sentence for his involvement in clashes between police and protesters in 2016. This confrontation is now viewed by many as the start of the localism movement, which advocates for greater autonomy or even independence and captured about 20 per cent of votes in the Legislative Council elections in 2016.
For many front-line protesters today, Leung is the closest thing to a spiritual guide. He coined the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times”, which now rings out at all hours across the city. “Edward planted the seed that protests can be violent and we Hong Kong people have the ability and the duty to fight for our own city, to fight against China’s influence,” said Nora Lam, 24, director of Lost in the Fumes, an award-winning documentary about Leung that has been hugely influential among protesters. “A lot of the actions of the protesters now are quite similar to what Edward and his followers did in 2016.”
Voices suggesting restraint were mostly silent this year after hundreds of protesters stormed Hong Kong’s legislature on July 1, destroying symbols of China’s central government and briefly occupying the chamber. (The demonstrators also put up signs cautioning against shattering treasured artefacts and paid for drinks they took from a canteen fridge.)
“It was you who taught us that peaceful protests don’t work,” read one piece of graffiti, a reference to a comment made by Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam when she admitted she was suspending the extradition bill not because of the biggest peaceful protest in the city in three decades but because of the violent protests that followed. As the movement continues, increasingly violent actions have grown more acceptable to a broader cross section of participants, according to a survey from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Opinion polls also show the number of people identifying as Hong Kongers rather than Chinese has hit record highs. “This movement is about being faceless, about being anonymous, about not taking credit for what you have done — it’s about being a part of a bigger community,” Brian Leung, 25, told the FT.
The only protester who took off his mask inside the legislature on July 1, he has since returned to studying authoritarianism in the US and is considering whether to seek political asylum overseas or return to face imprisonment. “The people around you at a protest are strangers but you trust them so much you will risk your life for them. Given this experience is repeated again and again . . . it is natural our [Hong Kong] identities are becoming stronger than before.”
Summer has turned into autumn the next time I meet Wu. “We have a new anthem,” he says. “Have you heard it?” How could I not have? Since the start of September, “Glory to Hong Kong” has rung out across the city, at football matches and in shopping malls. An orchestral rendition with musicians clad in gas masks and yellow hard hats has been viewed more than two million times on YouTube. “I never used to understand why people could get so emotional singing their national anthem,” Wu says, as the rain hammers down. “Now, for the first time, I get it.”
Allusions to a budding independence movement are now pervasive — in slogans chanted, songs sung and even the type of demonstrations staged. Nora Lam is stunned at how Lost in the Fumes is resonating with protesters. “What I was trying to portray in the film was [that] Edward was just another young person in Hong Kong who has the same problems as us growing up — chasing your dreams and having them crushed, not knowing what to do after graduation, suffering from depression,” she explains.
Despite playing to packed houses in arts centres, museums and schools, no commercial cinema was willing to screen the documentary when it was released in late 2017. “Executives don’t want to get into trouble. Maybe they aren’t against you or the whole movement in general but they are too scared to do what should be allowed in a normal society,” she says. “I think I’d be less upset if the film had been banned outright by the government. Fear among ourselves plays a far more important role than actual control from the regime.”
A poster for the film hangs on the door of the student union at Hong Kong Baptist University, alongside A4 printouts calling for independence. For Keith Fong, the union’s president, Leung embodies traditional Chinese virtues such as sacrificing for the greater good. “The sense I get is most people our age support independence but people in their thirties and forties don’t. There are two overwhelming emotions among our generation — helplessness and this sense of ‘if we burn, you burn with us’,” Fong tells me.
In 2017, just over 10 per cent of Hong Kongers supported independence, according to a survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Academics estimate this number would be higher if another poll were conducted now.
At high school, Fong’s history teachers told him about the Tiananmen Square massacre and as troops massed on the mainland border of Hong Kong this summer, it was impossible not to draw parallels between then and now. “All the virtue and history embodied in traditional Chinese culture has been destroyed by the Chinese Communist party,” he says with a shrug. He has been arrested twice, including for possession of offensive weapons in August after he purchased 10 laser pens, popular among protesters who use them to disorient police and deter passers-by from taking photographs that might identify protesters.
On October 1, as Beijing staged its grandest ever military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of Communist China, Wu and his newly formed team of 20 front-liners battled police in central Hong Kong. A helicopter circled overhead. Tear gas filled the air. Having lost his teammates in the chaos, Wu hid behind a concrete block by a construction site. Suddenly, an officer raced towards him, smashing a baton on to the left side of his frame. “At that moment, I thought to myself ‘this is it, this is the day I am arrested’,” he recounts, a few days later.
Instead, he managed to hoist himself out of danger, rolling four times before dragging his aching body away. The protester behind him was arrested. A few blocks further on, Wu huddled inside a church, a space off limits to police without warrants. Other protesters, dashing through a middle-class neighbourhood, were amazed when residents opened their grilled gates, ushering them inside. After they changed out of their black outfits, middle-aged locals offered to stash their gear and venture out first to make sure the coast was clear.
Such shows of solidarity have recurred throughout the movement. Impromptu crowdfunding campaigns have sprung up whenever activists see a need with about $15m worth of donations raised so far. After one weekend of violence in August, people donated $1m in an hour to take out advertisements promoting the protesters’ cause in international newspapers. A separate fund helps with legal fees and medical bills.
Never in Hong Kong’s history has a protest movement enjoyed such widespread support from different social identities and professional groups. Popular mottos include “Don’t distance yourself, don’t snitch” and “Together we climb the mountain, each in our own way,” conveying solidarity between radical front-line protesters and moderate, peaceful ones.
The movement is largely leaderless by design, after several Umbrella leaders were sentenced to prison. Fearful of China’s rapidly expanding surveillance state, demonstrators mostly mobilise anonymously online. Doctors, nurses, accountants, lawyers, family members of police, teachers and civil servants have all protested against the government.
Thousands of high-schoolers have also organised since school resumed in September, belting out “Glory to Hong Kong” over the national anthem during school assemblies, boycotting class and organising human chains. At a Saturday rally arranged by and for high-school students, protest songs ripple through the humidity as students wheel out Lady Liberty, a hulking statue with a school backpack waving a flag which reads “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of Our Times!”
For Moke Cheung, 15, it has been a busy few months. Not only did he help organise the rally but he has also helped craft the election strategies of pro-democracy candidates in upcoming district elections. “I’m not really psychologically tired but I am physically tired because I’m not getting enough sleep,” he says. His gruelling schedule starts with getting ready for school at 6am and ends at 2am, after he watches live feeds of the nightly protests and holds meetings on Telegram to prepare for the next ones.
He was one of 120 students at his school who participated in a class boycott until his teacher called his father who, vehemently opposed to the pro-democracy movement, forced him to return to class. “I generally try to stay at school until 6pm or hide in my bedroom to study, play computer games or sleep just so I don’t have to talk to my dad,” he explains.
As the movement evolves, so too has Cheung’s attitude towards Edward Leung, the imprisoned independence advocate, whose violent actions he didn’t initially agree with or understand. “The first step on the path towards Hong Kong independence is having more localist lawmakers,” he says, arguing that the disqualification of elected lawmakers with localist views was one of the crucial catalysts for the unrest. “It feels like no one can truly represent young people’s views now.
“When the time is right to fight for independence, we should go for it, but no one has persuaded me that independence is practical or workable right now,” he says. “It is much more important Hong Kong becomes a democracy than China becomes a democracy.”
This attitude, common among many young people in the territory, worries Pun Ngai, 49, a professor at the University of Hong Kong. Three decades ago she was one of about 30 students from Hong Kong who travelled to Beijing in solidarity with mainland Chinese students and was at Tiananmen Square during the crackdown. When the colonial government sent a plane to take all its students home, she refused to board. Instead, she and some friends spent months travelling back home overland, hosted by sympathetic Chinese.
“How can you change Hong Kong without changing China? In terms of the economy, political influence, everything is interconnected,” she says. At her request, her students have taken her to the front-line protests. “Back in my day when we were students, our slogan was ‘rooted in the community, facing China, opening ourselves to the whole world’,” she explains, in an office filled with books on labour movements in China and elsewhere. “But now, my students tell me, ‘You’re out of date Professor Pun, go home, it’s not safe for you to come out with us, you run too slowly,” she chuckles.
The protests haven’t just divided different generations of activists. As I reported this story, I grew increasingly conversant in the strategies young people across Hong Kong have deployed to tackle conflicts with their parents about the protests in a society where it isn’t uncommon to live at home until marriage. Screaming. Silence. Sharing heart-warming animal stickers in WhatsApp family chat groups in response to relatives calling protesters “cockroaches” and other names. Fighting “bullshit with bullshit” when logic doesn’t work. Moving out.
Looming over the current unrest is the question: what happens next? China promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy until 2047 but fears are growing that the “one country, two systems” framework will soon become “one country, one system”. “2047 is a metaphor. 2047 may well happen in 2025 or 2030, it could happen this year if the [Chinese military] marched over the border,” says Samson Yuen, a political scientist at Lingnan University. As Chinese troops mass on the border, it is possible that Beijing will deploy its army on the streets of Hong Kong.
More likely, the protests will eventually simmer down but the underlying discontent will continue to pile up, waiting for another opportunity to explode, Yuen argues. “Hong Kong has a long history of protests, with each bigger than the previous one. Protests won’t die down in Hong Kong and you now see a whole generation of high-school students mobilising, they are now the people with the momentum to carry on the movement.”
With the prospect of democracy unlikely, the best-case scenario for many is that the “one country, two systems” framework continues beyond 2047. Protesters fear a worst-case scenario, in which Hong Kong becomes a new Xinjiang, a high-tech surveillance state where at least one million mostly Muslim minorities are held in internment camps. It is also possible that in the future, Hong Kongers will be so thoroughly indoctrinated by patriotic education that the fight for democracy will eventually fizzle out.
“For the past 22 years, we didn’t pay enough attention to the underlying sentiments in Hong Kong society but [over this summer] we’ve learnt our lesson, we’re now watching and studying very, very closely,” the Chinese government official who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said.
Beijing has clamped down on companies and organisations it accuses of showing sympathy to the protest movement, including Cathay Pacific and America’s National Basketball Association. It is hard to envisage this trajectory reversing in the near future. Pro-democracy advocates also fear Beijing’s insidious intrusion into the institutions — the civil service, academia, the media — that distinguish Hong Kong.
“If China moves towards a greater degree of democratisation — which is quite unimaginable at this point in time — then Hong Kong’s autonomy may be more sustainable in the future,” said Brian Fong, a professor at the Education University of Hong Kong. “But we can’t even predict what will happen next week, how can we predict what will happen in 2047?”
In Hong Kong, anxieties are also growing about the influx of mainland Chinese sweeping through the city. One hundred and fifty are granted residency every day. “The conflicts between mainland Chinese and Hong Kongers are becoming more widespread . . . the worst thing is we don’t have a population policy, we can’t control how many people come from China,” argues Au Nok-Hin, a pro-democracy lawmaker who was recently charged with assaulting police officers’ ears because he talked too loudly into a loudspeaker.
Samantha Zhang, 25, is one of those granted residency. She moved across the border when she was 20 and now sells insurance. “To be honest, I really understand the protesters. If I had been born and raised here, I’d also be on the streets,” she tells me over curry in an upmarket shopping district popular among Chinese tourists. “A lot of us came to Hong Kong from the mainland because we wanted freedom, I don’t want Hong Kong to become more and more like the mainland, I really like my life here.”
But she believes the protesters’ turn to violence — smashing the subway system and attacking businesses that have ties to the mainland — has gone too far. She also admits she’s confused about what to believe. Beijing has embarked on an aggressive, multipronged campaign to portray Hong Kong’s protesters as thugs sponsored by foreign actors, which is sowing doubt in the minds of many mainland Chinese. “My mother is always warning me to make sure I don’t hang out with any pro-independence supporters,” she says, dropping her voice to a whisper in the rowdy restaurant when she utters the word “pro-independence”.
In early October, Wu and I meet by the harbour, a day after Hong Kong’s government invokes colonial-era emergency laws to ban protesters from wearing face masks — the first time the rules have been used in more than half a century. I’ve never heard Wu so furious, as he rages about the first protester shot by police four days earlier. “The extradition bill, the emergency law both threaten our freedoms in Hong Kong so much,” he says, from behind a dental mask that he has donned as an act of protest.
Wu has a supportive boss who, after seeing him hobbling at work after his police beating, suggested he take a couple of days off by pretending to be out at client meetings. Still, he wants to go back to university to study to become a social worker. “But I hate loud, arrogant people so maybe I won’t be very good at dealing with all the different types of people you come across in that job,” he says. “I will just have to learn to smile and stay silent.”
He has no plans to give up fighting for the revolution of his time. “If this time we fail, before 2047 we must have another fight, a real fight. But it’s a good sign that this time more people are willing to stand up. The seed has been planted.” He looks around to make sure no one else is listening: “We’re heading towards civil war.”
Sue-Lin Wong is the FT’s South China correspondent. Additional reporting by Nicolle Liu and Qianer Liu. Some names have been changed to protect identities
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published