High-school students gather in an anti-extradition-bill rally in Central, Hong Kong S.A.R., on September 2, 2019, on what would have been the first day of school for Hong Kong's students. Thousands of middle and high schoolers, as well as university students, opted to boycott classes as a way of protesting the government's handling of the anti-extradition-bill demonstrations. (Nicole Tung)

The End of Hong Kong’s Postcard Era

The city—famed for its efficiency and predictability—is going through a tumultuous period. Memories of just a few years ago feel more distant as a result.

The Hong Kong of my youth was a dynamic city, one in which you could eat or drink at all times of day; where you could safely go wherever you wanted, when you wanted; and where you could say what you wanted, to whom you wanted.

That postcard image of Hong Kong as a model of safety and predictability has changed in recent months.

Witnessing these protests and coming back to the place of my childhood is to watch a city transform and awaken on different sides of a divide—between those supporting the demands of the protesters and those who despair at the thought of the city descending into chaos. No one has died, yet, and the levels of violence in Hong Kong cannot be compared to what’s happening in, for example, Iraq, another country I have covered. But all are aware that the city has been forever transformed.

Protesters stage a sit-in at the arrivals’ hall of Hong Kong International Airport on the first day of a three-day protest at one of Asia's busiest transportation hubs.

Most people, even if they are not vocal about it, seem to support the main goals of those in the streets. Those who are not outright protesting find other ways of backing the movement: by letting protesters seek temporary shelter in their homes from the police, or by buying and bringing food and bottles of water and juice down into the street in the sweltering heat, encouraging the protesters to keep hydrated. They recognize that freedom is a luxury and do not wish to see it eroded.

Top: Bystanders watch, cheer, and take photos as protesters participate in a march in Tai Po, northern Hong Kong. Bottom: A couple comfort their child on a train full of protesters, who are moving between locations to keep the police guessing—part of a “Be like water” mantra to adapt and shift according to officials’ tactics. As demonstrations continue across the city, so too does daily life and commuting for regular citizens.

The majority of those supporting continued protests are also strongly identifying as Hong Kongers rather than as Chinese. It’s an important distinction to make to avoid being associated with the Communist Party and its attempts to enforce a singular Chinese culture. Frustrations over Beijing’s increasing influence in Hong Kong’s affairs have simmered over the years.

Top: A protester throws a canister of tear gas back at riot police near Hong Kong’s de facto Parliament building. Bottom: Protesters have been using makeshift tools for protection as face-offs with police intensify.

Right before Hong Kong was returned to China from British colonial rule in 1997, I remember my parents joking that we were all about to be taken over by the commies. In my mind, as a kid then, I couldn’t conceptualize what that would mean, and for a while after the handover, little appeared to change. But it has since become clear that Beijing intends to bring Hong Kong under its thumb, despite promises that the city would retain its freedoms.

Demonstrators have also turned their anger toward the MTR, Hong Kong’s subway system, for shutting down certain stations to prevent people from joining anti-extradition rallies. The MTR is lauded the world over for its efficiency, reach, and timeliness.

These protests have gotten progressively darker, both in color and in mood—demonstrators more uniformly wear black, adopting an array of downbeat gestures, chants, and songs to signal the desperation they feel. And as the rallies have gotten more violent on the part of both the protesters and the police—last week a police officer shot a demonstrator in the chest—this feeling has only become amplified.

Protesters in downtown Hong Kong hold a hand over their right eye as a symbolic gesture in solidarity with a female medic who was blinded in one eye after riot police fired a projectile at her head from close range.

The Hong Kong authorities have so far acquiesced to one of the protesters’ demands by withdrawing the proposed extradition law that initially triggered the rallies, but have refused to countenance the others, such as opening an independent police inquiry or discussing wider democratic reform. Tensions have heightened as key anniversaries have come and gone—five years since the Umbrella Movement began, 70 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China—but with Hong Kong’s eventual incorporation into China looming in 2047, time is running out, and the protesters’ options are narrowing.

Thousands of students gather at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, one of the city’s many higher-education institutions, for a rally. These latest demonstrations have been driven in large part by Hong Kong’s youth. Where they direct their frustration in the future will help determine the course of the city’s politics.