The Hong Kong Protesters Aren’t Driven by Hope

“We might as well go down fighting.”

Protesters take cover behind boards during a protest in the Mong Kok area of Hong Kong.
Thomas Peter / Reuters

HONG KONG—For months now, I’ve been told that Hong Kong’s protests would end soon. They’ll end when school starts, I heard during the summer. School did start, but the protests wore on, only now I saw high-school students in crisp school uniforms joining the protesters’ ranks. Next, the mask ban of early October was supposed to slow protesters down, but the very first day after that ban, I watched streams of protesters in masks and helmets make their way to their usual haunts on Hong Kong Island.

The government shut down many of the subway lines that day, a practice that has become a de facto curfew, because Hong Kong’s über-efficient subway system is the way most people get around. No matter; the protesters ended up walking, sometimes a lot, and I walked with them, asking some of the same questions I had asked for months: Do you think you will continue protesting? What would it take for you to stop?

One of the most popular chants in Hong Kong is “Five demands, not one less.” These include the full withdrawal of the anti-extradition bill, which originally sparked the protests in June; an independent commission to investigate police misconduct; retracting the riot charges against protesters; amnesty for arrested protesters; and, crucially, universal suffrage.

Nothing animates the Hong Kongers I’ve been talking with as much as that final demand. Yesterday, the police shot one protester in the stomach at point-blank range, and another police officer drove into the protesters with his motorcycle, weaving into the crowd to circle back again. Later in the day, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, gave a press conference and, in chilling language, called the protesters the “enemy of the people.” She was voted into office by 777 people from the 1,200-person “Election Committee,” many of whose members are businesspeople with close ties to mainland China. It’s fair to describe her as handpicked by Beijing. Polls in October showed her popularity around 22 percent, with just over one in 10 Hong Kongers saying that they would vote for her voluntarily. No wonder the protesters want the right to elect their own leaders.

It’s not that the protests haven’t taken a toll on the protesters. Many are tired. Some surveys suggest that more than 80 percent of the people of Hong Kong may have been exposed to tear gas—an astonishing figure. Some neighborhoods close to protest sites have been so repeatedly drowned in the noxious clouds that the protesters held a rally on behalf of their pets. “I can’t put a mask on my dog,” one resident tearfully explained to me, as others distributed posters of puppies and kittens in protest gear: wearing helmets and masks, and holding bottles of Pocari Sweat, the electrolyte mixture that has become the unofficial drink of the protests. (Electrolyte drinks are great if you are walking long distances in humid weather, as so many in Hong Kong do almost every weekend.)

Almost every protest results in videos of protesters being beaten by the police. Many are live-streamed, to horrified viewers. Thousands have been arrested. Fearful accounts are coming out of the police stations, alleging torture, sexual assault, and rape. On Telegram, many protesters claim that some recent suicides are actually murders by the police that have been disguised as suicides. (It’s not clear whether these claims are anything more than just rumors, misinformation, or a tendency to believe the worst.) When being arrested, it is not unusual for protesters to shout their name, in the hopes of lawyers and family being able to reach them, and some yell that they are in no way suicidal. If they aren’t heard from again, they want to make sure it’s clear who’s to blame.

I often ask protesters whether they fear the consequences of showing up to these protests. Many of my interviews are interrupted: by tear gas and pepper spray, by police lines marching toward us, by the water-cannon truck. The seasoned protesters are less and less afraid of the tear gas. Some wear tear-gas masks, but risk a year in jail just for that, or even a riot charge, which carries a potential 10-year sentence. Some wear flimsy surgical masks, which may help conceal their identity, but don’t do anything for the burning sensation in their eyes, throat, and lungs. They cough, they run, they wash their eyes with saline or water, and they go on. They do, however, fear being kidnapped or killed.

Many protesters believe that people were killed by the police on the night of August 31 in Prince Edward station, when the police shut down the subway station with protesters trapped inside. Videos emerged of young people cowering on the floor, as they were pepper-sprayed from a close distance and beaten. Medics weren’t allowed in, though, and the police whisked away the injured to other stations while many people waited outside, in vain, to receive the wounded. We know that there were serious injuries, because those people were hospitalized, but the protesters believe that the police killed at least a few people, and closed the station to erase the evidence. No official evidence of missing people has surfaced, but in this environment of mistrust, seriously injured protesters have started going to “hidden clinics”—underground hospitals—rather than regular hospitals.

Almost every night now, protesters show up at the entrance of the subway at Prince Edward, right next to the Mong Kok police station. They bring flowers, candles, and other offerings. They demand that the CCTV footage from that night be released. They shout slogans and obscenities at the police. Often they get tear gas and rubber bullets in return. The police sometimes remove the flowers. The next day, the protesters are back with more.

Hong Kong’s government, backed by mainland China, has responded to this with all the finesse of a control freak who has lost control. It seems to have decided that the best way to reestablish control is to crack down even more. Meanwhile, about half of Hong Kongers say that, on a scale of zero to 10, they would rate their trust in the police at zero. Before this current wave of protest, in June, just 6.5 percent picked zero on the same poll. Whatever else might be happening, this unelected government isn’t winning any hearts and minds. Maybe outright intimidation will work instead.

Last week, I headed to Victoria Park, where pro-democracy candidates for the upcoming elections in Hong Kong announced that they would be holding meetings. The legislative council doesn’t have full powers or true universal suffrage, and candidates deemed unacceptable can be “disqualified” and prevented from running, as happened to Joshua Wong, a high-profile leader of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. (Wong is a widely recognized figure especially for international audiences, though he is not a leader of this round of protests, which is deliberately leaderless.) But there are still these pro-democracy candidates and their voters, and people seem eager to make a statement. I chatted with two young women, of the many thousands of people who had shown up, right before the police teargassed the park and arrested many of the candidates, beating them up in the process.

One of the women who chatted with me had baby-blue drawings of stars and the moon on her fingernails. The other had a fashionable hat that matched the color of her surgical mask, her animated eyes shining in the small opening between them. They didn’t have helmets or goggles, and weren’t carrying backpacks with such gear.

Aren’t you afraid? I asked, gingerly. “We are afraid,” they quickly admitted. They even giggled, but it got serious quickly. This is our last chance, they said very matter-of-factly. If we stand down, nothing will stand between us and mainland China, they said. They talked about Xinjiang, and what China had done to the Uighur minority. I’ve heard about the fate of the Uighurs from so many protesters over the months. China may have wanted to make an example out of the region, but the lesson Hong Kongers took was in the other direction—resist with all your might, because if you lose once, there will be a catastrophe for your people, and the world will ignore it.

The two women weren’t sure whether they would win. That’s also something I’ve heard often—these protesters aren’t the most optimistic group. No rose-colored glasses here. “But we cannot give up,” one insisted, “because if we do, there will be no future for us anyway. We might as well go down fighting.”

One of the young women gave me an umbrella: a tool protesters use to shield themselves from the sun, from CCTV cameras, from overhead helicopters, from the blue water laced with pepper spray and fired from water cannons, from tear-gas canisters. They had noticed I didn’t have one, and were worried for me. They had brought extras to share. “You might need this,” one of them said as she handed it to me, and wished me good luck. And then the clouds of tear gas drifted in our direction, as they so often do in Hong Kong these days, and we scattered.