HONG KONG—It was after one of the many pro-democracy protests here this year that the filmmaker Jevons Au, having been engulfed in tear gas, beaten with a police truncheon, and run for safety, began thinking, If Hong Kong is like this before 2047, what will it be like after 2047?
It is a question—and a date—that has hung over this city and its demonstrations these past several months. When Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the two countries agreed on a 50-year transition period in which its liberties would be maintained. But as those freedoms have come under increasing threat from Beijing, including in the form of an extradition law that has triggered the worst political crisis in Hong Kong since the handover, 2047 has become more than just a distant deadline. It has come to symbolize the end of Hong Kong’s way of life and fundamental identity, the specter of its subsumption into mainland China.
Reflected in art, film, political discourse, and the way people see their lives, the idea of 2047, the prospect of a nightmarish final curtain, is an important factor in the persistence and intensity of the city’s current unrest, now in its sixth month. Hong Kong has long prided itself on being home to a well-trained police force, an independent judiciary, and a relatively free society, but responses to the current protests have upended that sense of security. A lack of accountability over police aggression, attacks on protesters and bystanders by police and triad gangs, as well as mass arrests, have fed into the notion that freedoms are being eroded at an alarming rate, that 2047, and life controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, are already happening. The death of a student who fell near a police clearance operation has sparked an escalation in violence in recent days: On Monday, a protester was shot in the stomach by an officer who fired a live round, and a man was set on fire after arguing with demonstrators. There is the sense of a last stand.