Hong Kong, China – Having tasted tear gas in the occupied West Bank for the first time in his life in 2015, Lam Hing Lun never thought his experience there would inform his struggle against the government in his homeland of Hong Kong.
Lam, 36, and his girlfriend, Fee Chan, 33, are among those who have joined the protests that started off as a fight against a controversial extradition bill, but have become a movement to hold the city’s top leaders – and their bosses in Beijing – accountable.
As the demonstrations enter their second month, protesters are keeping up the pressure.
“We just can’t give up,” Lam said. “We’ve got no choice. Our institutions aren’t working for us.”
A former British colony, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework, which guaranteed Hong Kong people rights and freedoms largely absent in mainland China.
However, in recent years as Beijing has increasingly interfered in the territory and postponed free and fair elections, resentments have bubbled up.
The last straw came this spring when the government pushed ahead with legislation that would allow anyone in the city to be sent for trial in China, where courts are notoriously opaque and the right to a fair trial cannot be guaranteed.
Even the government’s declaration on Tuesday, following weeks of sometimes violent protests, that the proposed law was dead did not placate the demonstrators.
Taking on China
Unlike their parents’ generation who bought into Beijing’s bargain: prosperity without democracy, the mainly younger protesters think the government has robbed them of opportunity while pandering to the rich and powerful.
In opposing the city’s leader (only 1,200 mostly Beijing loyalists out of 3.5 million eligible voters get to vote for the highest office), they also understand the potential risk they face in challenging China, the world’s most enduring authoritarian regime.
The main barracks of the People’s Liberation Army are not far from the government headquarters and Legislative Council that the protesters have besieged and stormed over the past few weeks.
And the army’s brutal crackdown on students in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago is memorialised every year in Hong Kong. Even for those with no living memory of the event or who were not yet born at the time, it is the one history lesson about China most Hong Kong parents take pains to pass on.
Everybody counts, and the numbers keep the pressure on.
YT Kwong, protester
Much as Lam and Chan admit they are scared, they have found strength in solidarity. Even in the midst of what was a tense confrontation, Lam felt safe enough to take naps because fellow protesters, “bros and sis'” as they are called online, would be looking out for him.
“The lack of leaders only makes a self-starter of every one of us,” he said. “Even when I disagree with certain actions, I still decide to stand with the group.”
They are surprised too by the determination of those who are younger than them to challenge the government.
YT Kwong, a slight 18 year old, becomes animated talking about her role in the protests.
A month ago, her arm was burned by pepper spray when riot-geared police turned on the largely peaceful protesters who had surrounded the city’s legislature.
“I know I don’t have the physical strength to storm the building, but it’s important I’m there,” she said. “Everybody counts, and the numbers can keep the pressure on.”
Lessons from home and abroad
For many in Hong Kong, taking to the streets has been a family tradition. Kwong’s father used to take her to the annual protest march that marks the July 1 handover anniversary.
Many of the protesters in their 20s are veterans of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, when they camped out on major thoroughfares for 79 days to demand free and fair elections for the city’s top leader. They failed, but they learned.
“The biggest difference this time is Hong Kongers got smarter,” said Kenneth Leung, 24, who was among those who surrounded the government headquarters and dodged beanbag rounds and rubber bullets from the police.
Instead of blocking traffic for months and risking the loss of popular support, protesters have resorted to guerrilla-style protests designed to paralyse government operations.
With the government still to address protesters’ demands despite a march that brought nearly two million people onto the streets in mid-June, Leung believes public tolerance for more radical measures has grown.
“Well, now everyone can see when you march, you go home – there’s no sacrifice, and no results,” he said. “I take heart in that the public didn’t condemn us for using violence. The way forward is to fight. There’ll be more clashes.”
There’s nothing that we own except this city. There’s nowhere to turn and nothing to lose.”
Kenneth Leung, protester
For Leung and all those born and bred in post-colonial Hong Kong, the struggle is about defending their homeland.
Many see it as now or never. As a colony, Hong Kong was borrowed land on borrowed time. Back with China, it is still on borrowed time. By 2047, the city’s state of semi-autonomy will come to an end.
“We understand how the inaction of the older generations has cost us. We all are thinking about the next generation,” said Leung, who is father to an 18-month-old daughter. “There’s nothing that we own except this city. There’s nowhere to turn and nothing to lose.”
Unlike mainland Chinese who live behind the Great Firewall, people in Hong Kong have been able to watch the evolution of other political movements around the world through the internet and understand change can take time.
Some noted how South Koreans had taken nearly five months to topple Park Geun-hye, a woman they had actually voted for as president. She was later convicted of corruption.
As for Lam and Chan, they were inspired by what they saw on their trip to Palestine.
Week after week, villagers not far from Ramallah, would walk up to the chain-link fence to protest only to be shooed away by bursts of tear gas from the Israeli soldiers on the other side.
“It hadn’t stopped them. The have persisted for decades, for generations”, the couple said.
One month in, Chan says Hong Kong’s fight still is young.
“Most people in Hong Kong know we’re no match to Beijing’s regime. Rather, I think our conviction and our belief in freedom and justice have transcended all realistic calculations,” said Chan.
“And we’re playing the long game.”