Dreams collide with despair in the political awakening of Hong Kong youth

Josephine Ma

For Karinne Fu Kai-lam it was her dream job offer: a position with Hong Kong’s Education Bureau.

A recent graduate from the University of Hong Kong and six months into work at a business consultancy, she said the new job was just what she had been hoping for.

“When I got the offer, all I was thinking was about renting a bigger flat and getting a dog,” she recalls.

But by that time the suicides had started.

It was June 2019 and millions of people had taken to the streets of Hong Kong to protest against a government proposal to allow legal suspects in the city to be extradited to mainland China, among other jurisdictions, for trial. Many saw the government’s plan as an erosion of rights guaranteed under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.

On June 15, a protester unfurled a banner against the extradition bill and then jumped to his death from the Pacific Place building in the Admiralty district.

Internet communities in the city went on the alert as two other people committed suicide and left notes on social media that included despair about Hong Kong’s future. This raised fears the political and street turmoil was pushing some people over the edge, so online groups formed to help.

On July 3, one man posted a series of pictures on his Facebook page and a note that he planned to take his own life in protest against the government. The alert went out among internet groups to try to find and stop him. Fu, 23, was one of those who saw the alert and helped spread the message.

Based on the pictures he posted, she also went looking for him on the streets. She didn’t find him, but someone else did and talked him out of it.

Karinne Fu is now a district councillor. Photo: Josephine Ma

Fu said she now refers to July 3 as her day of “awakening”. The dream job idea was ditched and she decided to enter politics to try and bring about change. Fu had attended the mass street rallies in June, but it was the anguish of looking for the man threatening suicide that changed her outlook, she said.

In one photo posted by the man, he stood in front of the government headquarters at Tamar, overlooking Victoria Harbour. The complex is designed as a gateway to symbolise the government’s openness.

“When I looked at the picture, I found it so ironic. Over a million people took to the streets twice and the government is not listening. The door is not open,” Fu said.

She said she returned to her office on the afternoon of July 3 and started thinking about how to run in the upcoming district council elections.

Summer of discontent

Fu is one of tens of thousands of Hong Kong youths whose lives took a dramatic turn in the political turbulence that hit the city in June and then exploded into protests and violence that shook the city, rattled China, and shocked the world.

In interviews, many of those youths have said hope died in the Hong Kong government, police authorities and Beijing in the summer of 2019. The frustration that followed boiled over for some in radical action on the streets or a desire to leave Hong Kong entirely. For others like Fu, it was political participation and empowerment. And winning an election.

She became one of the 115 political neophytes – average age 31 – who ran in the district council elections on November 24 and upended the local political landscape. Of that number of first-time runners, 81 won seats as part of a larger “pro-democracy” bloc that took over 17 of Hong Kong’s 18 district councils in a landslide win.

After the loss, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor apologised to the pro-government parties, saying it reflected voter dissatisfaction with the government.

While Fu chose to oppose Hong Kong government policy through the ballot box, other youth chose a more radical route that led to street battles with the police and escalating levels of violence and vandalism.

A leaked audio recording by Lam in September revealed the government believed mass arrests of radicals was the solution.

“With a little bit of hope that may help because we are seeing the numbers reducing. We started off by an estimate of about one to two thousand protesters who are very violent. Or put it that way, they are very willing to resort to violence,” she told the business community in a closed-door meeting.

But as the number of those arrested approached 6,000, the violence continued.

Protests and demonstrations by university students are common all over the world, but in Hong Kong hundreds of secondary school students as young as 12 started to show up on the arrest rosters of the police.

From June to November 21, the total number of protest-related arrests reached 5,856. Of that number, 742 were aged between 15 and 17. Another 159 were between 12 and 14, according to the Hong Kong Security Bureau.

One of these unlikely radicals is a bespectacled 13-year-old from a middle-class family, who asked to be identified by the pseudonym Kenny to discuss his other life, away from books and homework, among tear gas and rubber bullets.

“Before June, I spent all my after-school hours playing mobile games. My only worry was whether my girlfriend would break up with me. I never paid attention to politics before June,” he said.

The off-duty police officer and paramedic who aid injured protesters

On July 12, Kenny said he went to the rally where tens of thousands of demonstrators protested against the extradition bill outside the government headquarters.

He said he went for two reasons; he was angry the government hadn’t withdrawn the bill and he wanted to meet his girlfriend.

“It was quite calm when I got there and I just stood and watched. I was wearing a surgical mask,” he said. Suddenly tensions rose and the police fired tear gas at protesters. Kenny said he wasn’t expecting the violence that followed. He said a police officer hit him with a baton and other officers joined in when he fell to the ground.

“I really didn’t expect I would be beaten so hard. I managed to get away and ran. Volunteer medics helped me. I had bruises all over.”

The stress of being on the front line has taken its toll on some young protesters. Photo: Sam Tsang

While he said the experience infuriated him, it was on July 21 when a group of men with clubs attacked protesters and passengers at Yuen Long MTR station that he decided a radical approach was warranted. “It angered me and prompted me to go to the front line,” he said.

Kenny said he then attended protests where he was hit by rubber and beanbag bullets, and even a tear gas cannister. He said he met university students and high school students when they fought the police, but not many his age.

Protests could trigger a mental health crisis, experts warn

He said his parents knew he was going to protests but not that he was in the thick of the violence. He said he still attended school during the day, though he would often doze off in classes.

He rejected allegations that radical protesters are paid agitators. Beijing has said foreign nations intent on undermining the Communist Party on the mainland are inciting and funding the Hong Kong protests.

“How much money can you offer a young person to sacrifice his or her future and face 10 years of jail [for rioting]? It is nonsense.”

But he said he stopped going to the front line of protests when the stress started to take its toll.

“I woke up several times at night from nightmares. There are flashbacks during the day where I would automatically lift my arm to defend myself. I would freeze at the sight of police,” he said.

In one clash in October, Kenny said he suffered a panic attack and froze as a police officer pointed his firearm at protesters throwing bricks. He was dragged away by others and he realised he had lost the ability to protect himself.

The trouble with turning Hong Kong’s young people into ‘patriotic youth’

Kenny said the six months of protests had fractured his trust in the authorities and by extension his identity as a Chinese.

“I could not tell the difference between a Hongkonger and a mainland Chinese before June. For me, they were the same thing. Now I prefer being a Hongkonger to a Chinese,” he said.

In a press conference on October 4, Chief Executive Lam said she was alarmed by the number of young students involved in violent protests.

“We have to use all our effort to stop violence and stop students from breaking the law in order to save Hong Kong and its future,” she said.

Lesson in politics

This loss of confidence in the authorities has prompted some student activists to seek support from overseas for their cause.

Chan Wing-yan, 18, of Lingnan University is one of them. She joined the Occupy movement of civil disobedience in 2014 when in junior high school, but said she lived the normal life of a teenage girl since then. In March 2019, she began attending protests against the extradition bill.

In early December, she was part of a student delegation to Taiwan to lobby for “a refugee law” for Hong Kong fugitives.

But she and other delegates were given a rude introduction to politics when Taiwanese opposition parties used their appeal to attack Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen for not doing enough to assist them.

“We are just kids. But now we are forced to think about politics, we have to worry if we say something wrong to the media. It is like shouldering the whole world. At the same time, I have to do homework and prepare for exams.”

Chan Wing-yan was part of a student delegation to Taiwan to lobby for “a refugee law” for Hong Kong fugitives. Photo: Josephine Ma

In response to Beijing’s allegations that the protest movement in Hong Kong is being used by foreign forces to undermine China, Chan said they looked overseas because they didn’t see any other way to get the Hong Kong and Beijing governments to heed their demands.

“We have run out of means. As an international city, it is normal for us to come up with the idea to lobby overseas governments,” she said.

Fu, the new district councillor in Hong Kong, is taking a different approach at home, using her family’s ancestral ties to Fujian province in mainland China to build links with residents in her constituency, a stronghold of pro-Beijing descendants from Fujian.

The councillor she replaced was in office for 14 years, a member of the pro-government Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

In early August, scuffles broke out between men with Fujian accents and anti-government protesters in North Point, an area where Fu campaigned. She went there to film the scene and one man slapped her mobile phone out of her hand.

“I was so surprised that I was attacked by fellow Fujianese,” she said.

But Fu said she was ready to talk with those that had different political stances. “As a district councillor voted in by the public, I will connect with different sectors in my constituency. We need to connect,” she said.

And she said it would be a good idea for the chief executive to do the same.

“Why doesn’t Carrie Lam go to all the 18 districts in Hong Kong and have open and public discussions with the district councillors?”

Read the first part in the series, on the implications of the pro-democrats’ landslide win in the district council polls, here, the second part, on the city’s special role as a gateway into mainland China, here, and the third part, on the risks and rewards for foreign professionals in Hong Kong, here. The next part in the series looks at how the protests have hit mainlanders living and working in the city.

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