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[Letter from Hong Kong]

Dream State

The radical imagination of the Hong Kong protest movement

Frontline protesters in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, August 31, 2019 © An Rong Xu/Redux.

[Letter from Hong Kong]

Dream State

The radical imagination of the Hong Kong protest movement
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At noon, on the third Sunday in October, I boarded a ferry to cross Victoria Harbor. It was a trip I’d taken countless times before—an eight-minute journey through sea breeze, clapping waves, and the odor of salt water and diesel. Eight minutes to get from Central, Hong Kong’s financial district, to Tsim Sha Tsui, the southern tip of the city’s main landmass, which connects it to the rest of China. I was on my way to a protest, taking the ferry because, for the first time that I could remember, the trains had shut down. “Please note,” said a singsong voice over the loudspeaker, first in Cantonese, then Putonghua, then English, “the Tsim Sha Tsui Station will be closed at 12:00 pm due to public activities.”

Public activities. Last June, nearly two million Hong Kongers marched in the heat, demanding that Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, formally withdraw a bill that would allow the extradition of fugitives from Hong Kong to mainland China. Since then, the protests had morphed into a broader, more complicated, and more violent movement to fight for democratic freedoms and challenge Chinese Communist Party control of the city, coalescing around five demands: the withdrawal of the extradition bill, amnesty for arrested protesters, investigations into police brutality, a retraction of the classification of protesters as “rioters,” and universal suffrage. Most recently, the Civil Human Rights Front, Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy group, had called for a march to protest the new anti-mask law, which made it a crime for protesters to cover their faces. I had come from Beijing to attend the march. Banned by the police two days before, it would be illegal.

On the ferry, I glanced around at the other passengers—families, high schoolers, elderly couples—talking quietly among themselves. Was anyone else going to the protest? I couldn’t tell. The ship docked at the pier and the ferryman lowered the ramp. Across from me, a young man in a black T-shirt took a face mask out of his pocket and slipped it on. Bags zipped, shoes shuffled; the young man adjusted the straps of his backpack. Only as I rose from my seat did I realize: everyone was.

“Fight for freedom!” the young man yelled. The passengers, as if roused from slumber, responded in a chorus to his call. “Stand with Hong Kong!” We spilled out onto the pier, like a tide gushing in from the harbor onto the streets, where hundreds of thousands of protesters were already waiting. Black shirts and black pants, black caps and black bandannas, black bags and black sunglasses. Fathers and sons in black. Strangers and friends in black. Middle-aged women in black capri pants toting black umbrellas. Teenagers in black leggings under black shorts, safety goggles swinging from their necks. Everyone was wearing a mask—surgical masks, ski masks, Guy Fawkes masks, Hello Kitty masks, Joker masks. Only their eyes were visible, vigilant and alert.

I took out a surgical mask I’d bought at a convenience store. The mask—thin, polyester, bone-white—felt strange in my hands. When I had placed it on the counter earlier that day, the man working the register had paused to look me in the eye with what I thought was an expression of approval, but I couldn’t be sure. I put the mask on and stepped into the stream of people.

Fan song zhong!” a protester shouted, and the crowd repeated after him. “Oppose sending [people] off to China!” Cantonese is supple, playful, full of puns and double entendres. This three-character slogan, when spoken in different tones, translates to “sending [people] off to a funeral.” Switch the tones again, and it means “giving a clock,” which is why the gift of a clock is considered unlucky in China—a wish of death upon the recipient. Hidden, wryly, in the language of protest was the language of loss.

To avoid being caught, Hong Kong protesters have deployed an array of euphemisms when coordinating their actions. “It’s raining,” for example, indicates the firing of tear gas; a “school pickup” is an offer to drive a fellow protester to safety; to “use magic” is to set something aflame; and to “renovate” is to vandalize a street or shop. The act of protest itself is referred to as “dreaming.” “Let’s decide on a meeting point for the dreaming,” a protester might say. “I dreamed I was out on the streets last night,” another might write. The verb for dreaming in Putonghua, the official name for Mandarin Chinese on the mainland, is zuo meng, which suggests that a dream is created, whereas the Cantonese verb faaht moong implies that the dream spreads, radiates, proliferates. “You might have thought you were the only dreamer,” I read in a Facebook post, “but wake up the next day, realizing that you are not the only one.”

Recently, this has been what living in Hong Kong has felt like—dreaming. There is something surreal about how the city swings from one state to another. On weekdays, life goes on as usual. You take the train to work, get on the bus to school, eat dinner with your family. On weekends, the world flips, time warps, and roles shift. The accountant leaves her office to hand out masks and saline; the student puts aside his homework to throw Molotov cocktails on the front lines. The mall becomes a cathedral, filled with prayer and hymns; train stations become hellscapes of mangled metal and flames. You take to the streets with hundreds of thousands of others—not knowing exactly who they are, where they are from, or whether you even agree, but with the understanding that you are all there for the same reason: to dream up a new future.

Hong Kong Island seen from the Kowloon district as a demonstration begins, October 12, 2019. Photograph by Thaddé Comar, from the series How was your dream? © The artist.

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Hong Kong’s future has long been dictated by others. Once a British colony, the territory was returned to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” agreement, which granted the city civil liberties unheard of on the mainland, such as an independent judiciary, the right to assembly, and freedom of expression. Enshrined in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution, this arrangement was expected to last for fifty years, until 2047, by which time the people of Hong Kong would be allowed to elect their own chief executive, the city’s top leader. But the details of when and how universal suffrage would be implemented were left vague. As a result, the city remained in a state of disequilibrium—a precarious balance of “liberty without democracy”—in which Hong Kongers enjoyed the freedoms of a representative government without the ability to elect their leaders.

I was born just before the handover. Although I grew up in Hong Kong, my parents are from the mainland. They both left China to study in the United States in the Eighties, shortly after Deng Xiaoping announced the “reform and opening up” policy, which allowed Chinese scholars to study abroad for the first time since the Cultural Revolution. They met in Boston as penniless and idealistic graduate students. My mother wanted to become the Chinese Marie Curie and “save the country with science”; my father, yanked out of high school during the Cultural Revolution to till crops in the bitterly cold countryside, was determined to make up for lost time. Once they had their degrees, they could have chosen to remain in the United States like their older peers, who cherished the comforts of American life, or to return to the mainland like their younger peers, who were drawn to the freewheeling possibilities of a rising China. Instead, they came to Hong Kong—a city that could perhaps give them both.

For most of my childhood, I never questioned my mixed identity. Moving between multiple worlds felt natural and seamless. I spoke English with an American accent and a vocabulary peppered with Briticisms, Putonghua with a southern lilt, and, to my embarrassment, only a handful of phrases in Cantonese. Explaining my name, like explaining the rest of myself, became routine. Everyone was perplexed by the hyphen in Yi-Ling, an eyesore that mainlanders never used and that Hong Kongers would’ve replaced altogether with an English name, like Cathy or Susan or Apple.

It wasn’t until I was in middle school that I began to notice a rift opening. Since the handover, China’s economy had ballooned, and mainlanders had started arriving in hordes, on tour buses, buying everything from luxury goods to milk powder in bulk. The annual number of Chinese tourists visiting Hong Kong had multiplied sevenfold, and, in 2008, the number of new immigrants from the mainland reached half a million. The new arrivals did not resemble the refugees of the Sixties, who had fled poverty and strife; now they were brash, loudmouthed, and flush with cash. Mainlanders. Hong Kongers complained that they drove up rents, crowded hospitals, and slurped noodles loudly on public transit. They were rude and uncivilized, swarming the streets. Locusts. I remember when I first heard the term. A woman muttered it under her breath at a mainlander speaking loudly in Putonghua. She wasn’t referring to me, and yet I flinched, because, in a way, she was.

I turned fifteen as Hong Kong entered its own precarious adolescence. That year, I took an internship at the China Daily, the state-run publication in Beijing. I wrote miscellanea for the culture and features desks—everything from humor columns to food reviews. When I received my first round of edits, on a travel blog about Eastern Europe, I saw that a passage had been deleted: a few sentences in the middle of the second paragraph describing Wenceslas Square, in Prague, where thousands of Czech youth once shook their keys to celebrate the toppling of the Communist regime.

The Daily’s censorship of my post should not have been surprising. I knew what the paper was—a publication firmly controlled by the central government. As long as I was living within the bounds of the Great Firewall, I would not be able to read or write about the “Three Ts”: Tibet, Tiananmen, and Taiwan. I had to obey a murky yet rigid set of rules: no criticism of the Party, no news of the Arab Spring, no Facebook—and later, when I returned to Beijing after almost a decade, no “unhealthy marital values,” no hip-hop, and, to my incredulity, no Winnie-the-Pooh, a cartoon that people use to mock Xi Jinping. To survive within this system is to become a meticulous self-censor. “I am a proactive eunuch,” the novelist Murong Xuecun has written, of life under the CCP. “I castrate myself even before the surgeon raises his scalpel.”

When I showed the edits to my dad, he sighed. “Let it go, Yi-Ling.” There was a weariness in his voice, the kind of fatigue that comes from having lived through the Cultural Revolution, a failed coup, two mass student protests, one violent crackdown, and the abrupt opening of China to economic reform. My dad knew what chaos was, so when he moved to Hong Kong in the Nineties, he cherished stability above all. He felt that Hong Kong had been given precious and fragile gifts—a free press, an independent judiciary, a thriving economy—and that, with time, mainland China would receive them, too. Freedom of expression was a luxury to be waited for, quietly and patiently, not a right to be demanded. “Sure, things are not perfect,” he said. “But you have to sit back, and they will change for the better, slowly.”

I walked from the pier to Nathan Road, the main thoroughfare in the area, where I met my friend Benny, a reporter for Nikkei Markets, who was standing in front of a convenience store in a gray T-shirt and denim shorts. He gave me a hug and a rainbow-colored umbrella from 7-Eleven—a protester favorite because it has a hard metal tip for self-defense. I hadn’t seen Benny since I’d moved to Beijing two years ago, but we had only a few minutes to catch up before a battalion of police officers down the street hoisted a black flag, signaling tear gas, and fired the first round.

“Move!” Benny said, pulling me onto the sidewalk. Swiftly, seamlessly, and by some collective instinct, the crowd parted, making way for a line of younger protesters. Snaking down the length of Nathan Road in single file, they formed a human supply chain in order to transfer resources—umbrellas, masks, saline—from one end of a demonstration to another. A protester at the far end of the chain began to flap his hands above his head, imitating a sparrow, which prompted others down the line to copy the motion. This was one of the hand signals that activists had developed to aid communication, Benny explained. Drawing circles around the cheeks was a request for a face mask, peace signs were pliers, and sparrow hands were helmets. Seconds after the message was delivered, a yellow hard hat floated down the chain like a buoy.

The human chain epitomized the strategy of the protests: “Be water,” a phrase from Bruce Lee’s martial arts philosophy that encourages resilience in the face of obstacles. Whereas the Umbrella Movement of 2014 stubbornly occupied the city’s streets and landmarks, today’s protesters have adopted guerrilla tactics. When resources are needed, a human chain materializes quickly. When the police advance, it dissipates, reappearing elsewhere. Logistical information is shared through Telegram, an encrypted messaging app; posters and leaflets are distributed using the iPhone AirDrop function, which leaves no digital trace; and real-time updates are crowd-sourced on HKmap.live, a mapping tool that can be marked up with icons: a dog for police, a dinosaur for special tactical squads, a white speech bubble for tear gas.

Unlike the Umbrella Movement, whose organizers were aggressively persecuted, these protests are anonymous and leaderless. There are no figureheads to target and imprison. Decisions are made through an egalitarian and chaotic process of digital democracy, often through a voting mechanism on the online forum LIHKG, Hong Kong’s version of Reddit. Someone floats an idea; it gains traction; and a group of people come together to implement it. The official protest anthem, “Glory to Hong Kong”—now blasted daily on speakers, sung by choruses in malls, and played by street accordionists—was created in this manner. A local pop-rock musician who goes by the pseudonym “Thomas dgx yhl” posted a version of the score, inspired by both “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Vivaldi, on LIHKG, then developed the lyrics from the feedback he received.

Responsibilities in the movement are shared widely, allowing for broad participation across diverse sectors of society. Everyone chooses a role to play. I noticed that many of the younger protesters—kids no older than thirteen—stood near the back of the chain, supporting their older, more physically capable counterparts on the front lines. Volunteer medics in bright-yellow vests roved the streets with first-aid kits to treat the injured. Restaurant owners opened their doors to those seeking food and safety. Behind the scenes, lawyers offered their services pro bono; graphic designers created and distributed artwork; and drivers transported people to safety.

Just as the anthem had been a collaborative creation, the protests, described as an open-source movement, have absorbed a haphazard array of influences, from Les Misérables to Star Wars to Japanese anime. I saw references to everything from V for Vendetta (ideas are bulletproof scrawled on a train station) to Albert Camus (je me rÉvolte, donc nous sommes graffitied on a shop entrance) to Martin Luther King Jr. (injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere painted on the sidewalk). Anticommunist activism in Eastern Europe—the same set of movements I had mentioned in my chirpy travel post—was an important source of inspiration. “Lennon Walls” adorned with Post-it notes carrying words of encouragement and solidarity were inspired by the John Lennon Wall in Prague during the pro-democracy movement of the Eighties, and the human chains were named “the Hong Kong Way,” after the Baltic Way—a 1989 demonstration in which millions of people linked hands across three Baltic states to protest Soviet rule. At the march, I saw a middle-aged man standing on a railing waving a massive yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag, which he had decided to bring, he said, after watching a documentary on Netflix about Ukraine’s democracy movement. By imitating strategies from around the world, and modifying them for their own purposes, Hong Kongers have created their own culture of protest, which has in turn been exported around the world. Last year, when Catalan activists blockaded the Barcelona airport, they used the #BeWater hashtag and claimed they were there to “do a Hong Kong.”

As I watched supplies being passed up the chain, I heard the clang of metal on concrete. A black-clad protester wearing a ski mask was crouched on the pavement, digging a railing out of the ground with a shovel, in order to refashion it into a barricade. Immediately, a group of five others gathered around him with open umbrellas to shield him from cameras and potential incrimination.

Up ahead, protesters were beginning to shuffle backward, prompting others to do the same. A call was passed down from the front lines. “Retreat!” On HKmap.live, an icon of a water droplet was moving in our direction. The water cannons were coming. “It’s time to go,” Benny said. As we ran away from the main street, I turned my head just in time to see a row of anti-riot trucks pummel down the road, spraying everything in their path with a liquid jet of blue dye. The trucks parked and riot cops stepped out, using megaphones to warn all who remained to disperse. Nathan Road, which only moments ago had been packed with people, was now completely empty.

Protesters and bystanders on Nathan Road move through tear gas fired by the police during a pro-democracy march in Hong Kong on October 20, 2019. © Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

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It was twilight by the time we reached Waterloo Road, where protesters were regrouping for the night ahead. An old man in a wheelchair with a Catalan flag propped on his shoulder pushed himself across the street, which was stained aquamarine and covered in foam bullets. The sun was beginning to set. “Ho leng ah,” a young woman exclaimed through her mask, as she pulled out her phone to take a photo. “How gorgeous.” We had only a brief moment of quiet before an ambulance arrived, sirens wailing, its path blocked by a makeshift barricade. In a flash, a group of protesters emerged, working to clear the tangle of metal and brick. Benny looked down at his watch, counting the time. The whole operation—dismantling the barricade, waiting for the ambulance to pass, then reassembling it—took a total of nine seconds.

We walked past a group of protesters ramming a metal rod into the storefront of a Best Mart 360, a chain of snack shops whose owners have alleged ties to Fujianese gangs. Throughout the day, businesses associated with the mainland had been vandalized, including Bank of China ATMs, pharmacies owned by the Chinese medicine company Tong Ren Tang, and Starbucks outlets operated by Maxim’s Group, which had become a target after the founder’s daughter, Annie Wu Suk-ching, criticized the young generation of demonstrators. “I have given up hope and will not waste my time talking to them,” Wu said. “They have no idea what they are doing.”

I heard a soft explosion to my right and turned to see flames burst from an exit of the East Tsim Sha Tsui Station, which was met by cheers and applause. “Things can get nasty after sunset,” Benny said. Ever since the city’s underground transport service, the MTR, started shutting down ahead of marches, protesters have accused the company that operates it of colluding with the government to sabotage the movement. Many activists have renamed the MTR, dei teet in Cantonese, as daung teet, the “Communist Party Rail,” or simply dei yut, “hell.”

I looked down at my phone as a flurry of Telegram notifications streamed in: paramilitary units were in the area. I heard the sound of tear gas canisters being fired. Soon I could taste it in the air, acrid like burnt plastic. They were close. We ran down the road, protesters streaming into the alleyways around us, and took shelter on a side street. But just after we thought we’d found a pocket of calm, an argument broke out.

“Delete it! Now!” A middle-aged woman wearing a bright-yellow vest with the words protect the children on the back was yelling at another woman, who had been taking pictures with her phone. Protect the Children is a group of housewives, office workers, and retirees who volunteer as mediators, standing between police and protesters to de-escalate confrontations.

“I’m just taking photos!” the other woman, a mainlander, responded in Putonghua.

“Show us your phone!” the yellow-vested woman demanded. She watched intently as the other went through the images on the screen, making sure they were gone. Her voice was filled with fear and distrust. Perhaps the mainland woman was a naïve bystander, but she could also be a patriotic critic of the protests, taking pictures that she would later post on social media to dox demonstrators. Or she could be a spy. It was impossible to know for sure.

I turned to Benny. “Should I be nervous, if I start speaking Putonghua?”

Benny was silent.

“I should be nervous, right?”

“Yes,” Benny said. “Yes, you should.”

We turned a corner and ran into a group of teenage frontline protesters taking a break. “We thought you got arrested!” a girl named Chan exclaimed, wrapping her arm around the shoulders of a boy who had taken off his goggles to rub his eyes. “They didn’t get me!” he said, grinning. Chan, who was fifteen, had been protesting every weekend for months, because, she told us, “The government is fucked; the extradition bill makes no sense; we are angry at police brutality; and we can only have hope if we persist.” Her parents knew that she was out, and had pleaded with her to be careful. Her classmates were protesting, too—all of them except “the dickheads from the mainland,” she said. She wasn’t talking to them anymore. She hadn’t talked to them for a long time.

Vandalized and newly replaced surveillance cameras in the Mass Transit Railway, Hong Kong, 2019. All photographs © Chien-Chi Chang/Magnum Photos

Vandalized and newly replaced surveillance cameras in the Mass Transit Railway, Hong Kong, 2019. All photographs © Chien-Chi Chang/Magnum Photos

It was late, and Benny and I decided to leave. The nearest train station was closed, so we walked east alongside a couple in their thirties who were also on their way home. The husband worked in advertising, and the wife was a middle-school teacher. We learned that they, like the younger frontliners we met, had also been protesting every weekend, but they came out of a sense of nihilism rather than hope. They did not think the government would relent. They did not want to raise children, because they could not see a future for them here. When I asked what they hoped Hong Kong would look like in 2047, they laughed. “We want to go back to British rule, to return to the past,” the husband said. Faced with the unyielding power of the Chinese Communist Party, he dreamed not of a new future—impossible and illusory—but of reversal and return.

When I returned to Tsim Sha Tsui the next day, I found the roads cleared, the flames extinguished, the trains running. On the same streets where protesters had been dodging tear gas and throwing Molotov cocktails, office workers were now stopping by the grocery store on their way home from work. That morning, the South China Morning Post, the most widely read English-language newspaper in Hong Kong, ran an article about the previous day’s march, citing the growing number of repeat arrests. “We need expeditious trials and punishment,” a senior police source told the Post, “to bring these dreamers back to reality.”

Five years ago, in the autumn of 2014, the dream of a democratic Hong Kong seemed within reach. I was a college sophomore, living in Connecticut, watching, along with the rest of the world, as tens of thousands of Hong Kongers occupied the heart of the city’s central business district. Beijing had broken its promise to introduce universal suffrage. Yes, Hong Kongers would be able to vote for a chief executive, but according to a new policy, a nominating committee would have the power to vet and preapprove the candidates. People took to the streets toting yellow umbrellas, demanding genuine democratic elections. But the demands were not met, and change did not come. Fall turned to winter. Seventy-nine days later, when the government still refused to budge, the police cleared the occupations and the movement ended. I removed the yellow ribbon that I’d fastened to my sweater and put it back in my desk drawer.

Wanting to do more, I returned home after graduation to work as a reporter at the Associated Press, covering Hong Kong politics in the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement. One of my first interviews was with Joshua Wong, one of the student leaders of the movement, outside the Legislative Council building in 2017. Wong had turned twenty-one behind bars and had recently been released on bail. Face thinner, eyes hardened, and sporting a buzz cut, he was now appealing his sentence. The fight ahead was a long one, he told me. “This might not be the last time I will celebrate my birthday inside prison.”

In the years after the Umbrella Movement, the Chinese Communist Party, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, has tightened control of civil society on and off the mainland, chipping away at Hong Kong’s autonomy. Pro-democracy lawmakers have been disqualified from holding office; booksellers have been kidnapped; foreign correspondents have been turned away. Beijing introduced a law criminalizing “insults” to the national anthem; Putonghua proficiency tests were implemented at schools; and mainlanders in Hong Kong who expressed sympathy for the pro-democracy cause were accused by their peers back home as “traitors to the race.”

Some Hong Kongers responded to the erosion of the city’s freedoms with apathy, as if the failure of the Umbrella Movement had drained their capacity to resist. I remember sitting in front of the Court of Final Appeal as the judges decided Wong’s fate, watching shoppers peruse leather pumps at the flagship Ralph Lauren store across the street. If you couldn’t choose your government, at least you could choose your shoes.

But for others, particularly younger people in Hong Kong, frustration flared into anger. The more the Party tried to force Hong Kongers to buy into its narrative of a united, rising China, the more they rejected it. I saw the hot flashes of anger everywhere. At soccer games, people booed the national anthem that I had happily sung during the Beijing Olympics ten years earlier. They blamed soaring housing prices and unemployment on the influx of mainland immigrants, who were perceived as instruments of the Party’s effort to assimilate the local population and erase its culture. The rhetoric used to describe mainlanders became laced with the xenophobic undertones I associated with far-right nationalism. Speaking Putonghua with young people today, a local activist warned me, was like “waving the red flag in front of a bull.” Being a Hong Konger and being Chinese, once complementary, were now mutually exclusive.

I felt that I had returned too late. I had believed, naïvely, that I’d come home to a more open Hong Kong, and that the city’s democratic dream would soon spread to the mainland. Instead, I found it contained and stifled by what Xi Jinping called “the Chinese dream” of nationalist rejuvenation. Now I, too, was regarded with suspicion. When I messaged a university student about the pro-independence banners that had been appearing on campuses, asking if I could interview him in either English or Putonghua, he wrote back: “I’m a man of principle. I don’t tolerate locusts who pervert and rape our homeland, neither do i tolerate their language.”

Protesters use improvised shields to push toward a police line at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on November 12, 2019. © Kwan Wong/NurPhoto/Getty Images

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I thought often about that student—who he was, what motivated him, why he was so angry. After last year’s protests began, I reached out to him again. I’d realized that he was articulating the anger of a growing and increasingly vocal segment of young Hong Kongers, those who have come to believe that violence is a necessary response to the mainland threat. At first, the student was reluctant to meet. But just as I was curious about this opinionated college graduate who had asked if I was “pro-establishment or commie or that kind of shit,” I got the sense that he was equally intrigued by the culturally ambiguous English speaker with a mainlander’s name, only a couple of years his senior.

On the afternoon of Halloween, we met at the clock tower by the Tsim Sha Tsui Pier. He found me (“the girl with the blue backpack”) before I spotted him (“the boy in the striped lilac shirt”) and tapped my shoulder from behind. He was taller than I’d expected, his black hair swept across his forehead in a side part. We decided to sit on a bench overlooking the harbor because we both liked the sea. He set the ground rules firmly: I had to give him the pseudonym Lorenzo (“It’s Italian,” he said), and I could not record the interview, but I could take notes on my laptop, because he spoke very fast. He lit a cigarette, took a quick puff, then proceeded to narrate to me, in a string of verbose sentences, the story of his radicalization.

Before 2014, Lorenzo told me, he was quite patriotic. He identified as Chinese and was proud of the country’s status as a rising global superpower. He supported the construction of a high-speed railway that would link Hong Kong to the southern tip of Guangzhou. He opposed Hong Kong independence.

“But then,” he said, “the noose tightened, bit by bit.”

During the Umbrella Movement Lorenzo was seventeen years old, and he participated in the occupation alongside friends from his high school. On September 29, 2014, he was at a protest downtown when the police fired pepper spray into the crowd. When that failed to disperse the demonstrators, most of whom were unarmed students, the officers followed up with eighty-seven rounds of tear gas. Horrified that the police force he once admired as protectors of the city could turn on its own people, Lorenzo became a self-described “localist and indigenist,” committing himself to the struggle for an independent Hong Kong.

“September twenty-ninth, 2014,” he said. “That was day zero.”

He now saw the ongoing protests as a battle between the forces of light and darkness, democracy and authoritarianism, and he believed that violence was the only path to liberation, a view shared by many of the yung moh or “brave fighters”—the more confrontational protesters who clash with police. “Kids these days as young as eleven,” he told me, “as soon as they start walking and running, they should be fighting on the streets.” His language was markedly militant, although I wondered how much of it was masculine bluster: he referred to frontliners as “heavy infantry,” used the term “captured” instead of “arrested,” and explained protest tactics in the arcane jargon of ancient Roman warfare (“Google ‘testudo formation,’ ” he urged me). He opposed the Communist Party and everybody that does its bidding—the Hong Kong government, the police (“the blue squad” or “po-po”) and the supporters of the establishment. “Since the revolution broke out,” he said, “I excommunicated all my blue friends.”

Blue means “blue-ribbon” (pro-establishment), as opposed to “yellow-ribbon” (pro-democracy). As the protests have unfolded, deep divisions have emerged within Hong Kong society between the yellows and blues, cutting across geography, ethnicity, and class. A blue could be anyone from a pro-Beijing politician calling for closer ties to the mainland, to a businessperson frustrated with the economic instability caused by the protests, to a recent Fujianese immigrant. A yellow could be a localist who believes in the violent struggle for independence, a pro-democracy lawyer championing reforms within the existing political system, or a middle-class professional who is simply fed up with the status quo.

The most painful conflicts have often been the most intimate, within families—between an older generation who fled upheaval in the mainland and now want to preserve stability at all costs, and a younger generation who believe they must fight for the freedoms that are being stripped away. As of October, more than 30 percent of arrested protesters were students, one in eight were in high school, and the youngest so far was just twelve years old. Upon returning to Hong Kong, I heard stories of young people getting kicked out of their homes, children renouncing their parents, couples divorcing, best friends no longer speaking.

“What about your family?” I asked.

“Well, I can’t really ex-communicate them if I’m financially dependent,” Lorenzo said. His family, he explained, is divided: “Two yellow to one blue.” He and his mother are yellow; his father is blue. He describes his father, a truck driver with a high school education, as “an uneducated worker who doesn’t care about freedom or the rule of law. Like a Trump supporter.”

After dinner, he said, his father often switches on TVB, a local news channel known for being “deep blue,” and rails against the protesters as rioters destroying Hong Kong.

“How do you respond to that?” I asked.

“I tell him, ‘You fucking Nazi Communist scum,’ ” he responded.

I blinked. “You say that to your dad?”

“Okay, without the swear words, more like, ‘You Communist,’ ” Lorenzo admitted.

“Do you still love him?”

“What?” The question took him by surprise.

“Do you still love your father?”

“Oh.” He paused. “I don’t know. I’m confused.”

A helicopter flew past, propellers beating loudly.

“Fucking helicopters,” he said, looking up. Then he turned to me. “So, you were born and raised in Hong Kong?”

I nodded.

“You believe in freedom and democracy?”

I nodded again.

“You’re a Hong Konger then!” he declared, as if welcoming me into an inner circle. I didn’t know what to make of his logic. Who was allowed to be a Hong Konger, and why did Lorenzo get to decide? Many protesters say that they are taking back the city for true Hong Kongers. But when I asked them what it meant to be a Hong Konger, the answer I received was sometimes unclear. Some, like Lorenzo, claimed that a Hong Konger believes in “Hong Kong values,” broadly defined as “freedom and democracy.” But often I detected a politics of belonging that was couched in the language of roots, birthplace, and culture. A true Hong Konger is born and raised here. A true Hong Konger speaks Cantonese. A true Hong Konger embraces “Hong Kong culture.” For many people, it was easier to decide who did not qualify: the city’s South and Southeast Asian populations—particularly its Filipino domestic workers—were dismissed as second-class citizens, and its white inhabitants were criticized as pale-skinned “ghosts” or “black hands,” a term for people who incite trouble behind the scenes. Recently the disqualified have come to include police officers, blues, anybody who disagrees with you. Slurs help. Protesters call the police dogs; police refer to protesters as cockroaches. The politically apathetic are pigs. Then, of course, there were the locusts—the most obvious other, the mainland other.

“Why do you still say that you’re Chinese?” Lorenzo asked me.

I told him that I hoped to separate my sense of kinship with Chinese culture—its literature, society, food, and language—from any association with the Party and the government. He nodded. In my notebook, he drew si niu—the traditional characters for a mythical creature with the back legs of a lion and the wings of an eagle that has become another symbol of the movement. A homonym of the Chinese phrase meaning “to settle a matter privately,” the lion-bird hybrid represents the protesters’ distrust of the police and their consequent belief in vigilante justice. Despite his hatred of the language, Lorenzo’s Putonghua was surprisingly good. He told me that he writes poems in the Song dynasty form in his spare time.

“But I abhor mainland affiliation,” he said quickly. “Mainlanders’ behavior is atrocious.” He went through the usual list of complaints: their failure to wait in line, their lack of manners, their rolling suitcases packed with Hong Kong products, their inability to speak Cantonese.

I asked him if he thought all mainlanders were atrocious.

“I guess a lot of new immigrants are comrades in the movement,” he acknowledged. He had often heard them singing “Glory to Hong Kong” in accented Cantonese.

“Do you have any mainland friends?” I asked.

“I have zero,” he said. Then he paused. “Oh wait, actually I have one.”

“Who?” I asked, surprised.

He pointed at me.

We looked out into the harbor. As the sun set, the neon lights of Hong Kong’s skyline switched on, building by building. He took out another cigarette. He struggled to light it in the wind, and I instinctively reached out a hand to shield his flame.

Later that evening, I attended the Halloween Masquerade Parade, a march from Victoria Park to Lan Kwai Fong, the central bar district, that had been organized by protesters via Telegram. The parade was a playful work-around for the mask ban: as far as the authorities were concerned, the marchers, who had swapped their black clothes for Iron Man armor and Jedi garb, rainbow tassels and devil’s horns, were simply celebrating an international holiday. An orange-wigged Donald Trump strolled next to Winnie-the-Pooh; a robed Yoda greeted Maleficent toting a black umbrella; a man in a ghoul mask held the hand of his toddler son, who was waddling down the street in a skeleton onesie.

At Victoria Park, the site of the annual Tiananmen vigil, I planned to meet up with Laurie, a veteran of Occupy Wall Street and a volunteer for Demosisto, the pro-democracy political group founded by Joshua Wong, which advocates nonviolent protest. In 2016, Demosisto established itself as a political party, winning its first seat in the Legislative Council elections. Demosisto is part of the “pro-democracy camp,” the coalition of parties supporting increased democracy, ranging from the moderate Democrats to the more radical People Power.

I spotted Laurie—a small, lithe woman dressed in a long, black cape and cat ears—standing at the center of a soccer field. She waved at me, beaming. Like Lorenzo, Laurie experienced a profound change after participating in the Umbrella Movement. Born and raised in Hong Kong, she had emigrated with her family to Ohio when she was twelve years old and had lived in the United States ever since. When the occupations began in 2014, she was working in New York City as an activist, advocating for Medicare for All, and she decided to return to Hong Kong, bringing along the lessons she had learned in Zuccotti Park. “A phrase that I heard people say, over and over again during Occupy, and even more so now,” Laurie told me, “is ‘I’m awake now.’ ”

Laurie was friendly with everyone we met on the street. We paused to take candy from a high school student who was handing it out, compliment a woman dressed up as an impeccably coiffed Carrie Lam, and chat with an acquaintance Laurie had met the previous weekend. As we walked past a Methodist church, she greeted the pastor, who was standing at the entrance, welcoming marchers in for a rest or a snack. Laurie thanked him for being so supportive of the protests. “Don’t thank me,” he responded with a smile. “Thank God.”

Laurie told me she was torn between her moral opposition to violence and her sympathy toward the people who believe more confrontational measures are necessary. “I want to believe that violence is a perpetuation of hatred, and that using love will lead to conciliation,” she said. She was also concerned that the aggressive tactics of the yung moh—damaging private property, throwing bricks, tossing firebombs, and doxing police officers—would alienate the more moderate wo lei fei, peaceful, nonviolent protesters. In taking more extreme measures, the common argument goes, the yung moh play into the hands of the Chinese government, which is eager to portray the protesters as an anarchic mob of terrorists. But many activists argue that they have been forced to defend themselves against police brutality. Some justify their actions as a response to the institutional violence inflicted over the years by the government; others believe that violence is the only way to achieve their aims.

For now, the protests have remained cohesive thanks to the “do not split” principle, which holds that it is important to allow disagreement on tactics in order to maintain the strength of the movement. Internal divisions weakened the Umbrella Movement, and today’s protesters believe it is imperative to present a united front. Much of the public appears to be supportive of violent measures: a survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong in October found that only 41 percent of respondents believed that protesters had used excessive force. In June, when Carrie Lam suspended the extradition bill, protesters wrote on the columns of the Legislative Council building: it was you who taught us that peaceful protest does not work.

Laurie and I reached the end of the route. A young woman walked past us, clutching a long metal pole in one hand and a bouquet of fresh purple carnations in the other. On the ground next to us lay a smoky heap of burned cardboard, the embers still glowing. Laurie turned to me. “You know,” she said, “when we use that slogan, ‘Liberate Hong Kong; Revolution of Our Times,’ a lot of people take issue with that word ‘revolution.’ But perhaps it’s not just a political revolution. Yes, people are becoming more politicized. But beyond that, it has to do with what kinds of relationships and values you want to see dominate in this society. What kind of life do you want? What kind of world do you want to live in?”

Several dozen people gather to show support for the Chinese government on the seventieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 2019. © Nicole Tung

Adjust

The novelist Han Suyin described the people of Hong Kong as living “on borrowed time in a borrowed place.” As the year 2047 approaches, there is a sense that its promise is receding. Hong Kongers fear that everything distinctive about their city—its legal system, its democratic freedoms, its cha chaan teng diners, and its local dialect—is disappearing. Time is running out. There is a desire not only to stop the clock but to turn it back. This longing for the past is deeply embedded in the protesters’ rhetoric. Gwong fuk, the first word of the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong; Revolution of Our Times,” can be more literally translated as “restore” or “light returns.” Something has been lost that needs to be regained. But what? Hong Kong has never belonged to its people. Protesters are asking for a democratic society in which people are free to speak their minds, wealth and power do not lie only in the hands of the elite, the police are accountable for their actions, and the city does not serve as a pawn in some geopolitical chess game. That Hong Kong has never existed before. Their nostalgia is for a return to a home that never was, a future that never arrived.

A week after I returned to Beijing, the death of Alex Chow, a Hong Kong university student who fell from a parking garage during a protest, sparked another wave of violence. College campuses became battlefields, with protesters at Polytechnic University besieged by the police for two weeks. The intensifying clashes did nothing to hinder the social awakening taking place. Districts were organizing their own Telegram chat groups, Lennon Walls, and demonstrations, and new, hyper-local identities were forming. “Now, people will often say things like, I’m a Tai Po person. Or I’m a Tuen Mun person. I’m a Chai Wan person,” Laurie had told me, referring to three Hong Kong districts. “There’s a kind of pride and competitiveness, like it’s part of your resistance identity.”

This was evident in the district council elections that were held in November. The district councils, whose members are elected by popular vote, are the closest thing Hong Kong has to direct representation, but because they have limited power—existing mainly to advise the government on community issues such as public transportation and trash collection—they had previously attracted little interest from the public, and candidates often ran unopposed. This year, every seat was contested. By the time the polls closed, more than 70 percent of the electorate had voted, and the pro-democracy camp swept the field, gaining majority control of seventeen out of the eighteen councils.

Almost a year in, the protests continue. On the first day of Chinese New Year, demonstrators threw firebombs onto the train tracks linking Hong Kong to the mainland in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus, which originated in the city of Wuhan, in the central Chinese province of Hubei. “I wonder how the outbreak will further cement Hong Kongers’ perception of the mainland as a biological threat, in addition to the political,” a friend wrote to me. On both sides of the border, the death of Li Wenliang, a whistleblower doctor in Wuhan, set off a tremor of anger. In Hong Kong, protesters gathered to hold a vigil for Li; on the mainland, images of his masked face appeared on social media with the hashtag #WeDemandFreedomofSpeech—previously unthinkable on the Chinese internet. The images have been viewed millions of times.

Protesters in Hong Kong have long known what many across the border are only now beginning to grasp—that freedom of speech must be fought for, loudly and urgently. But in that fight, protesters have yet to articulate a vision for a way forward, to prefigure the world they are imagining. At its most beautiful, the dream of democracy has given rise to unprecedented scenes of solidarity. At its most terrifying, the dream, fueled by nihilism, xenophobia, and hatred, has seemed like a nightmare. “If we burn, you burn with us,” a quote from The Hunger Games series, has become one of the popular rallying cries of the movement. Given the unrelenting hand of the Chinese Communist Party, there is a gnawing fear that in attempting to dream a better reality into existence, Hong Kong may bring about a future that is even more brutal than its past. As winter turns to spring, how long will all of this last? At twilight, will the people of Hong Kong go back to sleep, or will the rest of the world wake up with us?

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May 2020