‘These kids are fucked,’ my American friend said. We were standing on the Harcourt Road flyover, looking down at some of the thousands of people surrounding the central government offices in Hong Kong. It was 12 June 2019, a Wednesday. The previous Sunday, a million people had marched through the streets. The following Sunday, it was two million. The protesters’ initial demand – the withdrawal of a bill allowing extradition to mainland China – was acceded to that September. But by then four further demands had been added to the first: an independent investigation into police violence; an end to the policy of labelling protesters ‘rioters’; the repeal of charges against those arrested for rioting; and the introduction of universal suffrage for the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive and legislative council, as promised in the city’s Basic Law, the mini-constitution put in place in 1997 during the handover from British rule. ‘Five demands, not one less,’ they chanted.

The protests reached a peak in the late autumn. On 12 November police tried and failed to batter their way into Chinese University; the following week they laid siege to Polytechnic University. Demonstrations, much reduced, continued into the new year, then stopped altogether as Covid-19 took hold. A national security law, drawn up and passed by the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, came into effect at 11 p.m. on 30 June 2020, sparking the last significant street demonstration.

Since then, government efforts have centred on stifling all opposition – moderate as well as radical. More than a hundred people have been arrested under the new security law and almost every opposition figure has been imprisoned, detained or gone into exile. Civil servants are now required to swear a loyalty oath. School curriculums are being overhauled to emphasise patriotic values. Academics associated with the protests have been forced out, including Benny Tai, one of the main figures behind Occupy Central in 2014, who was sacked from his tenured post as an associate professor of law at Hong Kong University. The public broadcaster, RTHK, is being stripped of its remit; foreign journalists with a track record of criticising the government have been denied visas; and, in a move targeting online media and freelancers, the police now only recognise news organisations registered with the Information Services Department and what they refer to as ‘internationally known’ foreign media.

At the end of July last year, a dozen pro-democracy candidates were disqualified from standing in the forthcoming legislative elections; soon afterwards the elections were postponed for a year, ostensibly because of the pandemic. After four pro-democracy members of the council were expelled, their fifteen remaining colleagues resigned in solidarity. In March, the rules governing election organisation were radically overhauled. It is now impossible for opposition candidates to secure more than a small minority of seats – perhaps ten out of ninety – and all candidates will be vetted by a pro-Beijing committee and the police. The next elections are due to take place in December, and officials are already threatening to prosecute anyone who encourages voters to cast blank ballots.

Since summer 2019, more than ten thousand people have been arrested for protest-related offences. Joshua Wong, Hong Kong’s most prominent democracy activist, was sentenced to thirteen months for organising an unauthorised demonstration outside police headquarters. Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam, who led the Demosistō party with Wong before it disbanded last June, were also imprisoned for their role in the protest. While in prison, Wong was sentenced to another ten months for his participation in a protest to mark the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square. Jimmy Lai, the owner of Hong Kong’s principal pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, was arrested during a raid on its offices by more than two hundred police. Seven pro-democracy leaders, including Lai and 83-year-old Martin Lee, a veteran activist, were found guilty earlier this year of organising and taking part in an unlawful assembly. Apple Daily was raided again last month and has been forced to cease publication: its assets (and Lai’s) are frozen and it can’t pay its bills.

Looking back at the protests now – especially at the hundreds of hours of video footage on YouTube and elsewhere – I find it hard not to marvel at what happened. I’m also shocked by it. Failure was always the most likely outcome, yet so many people, for so long, believed that something else was possible. The last year and a half have seen the publication of a number of books about the protests. One of the first was by Kong Tsung-gan, the pen name of a former secondary school teacher and NGO worker, who started to document the pro-democracy opposition around the time of the 2014 Umbrella movement. In Liberate Hong Kong: Stories from the Freedom Struggle (Mekong, £12) he stresses the deep antipathy to both the Hong Kong government and the CCP which developed at the city’s universities and other educational institutions over the last decade. ‘Young people looked around them,’ he writes, ‘and saw no future for themselves and very little freedom. They saw that no matter how hard they worked, they would struggle for years and years and years. Economic power was concentrated in the hands of a very few. The regime monopolised political power.’

Their discontent didn’t go unnoticed. As early as 2010, the government commissioned a research paper on ‘HK’s Post 80s Generation – Profiles and Predicaments’, which identified the main concerns of young people. But it failed to act on the findings. Discontent grew, as did the size and scope of the protests. In 2012, their target was the introduction of compulsory ‘patriotic’ education in schools. After tens of thousands of people took to the streets – encouraged in part by Joshua Wong, then aged fourteen – the proposal was shelved. The Umbrella movement followed in 2014, occupying three sites across Hong Kong for eleven weeks to protest Beijing’s plan to screen candidates for the job of Hong Kong’s chief executive. The CCP’s preferred candidate, Carrie Lam, was elected three years later.

By the time of the protests in 2019, triggered by Lam’s attempt to push through the extradition bill, not only were the protesters able to maintain momentum for six months, they also kept the public on side. Not everyone agreed with everything they did, but overall support didn’t waver. Opinion polls continue to show that the majority of people are dissatisfied with the Hong Kong government. But the CCP isn’t interested in compromise or conciliation. Lam’s administration has been charged with bringing Hong Kong into line, not with improving relations.

Kong Tsung-gan’s identity and personal information, including his ID number and photographs of his children, have long circulated in pro-Beijing media. At the end of 2019, his identity was revealed in the gossip column of the Standard, a pro-establishment English-language free sheet. A few months later, the story was picked up by the Grayzone, a website that has tried to play down China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. In a column for Hong Kong Free Press the following week, Kong wrote that he had left the city.

Others are following – or trying to. Last August, twelve young Hong Kongers, all but one facing protest-related charges, were discovered by a Chinese coastguard vessel aboard a speedboat bound for Taiwan. Ted Hui, until last November a Democratic Party member of the legislative council, was more successful, escaping to the UK from a conference in Denmark before moving to Australia. In March, he and seven other exiled activists launched the 2021 Hong Kong Charter, calling on members of the diaspora to campaign for the return of democracy and autonomy to their city.

Are such efforts futile? The government has already begun remodelling Hong Kong’s legislature to ensure there can be no meaningful political opposition. But the gulf between Hong Kong and the rest of China has widened rather than narrowed over the last 24 years. The CCP’s main claim to legitimacy in the rest of the country – its economic performance – carries little weight here. Without Hong Kong on its doorstep, China’s economic development would have been much slower. The city has long been an essential conduit for money, technology and business knowhow, allowing the CCP to reap the economic benefits of global capitalism without conceding to reforms on the mainland. And although the streets have been quiet since the pandemic began, resistance hasn’t vanished. Last July, more than 600,000 people voted in the ‘primaries’ organised by pro-democracy groups to select candidates for legislative elections. Only the presence of several thousand police officers prevented protesters from gathering on China’s National Day last October and on 4 June, the 32nd anniversary of Tiananmen Square. Apple Daily’s final edition sold all one million copies printed.

I moved to Hong Kong in the early 1990s after nearly three years in Beijing. Among the city’s attractions were the availability of news and books, unfettered cinemas and a government that paid little attention to what most people were doing. It was easy to take it all for granted. Until the national security law was passed last year, with its raft of civil liberties restrictions, this remained broadly the case. Now there are varying degrees of fear among the people I know. Some have left or have plans to leave; among those who remain there is universal contempt for Lam and her administration. In the early years after the handover, until the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the people of Hong Kong accepted the city’s status as part of China. This is changing, in part because of interference from the mainland but also because of the government’s unwillingness to stand up for the city’s interests. Beijing knows it doesn’t have the support of most of the population and that the only way forward is coercion.

Hong Kong’s economy looks set to suffer, even if the financial sector – which two years ago displaced trade and logistics as the biggest part of the economy – is still thriving. Barring US sanctions, which no one seriously anticipates (although Biden has made noises), banks will continue to use the city to move money in and out of China. It remains the most desirable base in the region for running trade, sourcing and supply-chain activities. Beijing appears to believe that greater redistribution of wealth, in particular more affordable housing, will reduce the demand for democracy and boost the government’s popularity. But it’s hard to imagine this happening while the economy continues to rely on the financial sector, which concentrates wealth in the hands of a few and pushes up the price of assets such as property. Democratically elected leaders might well have given a stronger direction to the economy and negotiated a better relationship with the rest of China. But they would still have struggled to counter the enormous power of the city’s property conglomerates and other business interests. And it’s too late for any leader with popular support – even were they able to come to power – to build a working relationship with Beijing: the gap between Hong Kong’s pro-democracy majority and China’s leadership is too wide.

In the first three months of the year, 34,000 people applied for British citizenship under the new visa programme. Prospective laws on social media platforms have brought warnings from Facebook, Twitter and Google that they may have to withdraw their sites (that is, if they aren’t blocked). Two years ago almost no one was talking about independence; now everyone knows the chant ‘Hong Kong independence – the only way out’. National security, another non-issue before 2019, is the administration’s main preoccupation. Trust between the government and the population is in tatters. This will take decades to play out. It’s too early to say who’s fucked.

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