The teenagers taking on the brutal tyranny of China

Published by The Mail on Sunday (11th August, 2019)

In their colourful T-shirts, cut-off denim shorts and carefully styled hair, the four female students look like countless other teenagers around the world. They listen to pop music and watch Netflix. They like going to the beach and ‘hanging’ with pals.

But these days, this quartet have more serious matters on their minds. They are among thousands of teenagers and young people risking their lives and liberty to challenge one of the world’s most ruthless and powerful states.

‘I am afraid the Chinese government and army will get involved, with casualties and deaths,’ said one of them, Ash, 18. ‘But I will keep fighting because this is our home and we must protect our freedoms at all costs. What could be more precious than your home?’

As Hong Kong’s protests grow more violent, the police crackdown intensifies and tensions in this famous financial hub spiral alarmingly, these four women highlight how younger generations are leading a fight for democracy against an inflexible government.

They admit they are scared but display the determination of youthful idealists. ‘Civil disobedience is crucial if a government does not listen,’ said Man, 19, a first-year university student. ‘If I go to jail, it will only make more people aware of our cause.’

I have seen over recent days how often it is teenagers leading the clashes with riot police as they taunt officers, tear apart street furniture for barricades, supply front lines with protective gear – and then flee the inevitable tear-gas and baton charges.

Yesterday saw more protests as ‘flash mobs’ of young protesters blocked roads and the main car tunnel to Hong Kong island, while hundreds thronged the airport arrivals hall for a second day. Riot police again charged and fired tear gas to clear demonstrators.

In a clear warning to businesses, China ordered Cathay Pacific Airways to suspend staff involved in protests. One of its pilots was arrested two weeks ago.

Typical of the teenage activists was Justin, a 19-year-old I met before a march that ended with eggs and Molotov cocktails being thrown at a police station. ‘We have to do something to stand up for our values,’ he told me.

Like many others, Justin was clad in black, had a helmet on his head and gas mask clamped over his face. He held a surfing body board as a makeshift shield, while some nearby marchers clutched wok lids to cover tear gas canisters fired at them. ‘I have prepared myself,’ said Justin. ‘I’ve been in every protest.’

He admitted his family feared for his safety, with arrests now leading to charges of rioting that could mean ten years in prison, but said they backed the cause. ‘I’ll fight to the last minute, even against tanks. I am ready to die. Freedom is worth my life.’

These protests started two months ago against a bill allowing extradition to China – the latest erosion of Hong Kong’s prized freedoms – but have grown into the most serious dissident challenge to Beijing since the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago.

Police have arrested 420 people, including 148 during a general strike that crippled the city on Monday. The youngest was 13, while a 16-year-old girl was seen in tears as she told her mother on the phone of her terror after being detained.

Many are like the four friends I met at Hong Kong Baptist University amid furious campus protests against the seizure of their leader for buying laser pointers, which have been deemed an offensive weapon despite being on sale in local markets. They are fighting to thwart a future living in a one-party state that crushes freedoms over the nearby border with a pitiless combination of force and technology. ‘We are worried we will become like China,’ said Ash.

These are not natural rebels – Ash’s parents work in accountancy and management. ‘When you see police firing tear gas, you are so terrified,’ said Ash’s friend Chiu. ‘But this has made us political.’

Chiu’s family came to Hong Kong after fleeing the Cultural Revolution, so fear the consequences of unrest. ‘My parents tell me not to get involved in politics and do not support attacks on the police. They say we are just teenagers and students.’

Yet Hong Kong’s young insurgents have learned from previous attempts to protect the ‘one country, two systems’ deal that was supposed to be guaranteed when Britain handed its former colony to Communist Party chiefs in Beijing.

So they hide their faces (they saw how CCTV footage helped convict pro-democracy protest leaders in 2014), harness social media with intuitive skill, and avoid having leaders who can be thrown in jail – as happened five years ago when big protests last erupted here – by relying on group decisions made online about places to target.

Many carry incongruous-looking umbrellas, a symbol of previous protest. These can be used as sticks in attacks but also as clusters to hide faces when ripping up street furniture, spraying graffiti or even simply discussing plans amid protests – after someone shouts ‘It’s raining’ as a signal.

They also use wit to mock the authorities. After the arrest of the activist for buying laser pointers – used to dazzle police at protests – a ‘stargazers’ event was held at the space museum where hundreds of people staged an impromptu laser show. Within hours, footage with music from Star Wars was circulating on social media, comparing protesters to rebels fighting Darth Vader’s dark forces.

Invitations to the airport protests were designed as boarding passes for ‘Freedom Airways’.

Beijing warned last week the crisis was a ‘battle of life and death’ for the city’s future, saying that ‘those who play with fire will perish by it… they will eventually be punished’.

Both sides seek to expose the identities of their foes. The police are tracking the organisers online and use the phones of arrested protesters to trace social media links; protesters post personal details of riot squad officers on social media.

One academic study found almost two-thirds of participants in protests have higher education, while three in five were found to be aged under 29, according to a survey taken at two events last weekend.

Some say they are dismayed by the growing intensity of the struggle, especially in a society known for order and politeness. ‘Things are getting more violent,’ said Jennifer, a 16-year-old who attends protests with her parents.

She disliked seeing Molotov cocktails being thrown and police car windows smashed. ‘I want it to remain peaceful but the government is not listening,’ she said.

Ty, another 16-year-old participant, admitted she had become more militant after the government failed to respond to June’s massive march by two million people and subsequently being attacked with tear gas, bean bag rounds (flexible shotgun shells) and fireworks.

‘After almost two months of mayhem, I’m both physically and mentally exhausted,’ she said. ‘From merely distributing supplies, because I couldn’t muster up enough courage, to being fully engaged, I have come a long way.

‘What makes me mad is that the police are no longer protecting us. Why would they become the political muscle against the people?’

Ty is fighting in defiance of her parents, who were infuriated after discovering a bag of supplies hidden in their home. ‘We are only afraid of losing this battle – if we give in, the sacrifice by those arrested would go to waste. Even if we fail, at least we can say we tried to stop a rotten Hong Kong being passed on to our next generation.’

Yet for all the revolutionary fervour, I suspect many share the views of Man, one of those female students I met on that fevered university campus. ‘I feel so sad when I see someone arrested,’ she said. ‘I just want this to be over so we can go back to normal life.’

  • All names have been changed to protect identities. 

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