“I’ll Never Go Back To Being A Normal Student” A Woman In Hong Kong Reflects On A Summer Of Protests

Photo by Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto/Getty Images
It’s been three months since Hong Kongers began protesting against a bill that would allow the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China for trial, and on Wednesday its chief executive, Carrie Lam, announced she was withdrawing the controversial plan that has plunged the city into political crisis.
In an apparent bid to appease protesters – who are increasingly worried about China’s control over Hong Kong – Lam said she wanted to “allay public concerns” by dropping the bill, and that “stopping the violence is the top priority”. China reportedly supports the move. But this is by no means the end for the activists, especially given that Lam has since said she’s prepared to use “stern law enforcement” to stamp out the protests.
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By formally dropping the extradition bill, Lam met one of the protesters’ demands but refused to concede on the rest, which include setting up an independent inquiry into police behaviour, an amnesty for arrested protesters and democratic elections. Hong Kong, a former British colony, has legal and judicial autonomy from China and its ruling Communist Party under a "one country, two systems" deal, but many believe this is under threat. As such, the turmoil shows no sign of dying down and if anything, looks likely to intensify.
For activists including Joshua Wong, who spearheaded the city’s pro-democracy Umbrella movement in 2014 and was among those arrested in August, Lam’s announcement was too little, too late. He branded it “completely out of touch” on Twitter and warned that a “full-scale clampdown” on protesters by the Hong Kong and Beijing governments was on the way.


The protests, which began relatively peacefully in June, have become increasingly hostile and violent – several protesters have reportedly taken their own lives and more than 1,000 activists have been arrested by the city’s riot police, with many reporting police mistreatment including sexual harassment (on 29th August several thousands gathered for a #MeToo rally to oppose alleged sexual violence by police since the demonstrations began).
Lam’s announcement came after a particularly brutal weekend which saw petrol bombs, rubber bullets and teargas being hurled and police firing blue-dyed water at protesters to make it easier to identify them. On Monday thousands of young people boycotted the first day back at school and university as a show of defiance.
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Photo Courtesy of Carmen.
An estimated quarter of the city’s population is said to have taken part in the protest movement, which has deployed clever tactics – like using encrypted apps to communicate, having no leaders, assembling at different locations and threatening the city’s economic standing – and appears to have learned from recent movements (as a figurehead of the 2014 movement, Wong became an easy target for police).
No one knows what’s going to happen next and China’s presence looms large, despite ever-growing calls for full independence for Hong Kong. The situation on the ground is also increasingly tense.
Carmen (not her real name), a 21-year-old Hong Kong native who wanted to remain anonymous to protect her identity, has attended 12 protests – including rallies banned by the police – since June. She says her anger towards the police, pro-China lawmakers and government supporters has only hardened, and that the movement is now about much more than the extradition bill.
“I am not at all satisfied [with Lam’s withdrawal of the bill] because she only met one of our five demands. Especially after all the excessive police violence, mass arrests and white terror, withdrawing the bill is not as important as releasing the arrested protesters and setting up an independent investigative committee to hold police officers to account. Over the past three months, Carrie Lam, the police, and China have been twisting facts of the demonstrations, portraying our friends on the front line as rioters and subjecting them to sexual violence and torture. Although the bill was the root cause of everything that happened, I won’t feel close to being satisfied if the police are not charged and punished.
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“For the past three months I’ve been living through a cycle of sadness, anger and heartbreak. Like many people, I have lived in a parallel universe. On weekends, I was always exhausted from going to rallies and protests, and angry from all the violence I witnessed on TV against protesters and citizens. On Mondays, I would still be angry but also disappointed and disgusted by what authorities said during press conferences. From Tuesdays to Fridays, it was like everything returned to normal until the weekend arrived and the cycle repeated itself.
“It’s heartbreaking hearing about people dying and being locked up, especially since it happens almost every day now and everything is broadcast live on TV. I feel guilty too, because I’m one of what are called ‘peaceniks’ in the movement – the people who only go to rallies, demonstrations and sit-ins as opposed to the front line. I am often angry with myself because I can’t do anything to help the people arrested at the scene despite them having done so much. This is how a lot of Hong Kong people feel, and we have promised that no matter what tactics they use against police, we will stand with them and show our support – whether it is donating money, food, supplies, shirts or attending rallies – until the end. 
“I’ve been trying to avoid an encounter with the police because they don’t treat protesters as human. They’ve always referred to us as cockroaches, and many videos online and new interviews show they tend to harass women. My closest encounter with them was after a rally in Tsuen Wan. I knew I had to leave the second I arrived at the final destination, and immediately after our bus drove out of the station we saw two huge police cars and a bunch of riot police at the rally.
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“My friends and I took part in the Umbrella movement five years ago and we’re still the same people who wish for democracy. But now that we’re older and technology is better, we’re able to have more rational and in-depth discussions about the future we’re striving for, and we don’t have to worry about the risks when chatting on apps like Telegram. 
Photo Courtesy of Carmen
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back to being a normal student. For my generation, what happened can never be erased. We have vowed never to forgive Carrie Lam or the police. We vow never to forget the lives lost, injuries caused, the blood, the batons, the beatings inside police and MTR (Mass Transit Railway) stations, the mass arrests or the white terror. There will always be this anti-police sentiment in us that will take years and generations to wash out. We will always be politically active and speak up against injustice in our society. After these three months, it has become so clear to me that Hong Kongers are a valiant, united and kind-hearted community that would do anything to defend their home, companions and rights. I have never been prouder.”
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