The Teens and Young Adults Behind HK’s Protest Movement

Youths in their teens and early twenties make up a significant proportion of the protesters in Hong Kong. Living regular lives on weekdays and donning protest gear to attend rallies on weekends has become the new routine for the city’s young protesters, many of whom are ordinary high school students and recent college graduates working their first entry-level jobs. As demonstrations continue past the 100th day mark, the South China Morning Post’s Jeffie Lam looks at the phenomenon of Hong Kong’s youth-led movement:

At 17, Sophia is one of the tens of thousands of teenagers who make up the backbone of the movement. They give up their weekends to press on with the protests, week after week, risking tear gas, beanbag rounds, rubber bullets, sponge-tipped pellets and the metal batons of the riot police. What about the arrests of more than 2,600 of their comrades and the injuries sustained by hundreds others? Bring it on, they seem to say.

University students have typically been at the forefront of social movements the world over. In Hong Kong, it has been no different – except that the undergraduates have been joined by spirited teenagers like Sophia. Secondary school students, some as young as 12, also fuel the protests with an idealism and innocence – if not naivete – that in turn draws sympathy, guilt and worry from older adults that young people could be trading their future for seemingly impossible dreams of democracy and a Hong Kong with its own distinct characteristics.

[…] While there have yet to be findings suggesting hard core protesters are getting younger, political scientist Dr Samson Yuen Wai-hei, of Lingnan University, said the secondary school students’ involvement in the protests was unprecedented.

Almost two-fifths of the 12,231 protesters cumulatively polled in 19 protests from June to August were younger than 24 and about 11.8 per cent of them were 19 or below. [Source]

The protests, which began in June over the now-suspended extradition bill, have since evolved into a direct challenge to the city’s government and calls for genuine universal suffrage, among other demands. At This American Life, Ira Glass spoke to several Hong Kong youth who are risking arrest and injury to press on with the rallies. These young protesters, many of whom were born in 1997, the year when Hong Kong was handed back to China from the British, make up a unique generation who have taken it upon themselves to defend the democratic rights and freedoms promised in the Hong Kong Basic Law, a promise that was supposed to be upheld for 50 years until the one country, two systems model expires in 2047.

Ira Glass: 2047 is coming, and this is a very grand thing to say, but so many of these cursed generation kids feel like they have a special destiny. Alex preferred to speak to us through an interpreter. She’s a frontline protester, builds barricades, has been arrested.


Interpreter: I think we’re actually lucky because we grew up with people who thought the same way. And we realized that when we turn 50, it’s the end of our freedoms. I’m 22 now, and I imagine that when I’m 25, that’s really half way until the bomb explodes. And so if we don’t do anything, by the time we’re 50 years old, it would be awful. I don’t want our children to have the same battle. And then when we’re 50, we’ll look back and think that we didn’t do enough. Our birthday is like a countdown to the end. And so more so than other people, I feel like my generation, we have a duty to do more.

Ira Glass: Again, here’s Katherine.

Katherine: If we were born earlier, probably I would become my dad and mom. And if I were born later, I would probably become those little kids speaking Mandarin better than Cantonese. So I am happy that I am born in 1997. We are in the middle. We have the chance to know what is freedom, and we are experiencing that our freedom is being taken away. And that’s why we are the group who step up first to fight for it. [Source]

With the protest movement taking a violent turn in recent weeks, questions are being raised about the troubling reality of active youth participation in increasingly violent clashes with the police. Radicals have launched attacks on the subway system and businesses with connections to mainland China. As tensions escalate, some protesters have started using petrol bombs to set roads and other objects on fire, at times as a deliberate tactic to stall the police’s advance. At the Stand News’ Humans of Hong Kong, three youths who used fire in the protests were interviewed to recount their journey of becoming “fire magicians.” Like other protesters, these individuals started out as a peaceful demonstrators but turned to violent confrontational tactics following increased police brutality. In addition, many of them participated in the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and saw how its non-violent protest method failed to promote change from within the system. Despite the heavy risks involved in setting public property on fire, an act punishable with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, these young protesters felt compelled to act:

Heng and Chi participated in the Umbrella Movement five years ago when they were in secondary school. They witnessed the failure of the “PRN” protest model, and didn’t feel like coming out to join the march on June 9. The first time they came out was on June 12. “When I saw that even the peaceful rally outside Citic Tower was cleared out with tear gas, many people with no gear suffered and it almost caused a stampede,” Chi said. “I knew this was not the same as 2014. I decided to join every time from then on.”

At the start, as a “PRN” protester, she made up the numbers and helped to pass along supplies, fleeing when she saw tear gas. Later, she plucked up the courage and put out burning tear gas canisters – the transformation happened within one or two months. But Chi still thinks she was not doing enough. “Every time I went home to watch the news, I saw many fellows on the frontline who were either injured or arrested. I felt very useless, and I couldn’t do anything to help.” When someone in Telegram groups suggested using “fire magic” to step up the defence, she felt that it suited her somewhat. “After all, I’m a girl, I’m not very tall, and I can’t really fight. I’ll only be a burden at the front, so why don’t I pick a post that allows me to move around more flexibly?” It wasn’t as if she didn’t struggle to make this decision, but it didn’t take her long. “Perhaps, long ago, I already thought that the ‘PRN’ model can’t achieve anything. Yet I just hadn’t put thought to action, but my mind was ready. The only thing I considered at the time was, was I capable of doing this?”

Chi and her teammates first carried “fire magic” to the frontline in late August, which makes them a relatively early batch of “fire magicians”. Fearful of slipping up at her first try, she didn’t throw it at the most urgent moment. She launched the bottle at the front of the police’s cordon, when the two sides were facing off and a barrage of tear gas canisters were fired at the frontliners. At once, the glass broke, and the fire was started with success. “I thought I’d be really afraid. I thought I would be too scared to throw it. But when the moment came, then, I just felt like, I finally…I suppose we can call this a revolution now? I finally saw that in this revolution, I existed for a purpose.”

Stepping into mid-September, having used it for four to five times, Chi felt more confident in grasping the best timing and angle for hurling the bombs. She usually positions herself between the second and the fourth row on the flanks. The use of fire serves as an obstacle to buy time for the frontline protesters to retreat. “On October 1, a magician in Tuen Mun used fire really beautifully. At the time the riot police were charging forward to make arrests, someone threw a bomb from a distance, the fire spread very fast. The whole column of riot police and the tactical unit were stopped, and all our fellows there could withdraw and escape. That’s the ideal thing we hope to achieve every time when we use fire.” [Source]

With young protesters making personal sacrifices and risking it all for their ideals, many have begun drafting farewell letters and carrying them in their backpacks in case they don’t make it home from the protests. From The New York Times:

The arrests and detentions of more than 100 minors have raised alarms among lawyers and rights advocates who are concerned about the welfare of the young teenage protesters in judicial proceedings, Kanis Leung at South China Morning Post reports:

At Financial Times, Sue-Lin Wong looks at how the protest movement is changing Hong Kong and shaping the identity of the city’s residents:

One thing is certain: this youth-led movement of people fighting on the streets for democracy against the world’s most powerful authoritarian state has changed Hong Kong for ever. To many, the protesters’ position appears hopeless, as demonstrators, some not yet teenagers, battle tear gas and even gunfire, often with just umbrellas and hard hats. “If we burn, you burn with us” has been one of their rallying cries — an ominous quote from the dystopian teenage fiction series The Hunger Games, in which young people launch sometimes suicidal missions against an all-controlling government.

This is a movement that erupted from a place of frustration and anger, rather than because protesters believed they could win a fight against the Chinese Communist party. “I don’t think the Hong Kong people stand a chance of winning against the government — they’re experts, they have the resources, it’s not a fair fight,” says Wu, the first time I meet him in August. He allowed the FT to spend eight weeks following him, on condition of anonymity because he fears arrest.

As the situation on the ground evolves from street protests into a movement, it is shaping a distinct Hong Kong identity among its followers, who increasingly see themselves as separate from mainland China. Beijing risks losing the hearts and minds of several generations — not just the young — and faces growing, if nascent, calls for Hong Kong independence, despite China’s vehement opposition to any separatist movements on its soil.

[…] Opinion polls also show the number of people identifying as Hong Kongers rather than Chinese has hit record highs. “This movement is about being faceless, about being anonymous, about not taking credit for what you have done — it’s about being a part of a bigger community,” Brian Leung, 25, told the FT. [Source]


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