Hong Kong Cries Out: How China Silenced a Movement for Democracy—Until It Couldn’t Anymore

Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong have waged an effective campaign to intimidate pro-democracy leaders. Young people have been denied their rights to operate political parties and seek elective office. They have been targeted in political prosecutions, hounded by pro-Beijing media, and subjected to online hacks and other harassment. As a result, many of those who remained engaged in politics grew more radicalized.

By Suzanne Sataline for FOREIGN AFFAIRS

As cars idled bumper to bumper on one of Hong Kong’s busiest highways, a gaggle of young people clad in black darted into traffic. Cars swerved. Buses braked. Hundreds, then thousands, of teens and 20-somethings flooded the streets, their yellow construction helmets bobbing past red Toyota taxis. Like nimble spiders, a few dozen men used plastic ties to knit metal stanchions into road barriers. On nearby roads, other crews did the same. In roughly 20 minutes, demonstrators had choked off Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, the city’s quasi-parliament, and ignited one of the largest protests since Britain returned this former colony to China in 1997.

On June 12, lawmakers were poised to debate a bill that would have allowed Hong Kong to extradite suspected criminals to mainland China. The city’s Beijing-backed chief executive, Carrie Lam, said the law would prevent fugitives from taking refuge in the territory. Her critics feared it would erode Hong Kong’s autonomy, enabling greater interference from Beijing. Under the draft version of the bill, virtually anyone in Hong Kong—business owners, religious figures, members of the political opposition—could be transferred to the People’s Republic, where they would face an opaque and politicized legal system notoriously heedless of due process. Chinese prosecutors, many Hong Kongers feared, could easily dredge up past infractions or craft new charges to ensnare businesspeople or dissidents.

For months, opposition to the bill had mounted. Its potential sweep galvanized lawyers, students, civil rights groups, and even businesses and some foreign governments. In April, an estimated 130,000 people marched against the draft law. By early June, when a vote seemed imminent, protest organizers claimed that more than a million people had mobilized. But June 12 was a turning point. In an afternoon that shocked the city, thousands of police officers in black riot helmets fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and bean bag rounds into the crowd. More than 80 people reported injuries; many of those who sought medical care were arrested at hospitals.

The brutal display hardened public opinion against Lam, eventually pushing her to offer a vaguely worded apology and indefinitely suspend the law. The following day, on June 16, an estimated two million protesters poured into the streets to demand that Lam permanently withdraw the bill. It was a stunning rebuke of Beijing and its acolytes in Hong Kong, but Lam and her backers stood firm. Although she promised not to reintroduce the bill until certain conflicts and concerns are addressed, she refused to kill it permanently.

Protests have continued since then, most recently on July 1, when thousands of demonstrators breached the legislature, smashing windows and destroying part of the building’s façade. At the forefront are angry and frightened young people, who in recent years have weathered an assault on their civil and political rights. For them, the extradition bill has become a symbol, not just of Beijing’s creeping authoritarianism but of a sustained, years-long campaign to silence their generation. “We know if the bill passed, that means our generation and the next generation will be affected,” said Simon, a 22-year-old undergraduate who joined hundreds of sweaty protesters outside the Legislative Council on June 12. His friend Alex, a recent graduate of Polytechnic University, added later by text: “I think the extradition bill is a war against the whole young generation.”


Hong Kong dangles off the southern coast of the world’s largest and mightiest one-party state. Through an arrangement known as “one country, two systems,” brokered between Britain and China as part of the territory’s transfer in 1997, Hong Kong is supposed to manage most of its internal affairs until 2047. The city has never been a democracy, but its mini-constitution enshrines expansive civil liberties—to congregate and publish, to seek office and speak out—that residents celebrate with zeal. In 2003, massive protests thwarted a national security law that would have introduced heavy penalties for subversion, treason, and sedition. Then in 2012, students boycotted classes to protest a so-called “patriotic and moral curriculum,” which critics said whitewashed the history of the Chinese Communist Party. The plan was eventually shelved. And every year on July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China, residents celebrate their right to complain and seek change by marching for all manner of causes and concerns—political, social, and environmental. The day is a cacophonous carnival of objections and pleas, a din heard rarely in Asia and nowhere else in China.

Still, Beijing enjoys outsized influence in Hong Kong. The majority of Legislative Council members side with the authoritarian state, and while the city’s chief executive is formally selected through a complex electoral college, informally, he or she is handpicked by Beijing. Over the years, China has repeatedly rebuffed Hong Kongers’ requests for universal suffrage and for an end to mainland meddling, most recently in 2014. That September, what started as a brief sit-in to demand full suffrage blossomed into a vast street occupation led by university students. By some estimates, the Umbrella Movement, so named for the protesters’ preferred defense against police pepper spray, drew hundreds of thousands of people. But the Hong Kong and Beijing governments conceded nothing.

Since then, Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong have waged an effective campaign to intimidate young protest leaders. Young people have been denied their rights to operate political parties and seek elective office. They have been targeted in political prosecutions, hounded by pro-Beijing media, and subjected to online hacks and other harassment. As a result, the number of young people who participated in politics, or even civic causes, dwindled in 2017 and 2018.

Many of those who remained engaged in politics grew more radicalized as a result. Out of the failed 2014 protests a new pro-democracy movement was born. Some of its followers called for complete independence from China and greater pride in Hong Kong’s culture and history. Many also denigrated mainland Chinese visitors and recent Hong Kong transplants who spoke Mandarin, giving the movement a populist tinge. Mainland officials and newspapers denounced the movement’s leaders as secessionists and accused them of committing treason.

What seemed like a routine prosecution to discourage street brawls had morphed into a war on the next generation of leaders.

Hong Kong’s government has worked hard to keep the independence idea out of the Legislative Council, where the public chooses half of the members. In 2016, the election bureau barred several young candidates from seeking office because of their pro-independence views. One was Edward Leung, a 25-year-old rising star who had won more than 66,000 votes in a previous by-election, making him the favorite in the general election. Like all prospective candidates that year, Leung was required to sign an official form—never before required—that called Hong Kong an “inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China.” The election officer doubted Leung’s sincerity, citing his posts on Facebook promoting self-rule, and disqualified him. Two other candidates from another pro-independence party, Baggio Leung and Yau Wei-ching, were permitted to run. But after they insulted China during the swearing-in ceremony, a judge barred them from taking their seats.

As the independence movement grew, and more young people identified themselves as Hong Kongers rather than Chinese, according to polls taken by the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program, Beijing took note. On a visit to Hong Kong on July 1, 2017, marking the 20th anniversary of the handover, President Xi Jinping ordered the city to hew to the nation’s interests. “Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government … or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible,” he said.

Not long after, a Hong Kong judge expelled four more pro-democracy lawmakers from office on the pretense that the oaths they had sworn were insincere. In almost every case, the disqualified candidates were under 40. All had been harsh critics of Beijing. The following year, the government for the first time banned a political group, the Hong Kong National Party, whose central tenet was to work toward Hong Kong’s independence.

The campaign against young political activists continued in the courts. Since 2016, judges have convicted dozens of young people for protesting, rioting, and causing disorder. Justices on the Court of Final Appeals, Hong Kong’s highest court, ruled that any protest that results in injuries would not be considered an act of civil disobedience but, rather, a violent gathering whose organizers could be subject to prosecution. Edward Leung, the thwarted legislative nominee, was convicted in 2018 of rioting and hitting a police officer. He was sentenced to six years in a maximum-security prison. What seemed like a routine prosecution to discourage street brawls had morphed into a war on the next generation of leaders.


The pall of those depressing summers of 2017 and 2018 lasted well into this year. Most young people stopped attending large civic events. The student unions at several universities, long catalysts for local and anti-Beijing-related activism, couldn’t form cabinets because so few people were willing to lead. Many activists involved in previous campaigns worried that they might be arrested; some chose to enroll in graduate school overseas. Two of Leung’s party colleagues were granted refugee status in Germany, likely the first time that Hong Kong residents had ever been granted protection from their own government.

In this fragile, feeble moment for the pro-democracy movement, Lam pushed the rendition bill. A quick, clean vote of approval would signal to Xi that she had Hong Kong under control. When the business sector objected to the bill’s lack of human rights guarantees and long list of offenses, Lam tweaked the language and promised that only people accused of serious crimes would be extradited. Passage looked all but certain.

Then something unexpected happened. After a group of lawyers launched a campaign to delay the bill, the Internet suddenly blossomed with hundreds of online petitions. Everyone from alumni associations to mothers’ groups demanded that the bill be stopped. All at once, it seemed, young people were engaged again. Political parties led by 20-somethings posted graphics explaining why the extradition law could be dangerous. Activists shared details about marches, tips on protective gear, and even hand gestures for communicating during standoffs with police. Leung’s former party, Hong Kong Indigenous, published an online booklet with tips in case of arrest.

Once the protests began in April, Hong Kong police seemed to focus primarily on stopping the city’s youngest strikers. After a mass march on June 9, officers singled out young people to search them for masks, goggles, and knives. The night before the June 12 protest at the legislature, police charged the administrator of a Telegram chat group with 20,000 members with conspiracy to cause a public nuisance. “I never thought that just speaking on the internet, just sharing information, could be regarded as a speech crime,” the channel’s 22-year-old administrator, Ivan Ip, told The New York Times.

Democracy advocates in Hong Kong have long despised the Beijing government. But Lam and her administration have ensured that many residents now hate the city government as well. Since her halfhearted apology, young people have coalesced around four key demands: formally withdraw the extradition bill; retract the “riot” designation of the June 12 protest, which opened the door to more serious criminal prosecutions; release and drop all charges against those who were arrested; and establish an independent inquiry to probe the excessive force by police on June 12. A fifth demand—cited by some, but not all groups—is that Lam step down.

So far, all five demands remain unmet. While protesters have done their best to keep the pressure on the government, many quietly admit that they are grasping for ways to sustain the momentum. Without a clear leader, and with crowds destined to shrink, many worry that this protest movement could fizzle like many previous ones. The young people who continue to stage sudden, short-term occupations of government buildings are taking a significant risk. The fewer the protesters are in number, the more vulnerable they are to criminal prosecution. And yet the most energized among them don’t plan to back down. “Many of us are thinking that continuing the protest in Hong Kong will create a certain level of pressure on the Chinese government,” said Simon, the undergraduate. “If you’re not going to respond to us, we’ll try to stop the government from working.”