The July heat surrounded Claudia Chung (C ‘20) as she stood on the streets of Yuen Long, a town in northwest Hong Kong. Sweat stuck to her clothes as she walked in a crowd of thousands, many dressed head–to–toe in black shirts and pants, thick gloves, hard hats, and face masks. From above, the protesters looked like a sea of floating umbrellas—a safeguard against pepper spray and rubber bullets. In Claudia’s backpack were two liters of water, goggles, and a first aid kit she hoped she wouldn’t have to use.
“光復香港! 時代革命!” The phrase traveled from one voice to the next in the crowd, onto posters and banners raised in the air. “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of Our Times!”
Claudia was hot, tired, and worried about getting home. It was nearing evening, when the older protesters would leave and tensions between the younger protesters and police would begin to escalate. She checked her phone to see if the subways were still running—no connection.
A sound like a gunshot tore through the air.
Claudia looked around, heart pounding, bracing for the sound of screams. But there was nothing except the slow rise of white smoke at the front line. She turned to see her friends calmly donning their masks.
“It’s just tear gas,” they said. “Put on your mask.”
In February 2019, the Hong Kong government proposed amendments to extradition laws that would’ve allowed Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to extradite criminal suspects to China, Taiwan, and Macau. Many Hongkongers feared that China would use the law to extradite, try, and imprison political dissidents in the mainland, which they felt would infringe upon the autonomy of the special administrative region. This triggered a protest movement of millions that has persisted for more than five months. The Hong Kong government officially withdrew the extradition bill on Oct. 23, but many of the pro–democracy protesters are demanding more, including universal suffrage, accountability for police brutality, and the resignation of Lam.
As demonstrators and police collide in Hong Kong, the protests have shed light on the complexities of Hong Kong and its diaspora. The three Hong Kong students at Penn interviewed for this article, some of whom have protested in Hong Kong themselves, are navigating their varying beliefs towards the protests. With a deep connection to their identities as Hongkongers, these students also wrestle with the everyday reality that they’re here at Penn, thousands of miles from home, while tensions rage. Some students protest, others don’t. All say that they’re worried about Hongkongers back home.
The July 27 protest in Yuen Long was the first time Claudia saw police use tear gas in person, but it wasn’t the first time she’d taken to the streets.
“Protests are very common in the culture of Hong Kong,” she says. “Whether it is about local legislation and policies or things like the Tiananmen Square Massacre, during all those times there were protests in Hong Kong.”
Growing up in a pro–democracy, pro–demonstration family meant that Claudia was always aware of Hong Kong’s tensions with China.
“According to my mom, the first protest I was at, I was five,” Claudia says. “It’s in my blood, pretty much.”
Although she protested every weekend with her family while she was in Hong Kong over the summer, coming back to school has made it harder to support the movement.
“Frankly, the first month and a half [of school] was very difficult,” she says. “Right now, I feel like I’m not doing my part because I’m young, I’ve been privileged enough to be educated at Penn. I should be putting in my two cents. But I’m here, stuck taking midterms.”
She also feels a responsibility towards the younger protesters in the movement, some of whom are still in high school. “That’s what angers me the most as a 21–year–old, is that I’m sitting here, away from the whole situation, when I should be protecting people younger than me from harsh realities of life,” she says.
Since China gained control of Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, the special administrative region has occupied a fraught position because of the “one country, two systems” policy. Hong Kong has its own legislative branch, an independent judiciary, a free–market economy, and elections that are not directly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. Citizens of Hong Kong also have freedom of speech, press, and religion.
Hong Kong’s constitution, or the Basic Law, states that its “ultimate aim” is the implementation of universal suffrage, the election of the chief executive by popular vote. Now, only citizens on an election committee, a fraction of the population, have the power to pick the chief executive.
Although Hong Kong is autonomous in many ways, China still has control over the region’s “diplomacy and defense,” reserves the right to interpret its constitution, and has informal influence over the government through officials who act in Beijing’s interests. China has also stalled greater electoral reforms in the decades following the handover, resulting in Hong Kong’s history of demonstrations against the mainland’s influence. The second–longest movement in Hong Kong’s history, called the Umbrella Movement or Occupy Central, took place in 2014 and aimed to secure universal suffrage. After 79 days, when police cleared out the last protesters occupying the central business district, universal suffrage still hadn’t been realized.
“You’ve had this tension between China making decisions that it thinks is justified based on the fact that it’s one country, and people in Hong Kong—some of them, anyway—who feel as though Beijing is not respecting two systems,” says Avery Goldstein, a political science professor and inaugural director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China. He believes that the failure of previous movements to secure electoral reform has led to mounting frustration among Hongkongers, intensifying support for the most recent protests.
“The fear was that if [the protesters] didn’t keep up the pressure this time, the same thing would happen that happened in 2014: protests, protests end, nothing changes,” Goldstein says. “So the feeling was, this time, they have to really get some substantial concessions from the government in Hong Kong.”
Claudia was in boarding school in the United States during the Umbrella Movement and wasn’t able to protest. She views the current movement as another chance for her to participate in a struggle she cares deeply about.
Claudia decided to protest because she believes that China hasn’t lived up to its promise to deliver universal suffrage, and that the nation’s policies in the past few years have shown a “slow encroachment” on Hong Kong’s autonomy. She cites the disappearance and imprisonment of booksellers importing banned books into the region as an example.
“I felt like it was my obligation to show up. Because, one, I was born and raised here. This is my hometown. And two, I was 16 back then in 2014, and I watched … college–age students on the streets fighting for the same things, and they failed. And I felt like, personally, this was a redemption route,” she says.
At Penn, Claudia feels she often has to correct people who assume that Hong Kong is the same as mainland China. When students ask her if she’s from China, she always clarifies that she considers herself a citizen of Hong Kong. She’s even lost friendships with international Chinese students at Penn who have claimed she isn’t “patriotic enough” towards China. “But for me, why would I be patriotic to China?” she asks. “I’m not from there.”
Celine Cheung (C ‘23) has also struggled with acclimating to Penn while the protests continue back home, especially when speaking to students who don’t necessarily hold the same views. She was one of as many as two million people who took to the streets on June 16, and she supports the pro–democracy movement.
Celine has encountered similar confusion from people who’ve asked her if she’s from China, when she strongly identifies as a Hongkonger. She also has an agreement with a hallmate from Beijing not to discuss the protests. She feels like many people at Penn don’t know or care about the protests or favor the pro–Beijing point of view. “I thought that Penn would be more liberal and more … respectful of these kinds of movements,” she says.
But attitudes toward the movement vary, even among Hong Kong students at Penn. Although Claudia and Celine are supportive of the protests and more critical of the Chinese government, the University’s Hong Kong Students Association (HKSA) positions itself closer to the middle, encouraging both protesters and the Hong Kong and Chinese governments to work together towards compromise.
“It is only through dialogue that the Government can understand the protesters’ needs and demands, and this will also provide an opportunity for both sides to learn to see from each other’s perspectives,” reads HKSA’s official statement, sent via Facebook Messenger. Board members declined to provide individual interviews. “Going forward, we wish that both sides can come together and build a peaceful and democratic future for the Hong Kong that we have all come to know and love.”
Chris (C ‘22), who moved to Hong Kong from Canada when he was seven, feels conflicted about the situation. He’s asked that only his first name be used, because of concerns for his family members who still live there.
Although he believes in Hong Kong’s autonomy and democratic culture, he isn’t sure how to feel about the escalating violence between protesters and police.
In Hong Kong, Chris attended an ethnically and culturally diverse international school, which he acknowledges isolated him from many of the concerns felt by native Hongkongers. Chris says he has never discussed Hong Kong politics with his father, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, and his mother, who is South Korean.
“Hong Kong is very culturally varied and also economically varied, so your position in either of those two will greatly impact how close you are to the protests,” Chris says. For him, the most visceral part of the movement has been how it’s made daily life at home feel much more precarious.
He says he’s always felt that Hong Kong was very safe, but that clashes between protesters, police, and Beijing supporters have caused him to worry about the safety of his parents and friends. When he last spoke to his parents on the phone, they recounted going out to eat and encountering “protesters outside of the restaurant banging on the windows.”
“That just sounds very hostile,” he says. “It seems like a very drastic change from what I’m used to at home.”
Chris says his friends in Hong Kong now must navigate class cancelations, constant shutdowns of public transportation, and increasing danger and vandalism in public spaces. Although he understands that protests are meant to be disruptive, the increasingly confrontational attitude of demonstrators feels “destructive” and seems to enforce an “us versus them” mentality.
He points to the protest that began on Aug. 12 at the Hong Kong International Airport, which resulted in hundreds of canceled flights. Some protesters attacked two men from mainland China and prevented paramedics from reaching one of them for several hours, even after he had lost consciousness.
Although Claudia’s aware of the violent tactics employed by some pro–democracy activists, large numbers of protesters she encountered during the summer were peaceful and came from “all walks of life.”
“You see mothers with children,” she says. “You see a lot of baby carriages, you see a lot of people pushing children, and then you also see a lot of middle–aged people.” Claudia’s parents and extended family protested together so often that it became another part of daily life. She regularly met with her family for weekend dim sum before going out into the streets to march.
Claudia is more critical of the violence committed by the Hong Kong police, who have used tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and water cannons to disperse crowds.
“I personally know people who have gotten injured during protests, like broken ribs or bruised bones. And people are scared to go to the hospital because police officers are stationed in hospitals—at least public ones—to arrest them,” Claudia says.
Goldstein believes that the focus on the injustices on either side has resulted in a situation where both feel they cannot compromise. “You have some really determined protesters who refuse to stop protesting and refuse to give up some of their violent tactics,” he says. “And of course, whenever they do that, the police react, often overreact, by using force against these people.” Goldstein says the Chinese government is resistant to giving public concessions, especially when pressured by violence.
The impact of these divisions has gone beyond day–to–day disruptions and physical confrontations. Citizens are now facing a recession brought on by the protests, which have slowed tourism and retail sales. With no immediate end to the crisis in sight, it’s not clear how protesters will reach an agreement with the Hong Kong government.
On top of the withdrawal of the extradition bill, Goldstein predicts that the government will eventually concede to some of the movement’s other demands. He thinks that the resignation of Carrie Lam, an independent commission into police brutality, and a retraction of the label of the protests as ‘riots’ are all “possible” after the unrest ends. According to Goldstein, however, amnesty for arrested protesters and genuine electoral reforms are much more unlikely.
Chris hopes that progress will come from the instability and drastic changes Hong Kong has experienced in the last few months and that the protests will at least help to preserve the region’s autonomy. Above all, he wants his home to feel safe again.
Celine also wants Hong Kong to “keep its natural state of sovereignty,” but she doesn’t think it’s realistic to assume that will happen. Nevertheless, she believes marching for the movement was the right thing for her to do. During the protests, she saw people in the crowd help each other cross barricades, pass out water in the 90–degree weather, and immediately clear a street so an ambulance could reach the injured. She felt unity with the millions who wanted to speak out against the government.
“Honestly, I was very moved,” she says. “It was sort of revolutionary because we were standing for our future. This was literally it. This is my home, and we’re fighting to preserve what we have.”
“The ability to be able to protest is itself a freedom,” says Claudia. She believes that a big reason so many Hongkongers have protested is because they think they might not be able to in the future. “People believe that if we don’t protest now, then this might be the last time we’re even allowed to protest,” she says. “And now people are thinking, ‘Well, even if we don’t get what we demanded for, at least you can tell people we fought for it.’”
She notes that among many activists, the fear of not achieving genuine political progress often accompanies an all–or–nothing attitude. If the government doesn’t meet all demands, there are people willing to protest until “everyone gets arrested.”
“A lot of front line protesters have this sentiment. They’ve been using this quote from The Hunger Games,” Claudia says.
As masked protesters clash with riot police, banners carrying reference to the dystopia flash in the air: “If we burn, you burn with us.”