A pro-democracy activist on Hong Kong’s year of turmoil: “The city itself is dying”

Hong Kong transformed in a year.

Starting in June 2019, the city convulsed with protests over a controversial extradition bill. That expanded into a pro-democracy movement that sought to push back against China’s efforts to further erode the city-state’s already tenuous autonomy, and the freedoms that went with it.

By June 2020, the power of those uprisings brought China’s full might down on Hong Kong, as Beijing implemented a draconian national security law that stifled dissent — or anything that looked even remotely like it in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party.

Do Not Split, an Oscar-nominated short documentary by filmmaker Anders Hammer, charts some of Hong Kong’s most tumultuous months of the pro-democracy uprising and its troubling, unclear end in the face of China’s crackdown. The story is told by the protesters and activists on the front lines, the young people who are trying to protect the freedoms of Hong Kong — freedoms that were supposed to be guaranteed until 2047 under the “one country, two systems” arrangement China agreed to when it took back control of Hong Kong from Britain in 1997 — for as long as they can.

Even it’s a battle they know they are losing.

“It was very difficult to understand how this would work. How could this small group of young people fight China?” journalist and filmmaker Anders Hammer, the director of Do Not Split, told me. “At the same time, it was really something unique to watch how they work together. You could really sense that solidarity among the protesters, and a great deal of sacrifice and this communion feeling in the street.”

Do Not Split follows demonstrators to the edges of the protests: where they regrouped to recover from tear gas, where they camped out in a field after a clash with police at the City University of Hong Kong in November 2019.

The film also reveals just how explosive these protests became; frame after frame shows the escalation, from protesters shielding themselves with umbrellas from assaults of tear gas to protesters flinging firebombs at lines of police. (The full documentary is now available from Field of Vision.)

The Hong Kong protests were largely leaderless and anonymous, but the documentary follows a few characters closely, including Joey Siu, a student activist who, in the film, always seems to be hovering around the latest protest, observing and explaining what she’s witnessing, reckoning with what’s happening in Hong Kong in real time.

Siu, who is also a US citizen, decided to use her position as a student activist to try to lobby lawmakers abroad and bring attention to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy struggle, actions that became even riskier under the national security law. This fall, she made the decision to come to the United States and continue fighting for Hong Kong from America.

“It is always a struggle between staying and suffering with the others, or to leave and suffer on your own but to be able to do something. I made the choice,” Siu told me.

I called Siu to talk more about her experiences during the Hong Kong protests; how they have left her generation traumatized; and how the national security law has stifled the city she loves but is not giving up on yet.

Our conversation, edited and condensed, follows.

Jen Kirby

How did you first get involved in the extradition bill protests?

Joey Siu

It was, I would say, an accident. Every university in Hong Kong, we’ve got a student union, which represents the students and participates in all kinds of negotiations with the school and fights for the welfare of the students.

Right before the extradition bill movement broke out in Hong Kong, there was no one standing for the student union executive committee elections at my school. Then one of my friends said he was willing to be nominated as the acting president, and he asked, “Hey, Joey, are you willing to be the vice president?” I was pretty surprised when he approached me, because I never expected myself to be taking up the role.

I actually rejected him several times. I said, “No, I don’t feel like I can be good at this. I don’t feel like I’m a good choice for you.” But he insisted. So he convinced me, and I agreed to that. I was nominated by the Student Union Council right before the first protests on the 9th of June 2019, when the whole extradition bill movement broke out.

Then, when the movement broke out in Hong Kong, we realized that, as student leaders, we had the responsibility and the capacity to stand out and to do something. Alongside other university student unions, we had been organizing and encouraging people to participate in protests. We had been helping to allocate resources like safety goggles, gloves, and other protective gear.

That was how I started my activism. And then very soon, in July 2019, we realized that it is actually a leaderless movement, where we no longer need student leaders, we no longer need politicians, to guide us. We felt like, “Well, what can we do if we are no longer needed to organize protests and assemblies?”

And at that time, we found that the United States Congress was about to discuss the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. We felt like, as student leaders or as ordinary Hong Kong students, we might be able to provide a unique perspective on what was going on in Hong Kong and why it was so important for the international community to do something to help.

Since then, I have been more active in terms of international advocacy for Hong Kong. I had been flying around to different countries during 2019 — US to Canada, Germany, Brussels, the UK — to advocate for international solidarity with Hong Kong.

Jen Kirby

You said you got into it sort of by accident, but obviously you ended up being fully committed. What motivated you to do that?

Joey Siu

Personally, I have always been very candid on social issues, especially Hong Kong politics. I have always paid very close attention to what is going on in Hong Kong, locally and also internationally. That is the fundamental reason why I felt like I should be doing something for the people I care about and for the place I love.

So getting involved in international advocacy for Hong Kong, I felt like that might be the thing that I could do the best for Hong Kong. We all have different roles. Some of us are front-line protesters. Some of us are voluntary first-aid providers. Some of us are citizen journalists.

Every Hongkonger who loves the city, who believes in those values, is trying to find a way to devote ourselves. So I would say this is how I contribute. This is how I devote myself to defend the values that I care for.

Jen Kirby

Did you continue participating in the protests on the front lines?

Joey Siu

I had been starting to go on international advocacy visits ever since September 2019. However, during the time when I was still in Hong Kong, or where I came back to Hong Kong, there were still protests and assemblies, and I would still go to them because I felt like, as I have said, everyone is trying to do our best to devote to the city.

Jen Kirby

You mentioned that you took your first international trip in September 2019. That feels like a really pivotal time for the movement. In early September, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam rescinded the extradition bill, but the protests continued, and the world was really paying attention by that point. How did that affect your activism abroad?

Joey Siu

Well, at the very beginning, of course, we were protesting to take the extradition bill amendment down and to stop the Hong Kong government from again violating the will of the people. However, I think it was in late July 2019 — especially after the Yuen Long attack [Ed. note: A mob, believed to have ties to organized crime, violently attacked protesters] — when I think a lot of Hong Kong people realized and awakened to the unlimited power of the Hong Kong government and also the Chinese government.

From my personal experience, at the very beginning, we had been putting a lot of focus on telling people what the extradition bill amendment was about and why it was so important for us to take it down.

However, as we have realized that we are actually protesting against the Chinese communist regime, we have been shifting our focus in terms of telling people why we are doing that. Why it is so important for all of us to stand in solidarity in terms of containing the rise of the regime in Beijing. Why we have to pay attention to Hong Kong.

Jen Kirby

In the film Do Not Split, you say you had hoped to be a teacher, but you don’t believe it can be a path for you anymore because of your outspokenness. When did you realize that your activism in Hong Kong also meant a change in your future, and your identity?

Joey Siu

Well, I mean, I have always known that I want to be a person who could bring change to society. And that is one of the reasons why I would like to be a teacher, because I felt like by being a teacher, I could actually bring change to society by advocating and teaching my students the correct values, or the values that I believe in. So I felt like I have always been able to understand myself; it’s just that I did not expect myself to be going out to the public or to be changing society or bringing change to other people by becoming an activist.

Actually, the moment when I realized that I can no longer be a teacher is when I first found that my personal information was being posted online, on Facebook and on other social media websites, by the pro-Beijing camps. When I first saw myself being criticized by a lot of mouthpieces in the media who support the Beijing regime, that is when I realized, “Wow, this is going to bring a very big change to my life.” And that what I’d expected to do in the future might not be happening.

Jen Kirby

In the documentary, you also describe yourself as traumatized, and you say it’s a feeling you share with other protesters. Can you talk a little about that?

Joey Siu

I think it’s not only me, but most of those Hong Kong protesters who actually participated in protests, or have been following what is going on in Hong Kong, might have a sense of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] after going through all these experiences.

Especially because when we participate in protests, we very frequently witness police brutality going on and you can often see your fellow protesters, or people you know, getting beaten up by the police force with the batons, with tear gas, with pepper spray — all these kinds of weapons that they use to suppress us.

Participating in the protests is also very traumatizing because of the feeling that you are being chased by a whole bunch of police armed with so many kinds of lethal weapons that they might use and point at you. It’s really, really frightening. The kind of feeling where you have to escape.

The thing that I really couldn’t forget about was the death of the first protester in Hong Kong, which happened in June 2019. His surname was Leung. Mr. Leung jumped, or fell, from a building in [the] Admiralty [district], to protest against the government and to use his death as an awakening to call upon Hongkongers not to give up protesting against the evil regime.

That night, I was in a meeting with other student leaders. During meetings, we put our phones outside of the room so as to avoid any kind of information leakage. Before we put away our phones, we knew that Mr. Leung was on the building in Admiralty. He was standing there, protesting, holding a board. I mean, nobody would expect him to fall. Nobody expected that to happen.

After our meeting, we had a break, and I took my phone and I turned it on. I saw all this news, I saw the live broadcast, and I saw all these videos of him in a yellow raincoat, falling down from the building. I just couldn’t forget about it.

Jen Kirby

That seems really tough, and because this movement was so organic, I get the sense that there was a real sense of connection among all the protesters — it felt as if you all knew each other. I understand how that can weigh on you.

Joey Siu

In Hong Kong, we describe our fellow protesters, or people who have the same kind of beliefs as we do, as 手足 (sau zuk,) which in English means your arms and your legs. In other words, it means you are brothers and sisters.

A lot of protesters really [feel] that way. Even though I might not know the one who was standing beside me during a protest, I do believe he is actually my family member. I do believe that we have that connection.

I think that is the reason why I also feel very traumatized or have the sense of PTSD, after going through all this. Because when I was witnessing police brutality or arrests, I felt like that is my brother or my sister or a family member of mine. It is not just a random Hongkonger. I actually see the connection with the victim.

Jen Kirby

Given that deep sense of connection, and how powerful the movement was, it’s hard to believe how much has changed now, after China passed the national security law. What is your sense of how the law has changed the pro-democracy movement?

Joey Siu

The situation was deteriorating in a very rapid way, because after the imposition of the national security law, you see a lot of arrests made by not only the Hong Kong Police Force but also by [their] national security agents.

From those arrests, you can actually see how restricted the level of freedom of expression and freedom of speech and freedom of press is in Hong Kong — I mean, not to mention organizing or participating in a face-to-face protest or assembly — that it is not possible under the national security law.

Even when you’re expressing your own political beliefs online, or organizing very, very, absolutely peaceful democratic primaries in Hong Kong, or even when you’re trying to participate in institutionalized elections, they can still find a way to prosecute you under very serious criminal offenses, which could not only lead to 10 years to life in prison but could also allow the Hong Kong government to extradite you to mainland China [for prosecution].

So, yes, after the imposition of the national security law, Hong Kong’s situation just worsened so rapidly, in such a vigorous way, to where you can feel a sense of fear in the city. You can feel how frightened or concerned or worried people are, because we do not know what is going to happen.

We don’t know who is going to be arrested. We don’t know what kind of things that we say could lead us to being arrested. We don’t know, if we’re arrested, how many years are we going to spend in jail? And we don’t even know whether we are going to spend our time in Hong Kong or in mainland China.

Before the national security law, the Hong Kong government was trying to rule by fear through the police force. After the national security law, they have been ruling by fear by arresting everyday protesters in Hong Kong.

Jen Kirby

Were you ever targeted specifically, or arrested at any point?

Joey Siu

I was not arrested; however, I was pretty frequently being followed by — I don’t know if they were national security agents or the Hong Kong Police Force, I simply knew that somebody was following me, but I couldn’t verify their identity.

That was pretty terrifying, because at that time, I was working alongside several friends to help another friend of ours with his democratic primary election campaign. We often worked until pretty late at night, and sometimes I found that I was being followed from the underground station to my home. Usually there would be minibuses; however, when it’s too late, there are no minibuses and the only way for me to get back home would be to walk.

It is pretty terrifying, because you don’t know who they are. You don’t know if they’re Hong Kong police or the national security agents. You don’t know if they’re really coming to get you; you don’t know whether you will be sent to a police station. I mean, it would be the best scenario to be sent to a police station in Hong Kong instead of being sent directly to mainland China. But you just do not know.

Jen Kirby

When did you start to notice someone was tailing you?

Joey Siu

I started being followed ever since June 2019, when I first came out as a student leader, but that was not so frequent, and that was not so frightening because you still felt like, “Oh, they are the Hong Kong police,” and if you’re arrested by them, you would be sent to a police station. You were still certain about the kinds of procedures that would happen if you were really being arrested. However, after the national security law in July 2020, you don’t even know what’s going to happen after an arrest.

Jen Kirby

That’s terrifying. Do you know people who were arrested under the national security law?

Joey Siu

A very close friend of mine, she had been involved pretty actively with a student group that advocated for Hong Kong independence that was suspended after the imposition of the national security law. However, still, she was arrested by national security agents in the Hong Kong Police Force for inciting secession of state.

That was a pretty early arrest under the national security law, and that was pretty terrifying. Because at that point, nobody knew what was going to happen. We didn’t know whether the court or the police force was going to allow them to get bail and then to come back home after being investigated for 48 hours. At that point, everything was so uncertain.

But after I left Hong Kong, things just kept getting worse. Like, every candidate that I met during the democratic primaries was arrested.

Jen Kirby

I can remember when the law was first passed, there was so much confusion about how it would be implemented, and I’m sure that uncertainty was terrifying. Can you give an example now of what happens when someone is arrested — for example, what did happen to your friend who was arrested for secession of state?

Joey Siu

She was arrested before I left Hong Kong. When she was arrested, she was investigated by the National Security Department [the Chinese government’s security agency in Hong Kong, established after the passage of the national security law] and also by the Hong Kong Police Force, for more than 30 hours, if I remember. Then her traveling documents were confiscated; she could not leave Hong Kong, and she has to report to the police station every month. Very recently, the police force returned to her traveling documents, telling her that you no longer have to come and report to us.

For the people that I know who were arrested a few weeks ago, during the massive arrests there, they were being investigated, their traveling documents were being confiscated, they had to report to the police station, they cannot leave Hong Kong.

That is pretty much the procedure. However, there are, of course, other more serious cases in Hong Kong; for example, Jimmy Lai, who was arrested under the national security law, and his bail was revoked.

My sense is the Hong Kong government and Chinese government have been trying to manipulate the law as a way to silence the dissidents in Hong Kong, because after being arrested, people cannot leave Hong Kong.

So their only choice would be to stay in Hong Kong. And to stay in Hong Kong and not to be arrested again, you cannot be so vocal as you used to be. You have to be more careful with things you say, the things you do, and everything.

Jen Kirby

So it sounds like, if I’m understanding you correctly, that many people are being arrested, but they’re in a holding pattern — they have to report to the police, but they can’t leave. Rather than handing down punishment, it sounds as if authorities are trying to just exert control.

Joey Siu

It’s kind of like silencing them. I also feel that it’s kind of a warning from the Chinese communist regime to not only the arrestees themselves, but also to the other voices in the society. They’re trying to use arrests to warn those vocal voices in Hong Kong not to say anything anymore, and also to warn the other ordinary, everyday Hong Kong citizens that, “Hey, we’re now arresting everyone from all of the political spectrum, for anything you say. So you people better mind your words.”

Jen Kirby

When did you decide that you needed to leave? What made you finally say, “I can’t stay in Hong Kong anymore”?

Joey Siu

Well, it’s pretty complicated. I was actually born in the States, and I moved to Hong Kong when I was very young because my parents wanted me to learn Chinese and also the Chinese culture. Ever since my family found out that I was becoming a student activist, they’d been trying to get me to leave Hong Kong because they felt like I might be arrested and that it wasn’t safe for me to stay in Hong Kong. And that if I have the choice of going back to the States, why don’t I?

They’d always planned to move back to the States when I completed my undergraduate degree. We had that plan in the future. But then they felt like there might be a need for me to return to the States earlier.

But I never thought about leaving Hong Kong because I felt that is the place where I grew up, where my friends are, where I really had the connection.

However, in June 2020, when they were talking about imposing the national security law, I began receiving a lot of warnings and advice from people I know, and all the advice I got was like, “It’s better for you to leave Hong Kong because not only are you a student activist, you’re also an American citizen.”

At that time, it was catching everybody’s attention that the Chinese communist regime was making use of “hostage diplomacy” [threatening to detain foreign citizens unless their governments accede to China’s demands] to make the other governments bow down to them. So they felt like, well, it makes it more dangerous, being an American citizen, so you should leave Hong Kong. Perhaps not permanently — but just to leave and see how things are going. If it is safe, you could still come back.

At first I felt like, “Well, nothing has been going on yet.” The national security law had not been imposed yet, and even if it is imposed, we don’t know what is going on; maybe they would not be making active use of it. So I still decided to stay until September 2020.

Because of the position I was in, the national security law stopped or paused my ability to make connections with people from other countries, because I didn’t want to get myself into big trouble for colluding with foreign forces.

But then there was the case of the 12 Hongkongers who tried to flee the city, but were captured by the Chinese authorities and then detained.

After that, I started to reconnect with human rights organizations and foreign politicians that I’ve met in the US, Germany, the UK, and Canada, to ask them to speak out on behalf of the 12 Hongkongers, and to encourage them to implement a “lifeboat scheme” to help Hong Kong protesters to relocate to other countries.

I had been secretly attending virtual meetings, and they’d been trying to persuade me not to. But then I asked them, “If I’m not going to talk to you, who in Hong Kong will?” And then after that, I felt like, “Well, perhaps by leaving Hong Kong, I could be making the best use of my abilities and the connections that I built over 2019.” So I decided to leave.

It is always a struggle between staying in a city and then somehow dying or suffering with the city, or to choose to leave the city and to suffer on your own but to be able to do something. I made the choice.

Jen Kirby

Do you see Hong Kong as dying right now?

Joey Siu

I would say the city itself is dying. You can actually see that Hong Kong is gradually becoming another mainland city of China.

However, I would say that I’m pretty optimistic when it comes to the Hong Kong people, because Hong Kong people are trying to sustain the movement in so many creative ways. The city itself might be dying. However, I would say the spirit of the Hong Kong people will be long-lasting.

Jen Kirby

This is a very tough question, but in talking to protesters, I always got the sense that they understood they might lose to China eventually — in 2047, for example, when the “one country, two systems” agreement was set to end. But the goal was to try to protect Hong Kong’s democratic values until that point, as much as possible. Do you think the success of that movement, in some ways, backfired? That it hastened China’s decision to clamp down on Hong Kong?

Joey Siu

Before the whole pro-democracy struggle started, a lot of Hong Kong people still felt like we might be able to maintain and to live well under the “one country, two systems” structure at least until 2047.

The pro-democracy struggle is an awakening call for a lot of Hong Kong people. I feel like the majority of Hong Kong people, no matter whether you are on the pro-democracy side or pro-Beijing side, we have all realized the fact that Hong Kong is not going to maintain a high degree of autonomy, or the same lifestyle, until 2047. I think this is a thing that all of us can agree on. Everybody can witness the encroachment and change in Hong Kong.

Most of the people in Hong Kong right now do not believe anything the Chinese Communist Party government says anymore. They’re not going to respect any kind of promises. Even if the “one country, two systems” agreement is part of an international treaty, they are not going to respect it.

Jen Kirby

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Capitol attack in January in the US, and how it contrasts with Hong Kong’s fight for democracy. How do you see the erosion of democracy in the US as affecting the struggle in Hong Kong?

Joey Siu

A lot of Hong Kong people have been relying or giving very high hopes on the United States to take action to defend Hong Kong or to stand up to China. However, with all the things going on, politicians in the US will, of course, prioritize those domestic issues.

With our plates being so full with different domestic issues of the transition, with all these kinds of issues in regards to racial justice, to gender equality, to climate change, to the bipartisanship around two parties, it would be understandable that people here in the US might not be paying so much attention to Hong Kong and China issues as they used to do in 2019 or 2020.

However, I always believe that the urgency of tackling the China challenge or the China threat will always be one of the most important issues of American politicians.

I also felt like it is definitely another lesson for Hongkongers to learn, because we have always admired the US for being the world’s greatest and most respected democracy. However, witnessing all the kinds of things to happen in the US in the past month, we have realized that no democracy in the world is a perfect one.

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