When Freeman Yim stepped out to join a peaceful demonstration against a controversial extradition bill on 9 June last year, he never knew it would be the start of a drawn-out movement that would plunge Hong Kong into the deepest crisis in its history.
“We weren’t fighting for much, we just wanted Hong Kong to remain Hong Kong and not turn into just any Chinese city,” he said. “We want to have dignity and basic rights. As the Chinese national anthem says, not to become slaves.”
A year later, the 37-year-old mainland-born construction worker feels more depressed than ever. “I feel so helpless and hopeless,” he said. “It’s like being a kid on a playground, bullied by a bigger person but having no means to fight back.”
China has ruled Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” arrangement after its change of sovereignty in 1997, but Beijing’s tightening of its control over the city has caused widespread discontent in recent years.
What started off as a protest to stop a proposed extradition law intended to allow people to be sent to China for trial exploded into a sweeping anti-government movement, unleashing unprecedented anger and frustration. Many people who did not care about politics became radicalised.
A year on, however, Hongkongers find themselves in a much worse situation. China’s legislature passed a plan in late May to impose sweeping national security laws for Hong Kong to prevent and punish activities that threaten national security, including advocacy of secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference. There is widespread concern that China’s vaguely defined national security laws, used to suppress government critics in mainland China, will erode most of Hong Kong’s freedoms.
China insists such laws are necessary to stamp out the protests, which started off peacefully but turned increasingly violent as frustration and desperation mounted. Protests had largely died down as a result of the coronavirus pandemic early this year, but picked up again in late May after Beijing announced the national security law.
More than 8,900 people, of whom about 40% were students, have been arrested in more than 1,000 protests since June last year.
Sceptics have questioned whether Hongkongers’ fierce resistance has done more harm than good, but many who have participated in the movement, young and old, insist they have done the right thing.
They say it was only a matter of a fast or slow death for Hong Kong under China, which had been tightening its grip in a way locals describe as “cooking a frog in tepid water”.
“We know we can’t fight against China but now we have forced China to show its true face to the world,” said Chow, 71, who came to Hong Kong as a teenager after experiencing hunger and tumultuous political movements in China.
In the spirit of lam chow, a Cantonese phrase that means to perish with one’s enemies – many say they support international sanctions against China, even if they would hurt Hong Kong’s economy.
“We’d rather be a broken piece of jade than a whole ceramic tile,” the retired driver said. “Even if we were to die, we may as well die an honourable death.”
Despite the looming draconian measures, many still maintain a strong fighting spirit. The national security law has rekindled a protest movement that had largely died down and fuelled an unprecedented demand for independence from China. In recent demonstrations, many protesters shouted slogans such as “Hong Kong independence, the only way!”, which has rarely been heard on the streets before.
“Now that one country, two systems is dead, of course we want to be separated from China. Wouldn’t it be nice to be like Singapore?” said 60-year-old retiree Wong, who took part in a recent rally.
In the face of what many call the inevitable “death” of Hong Kong, some vow to continue to speak up even if it means risking jail, while others try to learn how to maintain their resistance and conscience under a dictatorial regime.
“I will continue to do things I want to do and say things I want to say,” said Lawrence, 25, a retailer. “I will not be silenced. If we have no freedom, it makes no difference whether you’re in jail or not.”
While many talk of leaving Hong Kong, Benjamin, a 22-year-old student, vows to stay and resist China. Influenced by the Czech dissident and later president Václav Havel’s philosophy of defeating a totalitarian regime by rejecting its lies and “living in truth”, he said he would try to keep up a spirit of resistance by continuing to exercise his rights and living a normal life.
“We need to learn how to survive under a dictatorship. We can’t allow ourselves to be killed by the Communist party before dawn,” he said. “Even if the protests die down, many of us will insist on exercising our freedoms, maintaining our Hong Kong identity, memory, culture and spirit.”
Joseph Cheng, a retired political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong, said while ordinary Hongkongers may not give up on their ideals, “they have to learn new ways of engaging political struggle under very tight security conditions.”
“The anger is still there, the struggle will continue, but we have to minimise cost and to deny the government legitimacy,” he said. “It will be like eastern Europe in the late 70s. It’s going to be a long-term struggle.”