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Riot police disperse protesters in Hong Kong's Yuen Long district on Sept. 21.    © EPA/Jiji
The Big Story

Hong Kong protesters speak out: 'We could become the next Tibet or Xinjiang'

Why peaceful rallies have escalated into constant clashes

MICHELLE CHAN, Nikkei staff writer | Hong Kong, Macao

From their early days in April, anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong have transformed from organized rallies to streets filled with tear gas and fire. But what drives Hong Kong's citizens to confrontation, week after week? Three protesters spoke to the Nikkei Asian Review on the fears that have tilted them to -- sometimes radical -- action.

Nathan, 24 years old

I graduated from university last year. Now I'm a regular white-collar worker with a nine-to-five job. I started out as a peaceful protester. I attended rallies, chanted slogans; that was it. That was the norm in our society: We should all express our opinions peacefully and rationally.

Like many who participated in the Umbrella Movement, I was frustrated that we couldn't bring about any changes after the mass sit-in. The government just sat idly by and waited for the movement to lose steam. I started to believe that escalating violence is the only way for the government to hear us. There has been a long period of frustration since 2014. I think that this is our endgame. We might not have any more chances; we could become the next Tibet or Xinjiang.

I attended the first few demonstrations in June in a peaceful way. Then, at a rally in late June, when my friend and I helped to carry two boxes of supplies to the front line, people there handed us helmets. "Take good care," they said. I was very touched. That was how I came to "gear up" and join the ranks of the hard-core protesters.

I have set up barricades, extinguished tear gas, thrown bricks and rocks at the police and even fought with the gangsters who were paid to attack protesters. I learned some of those skills from the internet, but learning in the field is the most effective. This is actually my third helmet. Two were broken, by batons or projectiles, I don't know. I've been lucky that I haven't suffered any critical injuries.

This is a leaderless protest, so no one would ever command you to do anything on the front line. Most people on the front line do not know each other. People are wary of undercover police. I only use a secondhand phone with a prepaid SIM card and communicate with others on Telegram anonymously. I always get changed right after the protest and avoid using public transport to get home.

My family knows what I am doing. They have never supported me. They claim to be neutral, but I don't think being neutral is possible when it comes to obvious rights and wrongs. It's not about political stance, but one's conscience. I have promised them I'll try my best to stay safe. But who knows. I am prepared to be arrested at any time. I always tell myself to treat every fight like it's my last.

Kate, early 20s

I came to the U.K. at a very young age to study. I've lived there for 10 years, but I still think Hong Kong is my home. I always regretted not being able to participate in the Umbrella Movement five years ago, so as soon as my summer break started this year, I bought a ticket and joined the protests.

I attended most of the demonstrations in July and August. I was a peaceful protester in the first few rallies. I sometimes don't agree with the violent tactics, but I won't put the blame on the protesters -- it's the Hong Kong government that made peaceful protests impossible.

On July 14, at the protest in Sha Tin, I suddenly found myself on the front line. I wasn't prepared. I only had a regular face mask with me. But the other protesters had already started passing on supplies and building barricades. I felt like I belonged there, and I offered to help out. I was scared, but being surrounded by people with the same ideals and beliefs gave me the courage to carry on. That was my first time being tear-gassed.

After that, I attended some other rallies as a front-line protester. I helped set up roadblocks and put out tear gas grenades, but I'm not physically strong enough to confront the police. A few weeks in, I had a serious allergic reaction to tear gas. I had rashes all over my body.

There were a few times where I was very close to being caught. I can endure physical suffering, but I can't afford to be arrested. I have to finish my studies in the U.K. So I began to think: Is there any other role for me to play in the protests? Some friends introduced me to a volunteer group that specializes in international communication, where people team up and translate information about the protests into different languages. I'm very grateful because it allows me to continue to contribute to the movement after coming back to the U.K.

I qualify for British citizenship now, but I don't want it. I'm privileged to have a Plan B, but I feel guilty leaving others behind. For now, I want to be in the same boat with all Hong Kongers. Maybe I'll change my mind years later, but I don't want to give up so soon. Hong Kong is not dead, not yet.

Harry, mid-30s

I was born and raised in mainland China until I was 14, then I went to the U.K. for high school. I stayed there after I graduated from university, then moved to Hong Kong in 2015 for a finance job.

I've always found Hong Kong an amazing place. It is a Chinese society, but it has western values of democracy, freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Now it has come to a point where those core values have been violated. That's why I took to the streets. I am too old for anything radical, but I participated in peaceful rallies.

One Sunday evening in late July, my family in mainland China received calls from their workplace, asking them not to say anything about Hong Kong, because their employers knew they have a kid working here. This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard, but I have to think like I'm in their shoes. I don't want to impact their lives and their work.

I didn't attend any more protests after that. I feel very insecure. I have a friend whose phone was checked at the border, so I am planning on bringing a separate phone when traveling to the mainland. I also avoid using Chinese social media. I fear there are back doors in those apps.

I was educated in China all the way through middle school. Soon after I moved to the U.K., I realized I had been lied to. I was shocked when I saw that tank in Tiananmen Square. My parents never told me about that.

I try my best to communicate the protesters' message to my friends in mainland China. I was very surprised when I talk to my peers, who are well-educated and have decent jobs. They are fooled by the fake news. China used to block the news entirely, but now the authorities mix some truths and misleading information together. I thought people would get to know the truth easier in the age of the internet and social media, but it's the exact opposite.

Some mainlanders I talk to think the movement in Hong Kong has nothing to do with them, but I think this is wrong. What people are doing here in Hong Kong is helping people on the mainland to fight for their human rights. It would be eye-opening for people in China to see so many people in Hong Kong taking to the streets. If they can disagree with the government, why can't I?

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