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It's been 5 years since mass protests rocked Hong Kong

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Five years ago, huge and sometimes violent street protests broke out in Hong Kong.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS #1: (Chanting in non-English language).

MARTÍNEZ: Initially, the protests were against a proposed extradition law but eventually against the government itself and in favor of democracy. The movement began to fizzle when the pandemic arrived, and then Beijing stomped on it with sweeping national security legislation, forcing many protesters to hide their true feelings. NPR's John Ruwitch talked with three of them.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Jason was in college at one of Hong Kong's leading universities when the protests erupted, and he got involved early.

JASON: The first time I participated in a protest was in April 2019. That protest was very peaceful.

RUWITCH: I met Jason, now 24, in a crowded downtown area, and we ducked into a small music studio so he could talk more freely.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

RUWITCH: He didn't want NPR using his full name, though, because he's worried his comments could get him in trouble with the authorities. As the protests escalated through the summer, his life was changing. Jason became more involved in student leadership. He organized and spoke up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING).

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

RUWITCH: But when Beijing imposed a national security law in Hong Kong in 2020, it soon became clear that the authorities would use it as a cudgel.

JASON: And then we have received some death threats from, you know, some numbers. We assume that it's from the mainland.

RUWITCH: Mainland China - the threats got worse, and he pulled out of school.

JASON: I decided to leave Hong Kong for a while and go to travel 'cause I don't think staying in Hong Kong at that moment would be a wise choice.

RUWITCH: Nearly 200,000 residents left Hong Kong in the first two years after the protests. Statistics show the population ticked up a bit last year, but experts say that's partly due to an influx of mainland Chinese that have offset the exodus. Jason went to Europe but a few months later returned to his hometown, which he says felt like it had lost its soul.

JASON: Like a really cliche quote, but freedom is like air - you didn't notice it when you can breathe, but you would certainly notice it when you got suffocated. And that's exactly the case that we are doing right now.

RUWITCH: The experience has changed him as a person, made him more cautious. Late this summer, he's starting law school, and he wants to be a human rights lawyer working for disaffected groups like Hong Kong's homeless population, making a difference in the community but on a smaller scale.

JASON: I cannot expect anything. I have no anticipation, but I have a, you know, unrealistic hope.

RUWITCH: A hope, he says, that's tucked away in a box in his heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND BLOWING)

RUWITCH: On the narrow walls leading to a hidden bookstore not far from where I met Jason, there's still prodemocracy graffiti left over from the protests, reminders of another time. Inside, I met Kimberly, who attended the same college as Jason. Like Jason, she wasn't comfortable divulging her full name given the political climate.

KIMBERLY: I used to teach Chinese history in a local secondary school.

RUWITCH: That's after the protests, which she took part in. But she's now left the profession, not because of the kids.

KIMBERLY: They're great. They're good. So the problem is not about them, I would say.

RUWITCH: She left mostly because she says she couldn't teach what she wanted to. High school history was becoming a battlefield, and the narrative was changing.

KIMBERLY: One thing is that I want to tell them more about what is happening now and what is happening in the past. I want to make connection between the past and the present.

RUWITCH: Official school curricula in Hong Kong, though, were becoming more restrictive by design. Hong Kong's colonial past was being downplayed, as were sensitive political events like the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing. National security was becoming a big buzzword that they were required to fold into their lessons.

KIMBERLY: There's documents, leaflets and stickers even to distribute to the students - yeah - for the national security day. Yeah.

RUWITCH: It was largely a box-ticking exercise, Kimberly says, but a noose was tightening.

KIMBERLY: I'm not very optimistic about to get more freedom in the future - yeah, in education.

RUWITCH: Kimberly is shifting gears and going abroad soon to get a master's degree in museum studies. She says she may end up staying overseas. In her hometown, as a student and former teacher of history, she says it can be sad walking down the street because of what took place all around the territory five years ago.

KIMBERLY: I know that many people are trying to keep the memories. Many of us are using different ways to try to remember these events.

RUWITCH: But, she says, nobody dares to do so openly, at least not now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE BEEPING)

RUWITCH: Richard Chan reluctantly agrees. I met him at a hospital in Hong Kong just two days after he had a pacemaker implanted following a heart attack, which, he says, was probably related to stress from these turbulent past few years.

Does it hurt?

RICHARD CHAN: A little bit.

RUWITCH: Chan ran a funeral business but was inspired by the protests. And one day, in August 2019, found himself between front-line protesters and police during a standoff at the Hong Kong Airport.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: That earned him the nickname Airport Uncle. That fall, he ran for district council, the lowest rung of elected office in the territory, and he won.

CHAN: (Speaking Cantonese).

RUWITCH: He says the idea was to both expand the number of seats held by prodemocracy candidates and serve the community. In 2021, though, the authorities passed a new law requiring councilors to swear an oath of allegiance to the government.

CHAN: (Speaking Cantonese).

RUWITCH: Chan and others from the Democratic camp were soon stripped of their posts.

CHAN: (Speaking Cantonese).

RUWITCH: While he was unable to serve out his term officially, he says he kept his office open and did what he could for the community informally. Last year, he says he served out his term, paid his debt to his supporters. What he does next is up in the air.

CHAN: (Speaking Cantonese).

RUWITCH: He wants to stay engaged, but like Jason and Kimberly, he's had to scale back his ambitions.

CHAN: (Speaking Cantonese).

RUWITCH: He's now involved with a cat rescue organization in the suburban district of Taipo, where he lives.

CHAN: (Speaking Cantonese).

RUWITCH: He says it helps him get to know the people in his community, the better to serve them. But he knows any difference he makes now is going to be more modest than what many dreamed was possible just five years ago. John Ruwitch, NPR News, Hong Kong.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHAELEH'S "RED LIGHT GREEN LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
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