Peter, a 19-year-old student, shouts “Hong Kong independence!” at people on a crowded escalator in a shopping mall. The pro-democracy protesters, masquerading as shoppers to avoid police attention, immediately complete the slogan, responding: “The only way out”.
The gangly youth was one of thousands of pro-democracy protesters who tried to hold their annual march to mark the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from the UK to China on July 1.
Tensions were higher this year because less than 24 hours earlier, Beijing had imposed a tough national security law on the territory designed to crush the movement. Despite the law, many remain defiant. “If we shut up then we lose completely,” said Peter, as police swept through the area, arresting hundreds of people.
Demonstrators in their teens and early 20s have made up the bulk of Hong Kong’s anti-government protesters and the more than 9,000 people arrested since the movement first coalesced last June around opposition to a bill allowing the extradition of suspects to mainland China.
They are now also among those most at risk from the new law, which metes out penalties including life imprisonment for the vaguely defined crimes of subversion, inciting secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign elements. This is because they have embraced the idea that is most reprehensible to Beijing — independence for Hong Kong from China.
Beijing has wasted no time cracking down. On Wednesday, police made the first arrest under the new law of a man carrying a Hong Kong independence flag. On Friday, Beijing announced that the head of the city’s new office of national security, whose agents would have immunity from local prosecution. Police also laid the first charges under the legislation for terrorism, and the Hong Kong government formally banned one of the protesters’ main slogans: “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our time!”
Mark, a tall 18-year-old student and frontline protester since last year, said demonstrators would need to adapt if they were to continue to gain international attention for their cause.
He said that police tactics had already changed since the pro-democracy protests began a year ago. Officers have become quicker to arrest demonstrators before they can mass in large numbers. Last year, up to 2m people took to the streets for individual protests. “The price to pay for street protests is much higher,” said Mark.
He said he would no longer carry any “pro-independence” materials to demonstrations but would instead post stickers at night. He was also ready to flee to Taiwan if he felt his personal safety was at risk.
Another teenage protester, 17-year-old Bosco, who was awaiting the results of his university entrance exam, said he was confident that the international community would confront mainland China on Hong Kong. The US has threatened sanctions against Chinese individuals who promote the law but has yet to name them.
“If we have US support, we still have hope. If the US abandons us, then we will be screwed,” he told the Financial Times. He was sitting in a café, once decked in Post-it notes supporting the movement. Those have now been removed for fear of violating the security law.
Staring at the remaining scraps of paper on the wall, Bosco said his parents wanted him to study in Taiwan. “I don’t want to leave. My friends, my family and everything are still in Hong Kong,” he said. His comments echoed those of other young protesters who feared losing their language and culture if they became political refugees.
If he did flee overseas, he would join some of Hong Kong’s most prominent activists. Joshua Wong, the face of the city’s pro-democracy protests in 2014, this week disbanded the political group he co-founded, while his colleague, Nathan Law, a former student protester-turned-legislator, fled the city to continue lobbying the international community.
Stephanie, 22, a university researcher with her hair dyed gold, said that very young, less educated protesters had put too much faith in international support, which was often based on foreign governments’ financial interests.
She said she feared for younger protesters, who lacked the funds to escape the city and did not understand the “real” consequences of their actions. “They are simple. They just think about what is right and wrong . . . but politics is sometimes more complicated,” she said, as she rubbed her face anxiously.
One 30-year-old lawyer at an international firm said she and some colleagues had attended a protest last year, hiding their identities to avoid upsetting mainland Chinese clients. But she said the mood had shifted among her circle of young professionals. “The feeling is: ‘It’s out of our hands so what’s the point?’ It’s a little bit like giving up.”
The territory is set to face even sterner challenges to its traditions of press and academic freedom and the independence of the civil service, said Ray Yep, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong.
“The free Hong Kong we know, I’m afraid we may not see it again,” Prof Yep said. “But the future very much depends on what Beijing will do next and . . . how the international community, and particularly the US, will respond to that.”