Three months into the longest social movement in Hong Kong’s history, violence between rival camps, protesters and police has escalated.
For protesters on the front lines of the demonstrations since early June, July 1 marked a turning point for the movement when hundreds of protesters stormed Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building.
That night, Brian Leung, one of the movement’s most outspoken leaders, famously took off his mask and delivered a speech inside the legislative chamber. Many people thought he took a big risk, but he said it was the right thing to do.
“I knew the act of storming the Legislative Council would be very divisive to the movement, and in order to justify our actions, I knew someone had to step up and channel the momentum into a good direction,” Leung told DW.
Leung said he wasn’t nervous when taking off his mask to give a speech in front of dozens of journalists. But a few days after his identity was exposed by several media outlets, he realized it was no longer safe for him to remain in Hong Kong and decided to leave for the US.
“After making such a bold decision, I wanted to give myself the space to think about the best option for me going forward, but this space didn’t exist in Hong Kong,” Leung said. “I chose to leave.”
Widespread arrests of protesters
Since July 1, at least 79 Hong Kong protesters have been charged with rioting, a crime that carries a jail sentence of up to 10 years.
Out of fear that they would be imprisoned under arbitrary charges imposed by the government, some demonstrators have been forced to leave Hong Kong. Additionally, Hong Kong police carried out a wave of mass arrests on August 30, targeting several prominent pro-democracy activists including Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow.
Leung said that these trends are a sign that Hong Kong’s judicial system has become a tool for the government to suppress the right to assembly. “The legal definition for rioting is extremely broad, and the law basically gives the judiciary a lot of discretion in terms of defining what constitutes rioting,” Leung said. “Hong Kong’s legal system has been used by the government to repress human rights and freedom.”
Youth leader threatened
Other prominent demonstrators have faced physical violence. Davin Wong, the former acting president of the University of Hong Kong’s student union, was attacked by a masked man in a white shirt while waiting for a bus on August 30.
Wong said the attacker hit his neck and left shoulder with a cane. Because there were two other men waiting at the bus stop at the time, Wong believes the attack was planned.
“When I was attacked, there were two other men next to me,” Wong told DW. “Since two other prominent activists were also attacked the day before, I realized I was targeted by a more organized campaign.”
Fearing that he would be attacked again, Wong said he was forced to book a “one-way trip” out of Hong Kong.
In his resignation letter to the school and the student union, Wong said he “will never forgive himself for leaving Hong Kong at such a critical time” and that he didn’t seek help from the police because he didn’t think they could guarantee his personal safety.
Since Wong left Hong Kong, violent clashes between government supporters and anti-extradition bill protesters have flared up repeatedly across the city. Wong said the police have been handling these situations in a “biased” manner.
“The biased actions of the Hong Kong police force have only made the situation worse,” Wong said. “People have less confidence in the police.”
Protesting from abroad
Even though it’s been two months since Leung left Hong Kong, he has not stopped following and contributing to the movement from abroad. He said he notices a growing trend of prominent individuals being targeted, and some of them forced to leave Hong Kong as a result.
“In the short run, we might continue to see the young and bright minds of the city being forced to leave, and in the long run, the world might gradually realize that Hong Kong is no longer normal and free,” Leung said.
Leung stressed that the international community should also pay attention to activists who have been forced into exile. To him, these cases represent the collective challenges that the younger generation of Hong Kongers has to face. “You either go to jail or you go into exile,” Leung said. “I think these two choices will become more and more pervasive for Hong Kong’s younger generation.”
‘Giving up means giving up on free society’
While it’s unlikely that Leung and Wong will return to Hong Kong in the near future, they both believe they can keep contributing to the pro-democracy movement from afar.
Leung thinks Hong Kongers abroad need to step up and explain the situation in Hong Kong to the international community.
“We can’t just assume that the international community knows about the situation in Hong Kong, so I want to use my role abroad to contribute to the movement,” he said.
Leung hopes people around the world can understand that what’s happening in Hong Kong is important for the entire world.
“In a way, giving up on Hong Kong is giving up on free societies, so I think safeguarding Hong Kong is still very valuable to the international community,” said Leung.
Even though leaving Hong Kong was an inevitable choice for Wong, he hasn’t lost faith in the pro-democracy movement or in Hong Kong’s future.
“Since Hong Kong is in an all-or-nothing situation, I and most Hong Kong protesters know the only way to prevent the movement from dying in vain is to have faith in it,” Wong said.