Nothing animates the Hong Kongers I’ve been talking with as much as that final demand. Yesterday, the police shot one protester in the stomach at point-blank range, and another police officer drove into the protesters with his motorcycle, weaving into the crowd to circle back again. Later in the day, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, gave a press conference and, in chilling language, called the protesters the “enemy of the people.” She was voted into office by 777 people from the 1,200-person “Election Committee,” many of whose members are businesspeople with close ties to mainland China. It’s fair to describe her as handpicked by Beijing. Polls in October showed her popularity around 22 percent, with just over one in 10 Hong Kongers saying that they would vote for her voluntarily. No wonder the protesters want the right to elect their own leaders.
It’s not that the protests haven’t taken a toll on the protesters. Many are tired. Some surveys suggest that more than 80 percent of the people of Hong Kong may have been exposed to tear gas—an astonishing figure. Some neighborhoods close to protest sites have been so repeatedly drowned in the noxious clouds that the protesters held a rally on behalf of their pets. “I can’t put a mask on my dog,” one resident tearfully explained to me, as others distributed posters of puppies and kittens in protest gear: wearing helmets and masks, and holding bottles of Pocari Sweat, the electrolyte mixture that has become the unofficial drink of the protests. (Electrolyte drinks are great if you are walking long distances in humid weather, as so many in Hong Kong do almost every weekend.)
Almost every protest results in videos of protesters being beaten by the police. Many are live-streamed, to horrified viewers. Thousands have been arrested. Fearful accounts are coming out of the police stations, alleging torture, sexual assault, and rape. On Telegram, many protesters claim that some recent suicides are actually murders by the police that have been disguised as suicides. (It’s not clear whether these claims are anything more than just rumors, misinformation, or a tendency to believe the worst.) When being arrested, it is not unusual for protesters to shout their name, in the hopes of lawyers and family being able to reach them, and some yell that they are in no way suicidal. If they aren’t heard from again, they want to make sure it’s clear who’s to blame.
I often ask protesters whether they fear the consequences of showing up to these protests. Many of my interviews are interrupted: by tear gas and pepper spray, by police lines marching toward us, by the water-cannon truck. The seasoned protesters are less and less afraid of the tear gas. Some wear tear-gas masks, but risk a year in jail just for that, or even a riot charge, which carries a potential 10-year sentence. Some wear flimsy surgical masks, which may help conceal their identity, but don’t do anything for the burning sensation in their eyes, throat, and lungs. They cough, they run, they wash their eyes with saline or water, and they go on. They do, however, fear being kidnapped or killed.