For Hong Kong protesters such as Paul, the past few weeks have been busy. The 28-year-old social work student has attended a series of mass rallies across the city that have plunged the territory into its worst political crisis since the handover from British to Chinese rule more than two decades ago.
“It’s unclear how much longer these protests will go on for,” he said. “I guess for as long as we have reasons to protest.” Paul declined to provide his full name to protect his identity like most of the protesters who spoke to the Financial Times for this article.
Weeks of demonstrations were sparked by an extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China to stand trial. The proposed law has been suspended by Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, but the demonstrators are demanding its full withdrawal.
On Sunday, demonstrators escalated their attacks on China, defacing one of Beijing’s main government offices in the city with graffiti and pelting it with eggs. The rally ended in a tense stand-off with police, who used tear gas against a group of hardcore demonstrators.
The motives behind the protests have also extended well beyond the extradition bill to become an outlet for a series of grievances: anger at a broken political system; a lack of economic opportunities; and growing distrust of mainland China, a country it is technically part of under a “one country, two systems” model.
The frustration has been building since the Umbrella Movement in 2014, when tens of thousands of mostly young Hong Kongers camped on the streets in a bid to pressure Beijing to allow fully democratic elections in the territory.
Those protests were crushed. City leaders have since imprisoned the leaders of the movement, clamped down on freedoms, blocked opposition politicians from contesting elections and disqualified elected pro-democracy lawmakers for not taking their oaths of allegiance to China seriously enough.
“You can disqualify lawmakers who were elected by the people but that doesn’t mean the people who voted for them and their voices don’t exist any more,” said Tinki Lo, a 19-year-old law student.
Political commentator Sonny Lo said the government had failed to understand or manage the simmering resentment. “The Legislative Council has failed completely as an institution that is supposed to bridge the communication gap between the ruling elites and the ordinary people,” he said.
“Young people are very discontented with the system — they find it unfair,” added Anthony Cheung, a former secretary for transport and housing and now a professor at the Education University of Hong Kong. “They feel they have no say over their future and the system just props up vested interests.”
That sense of hopelessness is cited as one reason why some young protesters have resorted to violence, beginning with the storming of the city’s legislature on July 1.
“Many people have criticised us as being ruthlessly violent, just venting our anger, but we aren’t — rather, we are strongly denouncing the government,” said TC, a second-year psychology student. He said that he and his friends put up signs around parliament telling other protesters to protect books and artefacts, and only destroyed the seats of pro-Beijing lawmakers.
Many young people are also frustrated by the high cost of housing and a lack of social mobility in the city. Hong Kong has been the world’s least affordable property market for the past nine years, according to social policy group Demographia. The territory’s wealthiest earned 44 times more than its poorest in 2018, according to Oxfam, up from 29 times in 2016.
“The needs of Hong Kong’s youth have not been fulfilled,” said Derek Liu, a 21-year-old student, who added that having a good place to live, a stable job and a decent income were essential. “If you don’t have them, you will find a way to change society.”
The deterioration of political freedoms in mainland China has also increased the resentment many Hong Kongers feel towards Beijing. In the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, more than half of the people in Hong Kong surveyed said they felt a sense of pride about the rise of China and self-identified as a Chinese or a Chinese in Hong Kong, according to a poll by the University of Hong Kong. This percentage has fallen to less than a quarter of people today.
Most young people now see themselves as Hong Kongers first and view Beijing’s actions as a threat to their identity. The extradition bill pushed many to reflect on what might happen to them if they were sent to the mainland, shining a light on China’s human rights violations — some of the graffiti left by protesters when they stormed the Legislative Council related to Xinjiang, where an estimated 1m Muslims have been detained in “re-education camps”.
“The amendment bill has been a kind of trigger. I’ve realised Hong Kong is no longer what I thought it was,” said Sharon, a first-year journalism student. “At this point, I’ve come to realise the Chinese Communist party is eating away at Hong Kong’s core values and trying to make our identities as Hong Kongers vanish.”