The voters began arriving just before noon on July 11. Soon a line of some two dozen people had formed, snaking past a nail salon and a beauty parlor lit with purple neon lights. The temperature outside was reaching into the 90s. The heat, coupled with Hong Kong’s summer humidity and the face masks to ward off Covid-19, made the narrow shopping arcade a welcome respite from the sun. Those waiting to cast their ballots tapped on their phones, reading about the candidates and chatting with each other, using their final minutes to settle on their picks. An elderly volunteer walked up and down the line answering questions.
The voting, which took place across the city, was largely a smooth, efficient process. The lines were orderly, and updates on the vote count—first tens, then hundreds of thousands of ballots cast—were announced on social media as day turned into evening. But the hints that this democratic experiment was not entirely official were hard to miss. No government employees tallied votes or checked IDs. Once they shuffled past the nail salon, voters in the Kennedy Town neighborhood popped in and out of My Secret, a cramped lingerie shop, casting their ballots surrounded by flesh-tone bras with oversized padded cups.
Over that day and the next, 610,000 people voted in the election, more than double earlier estimations of the turnout. (Hong Kong has some 4.6 million registered voters.) At its most basic, the vote was a primary to decide which pro-democracy candidates would stand in the territory’s formal elections in September. It was not part of the government-recognized election process and was organized instead by civil society groups. But in the context of China’s aggressive campaign to remake Hong Kong, even turning up to vote involved risk, and the strong showing became yet another sign that Hong Kongers refuse to give up their rights quietly.
Eleven days earlier, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, had signed a broad, catch-all national security law on instructions from Beijing. The law set out to, finally, bring mass pro-democracy protests to an end—something her own government has repeatedly tried and failed to do—and ensure they were unlikely to return by criminalizing dissent in the process. Lam, whose stubborn, politically misguided efforts to ram through a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China last year sparked the city’s worst modern political crisis, made perhaps her only significant contribution to the legislation with the few late night pen strokes of her signature. Crafted almost entirely by officials on the mainland, the law was imposed on a population that had no say in its contents.
The following day, Lam tried to reassure residents that the liberties they enjoyed would not be infringed upon, but those words, like many she has spoken since the crisis began last June, were empty. On the streets, the law had started taking effect, with its enforcers, the Hong Kong police, at the ready. During a protest against the legislation on July 1, a 15-year-old girl with a flag reading “I stand for Hong Kong independence” was taken by officers, and others were caught and arrested for carrying packs of bumper stickers. After a man flying a “Liberate Hong Kong” flag on the back of his motorcycle collided with police, he became the first person formally charged under the law. He faces counts of secession and terrorism, which carry life sentences, and has been denied bail twice.
With police deploying more preemptive methods to control protests and the pandemic discouraging crowds, street demonstrations atrophied. What it means to resist authoritarianism in the city has morphed, and the unofficial vote organized by the civil society groups emerged as a form of protest as powerful as taking to the streets.
Days before the unofficial primary, Lam’s government warned that the balloting could violate the national security law. Then, on the eve of the vote, the polling organization assisting with the effort was raided by police, who said the move was related to a hack of the group’s computers, an explanation widely viewed as a bald pretext. The government and police reaction to the vote may have galvanized interest in an exercise that initially had received only lukewarm interest. “Yellow shops”—the color denoting their support of the pro-democracy movement—became ad hoc polling stations, and for a brief moment the camaraderie of last year’s protests reemerged.
But this respite proved ephemeral during a summer that saw Hong Kong’s freedoms diminished by the day, sometimes by the hour. A dozen of the pro-democracy candidates who were victorious in the primary were barred from running in September on questionable grounds. Then, the day after their disqualification, the election itself was postponed for a year, with coronavirus as an excuse. Public health experts did not recommend the postponement, and human rights advocates pointed out that Hong Kong—a modern, wealthy city—could easily find socially distanced ways to hold the vote or even delay it for just a few weeks as New Zealand had done. The disqualifications and postponement have worked to almost completely erode the veneer of democracy over institutions that have long been tilted in favor of Beijing and its loyalists in the city.
In 2019 and early 2020, the government stood behind the police, looking to stamp out dissent through tear gas, rubber bullets, and mass arrests. Now, in place of this brute force approach, a more insidious, calculated reengineering of Hong Kong is underway. With the national security law in place, library books have been removed from shelves to be screened for offensive content, political slogans have been branded illegal, and a 19-year-old was pulled from his house on suspicion of inciting secession through his social media posts.
Prominent professors were sacked for their role in advocating for universal suffrage. Some activists have fled, seeking asylum in foreign countries, though authorities have made it clear they should not think of themselves as safe abroad—the law, they say, applies to everyone, everywhere, at all times. (The implication being that violations committed abroad could be cited to arrest citizens if they return.) Other dissidents announced they were stepping back from public life out of fear. A newspaper’s offices were raided, its outspoken founder paraded through his own newsroom in handcuffs.
Authorities have seized control of messaging groups popular with protesters and pinpointed schools as a place where political dissent must be rooted out. The government and police have undertaken an effort to blatantly rewrite the historical record of last year’s protests. Through it all, Lam’s administration insists that Hong Kong’s freedoms remain, but to believe this requires slipping on a pair of “Orwellian glasses,” one longtime newspaper columnist recently wrote.
The events, looked at one at a time, are alarming. Taken together they are stunning—the first, swift moves in what is an audacious, long-term plan to reshape Hong Kong, viewed by the Chinese Communist Party as the latest region at the fringes of mainland China— along with the likes Tibet and Xinjiang—where questionable loyalties must be brought under control. A campaign of social manipulation aims to fundamentally change the city, rewire its younger generations, and reach beyond the city’s borders to silence vocal critics.
On the mainland there are “very clear control mechanisms to ensure nothing will challenge the party,” says Carl Minzer, a professor of Chinese law and politics at Fordham University in New York, pointing to restrictions on internet, education, religion, and social movements. “It is pretty clear that this is coming for Hong Kong as well.”
Obituaries have been penned for Hong Kong before—most notably in 1997, when the British handed the territory back to China after more than 150 years of colonial rule, but the city carried on. This time, as before, “Hong Kong will not die as a city,” Martin Lee, one of the architects of the Basic Law, the territory’s mini-constitution and a stalwart of its fight for democracy, told WIRED recently. It will not be left empty and abandoned like the Rust Belt cities of America, its office buildings overrun with creeping vines. Nor will it be hollowed out like the post-war Syrian cities that once teemed with life and trade.
Yet if Beijing has its way, there will be no political graffiti, no thronging masses shouting slogans, no students-turned-activists with open invitations to Washington, no vigils for those persecuted by the Communist Party, no thoughtful essays in schools on the merits of peaceful resistance—only the remnants of what made this city one of the most boisterous and spirited in China, wedded to the ideals and promise of democracy, despite never having fully attained it may remain. “We hope that the next generation of Hong Kong youth are all party-loving and patriotic,” a top official in Beijing said as the law was unveiled. “We hope they have a bright future.” Hong Kong’s protests helped to shift the way the world perceives and deals with China, but now the question of just how the city’s pro-democracy fight can continue is the most pressing it has ever been.
Though last year’s demonstrations were decentralized, the ebbs and flows of the protests—constantly livestreamed and dissected on social media—gave rise not to leaders, but more to symbols of resistance. They fleetingly became recognizable faces among the masses—a blind protester who walked the demonstration routes listening to updates on a personal radio, a man in a yellow raincoat who fell to his death from a shopping mall while protesting, a grandmother brandishing a large colonial flag, who vanished, reportedly held by authorities over the border. Gwyneth Ho, 30, joined this pantheon not by choice, but rather as a result of journalistic inquisitiveness, the miscalculation that Hong Kong’s public spaces were protected from violence, and a bit of bad luck.
Ho was on summer holiday in Hong Kong. A journalist, she’d been in Amsterdam studying for a master’s degree in international relations when the city’s protests erupted. She quickly returned to her old job as a reporter, livestreaming and writing from the front lines for StandNews, a pro-democracy-leaning online outlet whose reports often irked the city’s politicians and Beijing backers.
On the night of July 21, Ho was heading to the city’s Sheung Wan neighborhood to take over for a colleague covering protesters who had converged around the Liaison Office, the central government’s headquarters in the city. But rumors had been circulating on messaging platforms that there could be an altercation in Yuen Long, an outlying town in the western New Territories that has a reputation as an insular community and a history of triad activity. Triads—organized criminal syndicates—have a lengthy history in Hong Kong and China of providing authorities with muscle for hire, doing the dirty work of brute intimidation when the state officially cannot.
Ho’s parents live in the area, and since she was going to take the subway to meet her colleague, she planned to have a look at the situation en route to her assignment. If there was any trouble, she wasn’t too worried. Fights and brawls happen on the streets, she assumed, and were something to kick off, she would be safe in the station, which was full of commuters and families and was connected to a suburban mall.
This plan was, in hindsight, based on a mistaken premise. As Ho arrived, dozens of men wearing white shirts and carrying wooden sticks, some adorned with the Chinese flag, were rampaging through the station itself, beating commuters and people standing on the train platforms. Rather than keeping the attackers out, the station’s turnstiles and gated exits helped to keep the victims in. Ho began to livestream the chaos, capturing the attacks as they unfolded. One man tried to flee from the mob, darting in a confused sprint like a hunted animal as blood streamed down his face. A lawmaker trapped on a train had his lip split open, requiring stitches. Ho continued to film as the violence played out around her.
Then, a man in a peach-colored shirt, the top buttons undone as if he was heading for a beach holiday, rushed from the turnstiles toward Ho lifting a wooden rod in the air and swinging it downward, striking her multiple times and sending her falling to the ground. From the tiled floor, she continued to film the man flailing violently above her. The attacks were a crisis within a crisis for the police and Hong Kong authorities. Trust in the police force, already weakened due to its increasingly violent tactics, vanished almost completely.
Despite hundreds of emergency calls, officers took more than half an hour to respond and appeared at one point to abandon the station, allowing the mob to act with impunity. Photographs shot by The New York Times showed police talking to the attackers and allowing them to leave, feeding suspicion of collusion between the force and suspected triad members. An investigation by RTHK, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, published a year later, found that undercover police were at the station but failed to stop the violence. Ho suffered a mild concussion. The symptoms lingered for two weeks.
Ho’s vivid report from Yuen Long made her a minor celebrity. When she returned to work, a crowd sometimes gathered around her, a mild annoyance for a journalist trying to stand back and observe. At the same time, police began taking a harder line against journalists, and Ho found that her ability to report was diminishing. Once able to film police charges and the ensuing, often violent, arrests, journalists were now kept at a distance by orange plastic tape.
She was reduced to filming blood on the streets and sidewalks but not the incidents that led to it. Earlier this year, she quit her job because, she says, she was no longer able to fulfill her “social obligation” as a reporter. She transitioned into politics, joining some of her previous interview subjects to run in the primary elections for a seat on the city’s legislative council. (She finished her master’s degree online.)
On the day she launched her campaign, Ho stood with a handful of volunteers outside a busy train station just before rush hour. A few people struggled to keep Ho’s banners from tipping over as the wind gusted through the covered walkway, and she gripped a microphone with both hands, lifted it to her black mask, and began her stump speech. A small gaggle of reporters came to cover the event, and once she finished, Ho paced back and forth, thrusting flyers toward people as they passed by. Her assessment of the political situation was grimly pragmatic, though she insisted it was not dark, just realistic. “We are already on the truck that is sending us to the execution ground,” she says.
Her campaign message was based more on continuing the protest movement from within government than traditional electoral promises. “We are not telling our voters, ‘Hey, vote for us and we will achieve the demands that you want,’ or ‘Hey, vote for us and we can pressure the government into giving in to our demands.’” she says. Such promises, she says, would be lies.
Ho was part of a loose alliance of younger politicians, whose ideas skewed more toward “localism”—a posture roughly rooted in promoting and protecting a Hong Kong identity and way of life separate from the mainland, though it has at times given rise to xenophobia, nativism, and ugly incidents of anti-mainland violence. Localism “includes a multitude of groups with different goals, ranging from advocating greater autonomy to independence for Hong Kong,” academic Ying-ho Kwong wrote in a paper examining the rise of the movement. “Most of them have developed a strong sense of local identity and object to growing political encroachment by the Beijing government into Hong Kong’s political, economic, and social affairs.”
Others in the loosely affiliated group included Winnie Yu, a nurse and chairwoman of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, which led a medical workers’ strike in February to force the government to take faster action against the pandemic, and Jimmy Sham, a protest organizer and gay rights campaigner who was physically attacked on multiple occasions last year.
Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, a former land activist and current lawmaker became—at 43, more than two decades older than its youngest members—the elder statesman of the group. Despite some minor controversies—printing her campaign banners at a shop owned by Beijing supporters and effusive praise from activist Joshua Wong that rankled some journalists—Ho won convincingly, capturing some 26,000 votes in the July primary. Yu, Sham, and Chu, as well as 13 others from their camp were victorious as well, sweeping aside more traditional pro-democracy candidates and setting the city up for the possibility of a wave of boisterous, youthful lawmakers who had little time for diplomatic pleasantries and a seemingly bottomless reserve of anger toward Beijing.
Their plan, dubbed the 35-plus strategy, was hatched by legal scholar turned pro-democracy tactician Benny Tai and was audacious in its forthrightness. Protesters a year earlier laid siege to the city’s legislative council building, breaking through its glass doors and windows from outside, before storming the chamber. Now, they planned to use September’s elections to win, as the title suggested, 35 or more seats, seizing control of the city’s main political mechanism from the inside. Then they would set about upending the lawmaking and governance mechanisms, monkey-wrenching the system to “initiate a political crisis,” Ho says. “We are heading to a very dark period,” she added, her message and tone somewhat undercut as she paused to snap a picture of a dainty slice of cake shaped like a wedge of cheese.
It was a high-stakes gambit against an opponent, the Chinese Communist Party, that has for the past seven decades ensured its dominance through control, intimidation, and rule-rigging. The approach fits with the “laam caau” philosophy adopted by more radical protesters last year. The Cantonese phrase, drawn from gambling lingo, suggests a strategy of shared destruction, a sort of Pyrrhic victory that, while damaging Hong Kong, strikes a blow to city leaders and Beijing as well. The idea, for its most fervent adherents, is distilled in the slogan “If we burn, you burn with us.”
With majority control, Tai argued, lawmakers could wield their “most lethal constitutional weapon” and take drastic actions, like withholding approval of the city’s budget, thus forcing Lam to resign. In the most extreme circumstance, Beijing could intervene and dissolve the legislative council altogether—laying bare to the world that the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong has been ruled since it was handed back to China from Britain in 1997 has become irreparably broken.
Ho studied in Beijing at the prestigious Tsinghua University, starting classes in 2008, a time when Chinese society writ large remained marginally more open. In Hong Kong, boosted by the spectacle of the Olympic games that summer, the mainland was viewed favorably by most. Trust in the central government among city residents was at a high, as was the number of people who identified as Chinese, rather than Hong Kongers.
Ho is largely agnostic in her feelings toward her time in the mainland, though she found academic life and Chinese civil society vibrant. But by the time she finished university, president Hu Jintao had been succeeded by the more authoritarian Xi Jinping, whose censorship, particularly of technology platforms that had briefly given people an outlet of expression, became more heavy-handed. “China today is completely different from the China I knew,” she says.
A few days after the primary results in July, sitting at a café and picking at a plate of french fries, Ho was excited but reserved, tired from campaigning and doubtful that she would even be allowed to run in September. The legislative council had for decades provided the illusion of a semblance of democracy. Less than half of the seats are elected; the others are reserved for functional constituencies—industries like catering and accounting—that are elected by members of the respective fields and skew heavily towards Beijing supporters. But in 2016, the government started disqualifying pro-democracy candidates and ejecting others who were already elected, narrowing one of the few spaces for people to express their political will. (Hong Kong’s chief executive is not directly elected but handpicked by a committee of 1,200 electors and from a pool preselected by Beijing.)
The legislative council complex sits near Victoria Harbor, and lawmakers’ offices have dazzling views of the skyline in Kowloon and the iconic green and white boats of the Star Ferry chugging across the busy waterway. But Ho and the other pro-democracy candidates (they were still settling on an English title for the informal camp) saw the building as little more than an elaborate prop, complete with “designated demonstration areas,” where people are free to voice dissenting opinions as long as it is done between the hours of 7 am and 11 pm.
The key for Beijing, and the government, is not to do away with pro-democracy lawmakers altogether, Ho explained. That would be far too obvious and smack of an outright dictatorship. Rather, they would continue to use the pro-democracy minority as a token of a political system that respects the will of the people—a system that, in reality, ensures the fix is in for Beijing.
Moderate pro-democracy lawmakers, who had for years preached cooperation, compromise, and bipartisanship with their pro-Beijing counterparts, were, in the eyes of more radical pro-democracy advocates, the political equivalent of the Washington Generals—always showing up and always losing. “Of course they don’t want to eliminate all the opposition,” Ho says. “They want you to become the loyal opposition.” To avoid this, lawmakers needed to avoid the trap of becoming complacent and lulled by ideas of compromise and half measures. To be successful, the aspiring lawmakers needed to adopt the “Be water” methods employed by protesters that made them so hard to put down. They needed to “not be controllable,” Ho says, to “initiate a political crisis.”
Others aiming for office agreed with her.
By the time she was taken to the hospital in early December 2014, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education, Wong Ji Yuet’s weight had dwindled to just 84 pounds, the result of the then 18-year-old’s participation in a hunger strike as part of the Umbrella Movement protests. The demonstrations brought parts of Hong Kong to a standstill and introduced the world to a group of young student activists.
Wong was a member of Scholarism, a student group cofounded in 2011 by the then little-known and 14-year-old Joshua Wong to protest the government’s plans for a national education curriculum, which they saw as tantamount to Communist Party brainwashing. The protests against the education changes, which galvanized students, teachers, and parents, were ultimately successful, and the plans were put on hold. A few years later, many of the same young demonstrators would be leading figures in the Umbrella Movement, whose images of uniformed students studying while occupying major roads drew international praise but few tangible results.
When the Umbrella Movement fizzled out in December 2014, activism in Hong Kong waned. Scholarism disbanded two years later. Wong continued studying for her fine art degree, an effort that has been put on hold twice while she focused full time on activism. People were exhausted and disheartened. “Society was very quiet, people were not responding to politics,” she says of the time following 2014. “People needed some time to think.” The anti-extradition bill protests last year provided the missing catalyst, bringing to the streets many people who had been decidedly apolitical in the past as well as reinvigorating activists like Wong.
She joined the demonstrations and was arrested in November along with hundreds of other protesters as they took part in an ill-fated bid to free fellow demonstrators who had holed up in the campus of Polytechnic University, launching Molotov cocktails and bricks at police officers attempting to root them out. One police officer was shot through the leg with an arrow. The effort was unsuccessful; protesters outside the campus never broke through the police lines.
After a nearly two-week siege, officers rounded up more than a 1,000 people from inside the university, leaving some people wondering if abandoning their fast-moving, fluid protest strategy in order to occupy a fixed position had been a strategic blunder. There was no arguing that it cost the movement its most dedicated fighters and, crucially, their smartphones, providing the police with a wealth of intelligence in the process.
Wong, 22, was charged with rioting. Rather than step back and wait to see how her case might play out, she seized on the arrest as a badge of authenticity and aimed to win a seat in the legislative council. Her campaign flyers showed her dressed in black and wearing a yellow construction helmet, a respirator with magenta-colored filters dangling around her neck, and her face smudged with soot. People, Wong said, no longer wanted lawmakers they could just have a conversation with. They wanted people “who will stand with them on the street together,” she told WIRED.
Wong’s trial on rioting charges has not started, but the possibility of a 10-year jail term—the maximum for the offense—hung over her as she sat in her campaign office, a small studio in a commercial building serviced by oversize industrial elevators that clanged menacingly on their way up to the 16th floor. Wong saw herself and the city as ensnared in the same predicament, facing dark forces and the possibility of a loss of freedom—hers in a jail cell, the city’s by the ever-increasing pressure from Beijing. “For me and Hong Kong,” she says, “our fate is mostly the same.”
The fate of Hong Kong is something that Owen Chow would like to speak about, but he isn’t sure if, legally, he can or should. “It is time to show that we are a Hong Kong nation, not a Chinese nation,” Chow says as he sits in a small, minimalist coffee shop in the Sai Ying Pun neighborhood, occasionally glancing down at notes he and a member of his team had typed out on his phone in preparation for the interview. Chow, a fourth-year nursing student, was by most estimates, including his own, the most radical of the candidates vying for office, advocating for what he describes as “Hong Kong nationalism.” The “one country, two systems” model is broken, Chow, 23, says. It exists only in name as a shield for the Hong Kong government and only benefits Beijing. It needs to be disrupted, then replaced.
When pressed on how this might be done or what might take its place, Chow is extremely cautious and says he can’t elaborate. It isn’t that he doesn’t have ideas, but he is fearful that what he says could be used against him to disqualify his candidacy or, worse, land him in jail for violating the national security law. (While I was researching this story, one person suggested speaking to Chow, but said, only half jokingly, I should do it quickly, before he was arrested.) The government has blamed much of the political unrest on those advocating independence for Hong Kong, though this remains a small minority of people, and one of the four areas the sweeping law targets is secession. The law, he says, was a “declaration of war,” not just on Hong Kong but on the “free world.”
The next week, in late July, Chow was collecting signatures to formally submit his nomination to run in September at a busy cross street as the sun started to sink below rows of densely packed apartment buildings. A police van lingered nearby. Officers had earlier stopped by a folding table set up by Chow to check his identification, though he and his supporters wrote this off as routine harassment.
He was joined by volunteers, mostly university students who sat behind another table across the road to avoid violating social-distancing regulations. Most were young male university students, all wearing bright orange T-shirts. (The color was chosen because different campaigns had already snatched up other hues, leaving Chow with limited options. It helped, he says, that Lam, the chief executive, is known to greatly dislike the color.) Some, like Walter Tse, a bookish architecture student, had been arrested during the protests and faced numerous charges. Unable to continue fighting on the streets, he threw his energy behind Chow’s campaign.
On another corner, volunteers were collecting signatures for James Tien, an ultra-wealthy businessman and former lawmaker looking to return to politics by forging a middle path that leaned toward Beijing. The opposing teams of volunteers were within shouting distance of each other, but the political gulf and life experiences between the two candidates was vast and provided an illuminating look into the city’s divides and democratic stagnation.
Because Hong Kong’s British colonial government lacked the legitimacy of a popularly elected government, and much of the city’s power resided in the private sector, “it sought to co-opt this business elite instead,” Stefan Ortmann, an assistant professor at Hong Kong’s City University, wrote of the city’s democratic struggle. “The political development of Hong Kong also reflected this close marriage as key members of the private sector were always assured of significant political influence through appointment.”
This tightly intertwined relationship between tycoons and the government continued after 1997. The popular vote still does not exist. Most of the business elites have consistently sided with Beijing against further democratization, fearing it could usher in reforms that would erode their significant power and wealth.
The city’s previous chief executive, C. Y. Leung, spelled out these fears plainly in October 2014. “If it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you’d be talking to the half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month,” Leung said at the time. His remarks were reported in a Wall Street Journal story bluntly headlined “Hong Kong Leader Warns Poor Would Sway Vote.”
This situation has not only stymied the democratization process but also created vast inequality in the city, with James Tien and OwenChow sitting on opposite sides of the schism. Tien’s father was a business tycoon who came to Hong Kong from the mainland and made a fortune in steel and then textiles, prospering off the city’s rapid growth before making his way into politics. James’ younger brother, Michael, is a pro-Beijing lawmaker—a member of the National People’s Congress and owner of the apparel company G2000—who voted in favor of the national security law at Beijing’s rubber-stamp parliament.
Tien had an independent streak that had cost him his own position in the National People’s Congress and often put him at odds with more hardline figures, but—at least to Chow's supporters—his fondness for horse racing (and the Order of the British Empire honorific tacked onto his name) smacked of elitism and the type of politics of appeasement that come with it. Chow and his volunteers scoffed at his efforts to pitch himself as a moderate and said his running mate, once a radical political student, was a turncoat.
Chow, in contrast, was the youngest and only son of what he described as a “grassroots” family, a polite euphemism employed by the government to describe poor families, an effort to hide the uncomfortable reality of the city’s yawning wealth gap hidden just out of sight behind skyscrapers and its status as an international financial hub. The Umbrella Movement’s slogans and spirit of social change piqued his interest, offering ideas of how his and his family’s life could improve.
But his positivity and hopefulness faded as he saw the government’s wholesale rebuff of the demonstrators’ demands. Two years later, in 2016, localist activists led a protest that turned violent, leading to lengthy prison sentences for some of its leaders, while others took refuge in Germany. After the letdown of 2014, the Mong Kok riot of 2016, and the impotent protests of 2019, Chow found himself agreeing with Wong: “The old way of fighting for democracy,” she says, “is not enough.”
At 83, Martin Lee has played a role in nearly every iteration of the city’s push for full democratic rights. Before Ho, Chow, and Wong were even born, Lee helped to draft the city’s mini-constitution, as the British and Chinese leadership engaged in years-long negotiations over how Hong Kong should be governed after 156 years of colonialism. In 1997, when the handover was finalized, Prince Charles in his private writings mused that the British had “left Hong Kong to her fate, and the hope that Martin Lee, the leader of the Democrats, would not be arrested.”
It took perhaps a little longer than Prince Charles anticipated. But in April, Lee, a barrister, was arrested as part of a broader sweep against Hong Kong’s most esteemed stalwarts of the democratic struggle.
In an interview, Lee was more guarded and cautious than the younger set of activists. Concerned about a spike in coronavirus cases in late July and the risk posed by his age, he preferred to speak by phone. He first called on WhatsApp to ask about what topics would be covered, so he could ensure he would not breach the national security law. “I’ve lived in Hong Kong my whole life. I’d like to continue living here,” he said with a laugh that momentarily distracted from the seriousness of the fate that could befall him, and his disproportionate exposure.
He then hung up and called back a few minutes later from another encrypted application—but once he did, he was not short on words. He spent nearly two hours over the course of two phone calls, recounting a boyhood shaped by shifting geopolitics (“running from place to place”), his disappointments with China (“Hong Kong people were never allowed to be masters of our own house”), and the state of the universal suffrage movement that he helped created (“democracy never arrived”).
Lee’s path has frequently set him butting up against the Chinese Communist Party, and today he is one of their chief scapegoats, blamed for inspiring an unruly, ungrateful, and unpatriotic new generation of Hong Kong activists that has made the city so hard to control. This began, as Lee tells it, in 1941 with a hasty dash out of Hong Kong. As the city appeared poised to fall to Japanese forces that year, Lee’s mother loaded him into a basket and his brother into another one. They were then carried over the border into the mainland on foot by a porter, a bamboo rod balanced across the man’s shoulders with a child-laden basket on each end.
Lee’s father was a lieutenant general in the Kuomintang, the nationalist Chinese army, and his family spent the next eight years in southern China. But when the communist takeover of China began in 1949, Lee and his family fled back south to Hong Kong on what was, according to Lee, the final flight out of the mainland. He says his father secured the tickets through his friendship with an official at the airline who Lee described as his father’s “sworn brother.” Lee wouldn’t return to mainland China again for more than three decades.
In Hong Kong, Lee attended a Jesuit school, then studied at the University of Hong Kong before heading to London to study law. In many ways, Lee, with his British accent, was an embodiment of Hong Kong’s popular, if oversimplified, ethos: a global city that served as a bridge between China and the world. When visiting China in 1982, Lee, who was then chairman of the Bar Association, was surprised when he was asked by officials in Beijing to give his opinion on how Hong Kong should be ruled after 1997. Lee’s response was elliptical but still infuriated his hosts: “If you see a beautiful rose blooming in your neighbor’s garden and you pluck it,” Lee recounted telling Chinese officials, “you bring it home and put it in your beautiful vase, what happens to that rose a few days later?”
The shape and size of Lee’s eyeglasses changed over the years, but his dedication to the idea that Hong Kong people should directly elect their leader remained steadfast. “No compromise,” he told WIRED. “In some ways I follow the character of my father.” Lee founded the United Democrats, and just a year later, in 1991, the party and its allies nearly swept the city’s first direct legislative elections, taking 16 of 18 seats.
Lee also made himself into perhaps Hong Kong’s most notable international figure, crisscrossing the globe to meet with politicians and world leaders as he lobbied and stumped for support of the democracy movement. For his efforts he was also branded as an enemy of Beijing, the target of constant mockery and ridicule by Chinese state media that continues today.
But as the date of Hong Kong’s handover drew closer, Lee’s premonitions about Hong Kong’s future became darker. In a 1995 interview with The New York Times, he warned of what he believed would befall the city two years later. “We'll have no rule of law," he told the newspaper. “Press freedom will be the first casualty, and if there is no press freedom, no other freedom is safe.”
Lee’s views appeared at the time to be hyperbolic. British flags came down, Chinese flags went up, but for many in Hong Kong life continued largely unchanged. The pro-Beijing, pro-democracy, and big business parties sparred but remained cordial. Lee, for his pessimism, couldn’t help but see some positivity, perhaps nostalgia, in the political system despite the numerous flaws he loudly complained about. “For some time,” he says. “it worked so beautifully.”
As key deadlines passed, calls for reform were ignored, and officials in Beijing waved away agreements regarding Hong Kong as nothing more than historical documents, Lee seemed out of step with the more combative elements of the pro-democracy movement he had been instrumental in creating. Lee, often referred to as the “father of Democracy,” was forced in 2013 to retract and apologize for a proposed plan for chief executive poll reform, highlighting the rifts in the pro-democracy camp. As once-fringe views like localism moved into the mainstream, Lee remained committed to a form of optimistic pragmatism. Younger activists scoffed at what they saw as his naivete.
After his April arrest, Lee said he was relieved and proud to have joined the more than 9,000 people taken into custody. He told WIRED he understood why many had resorted to more aggressive protest tactics: “If you are one of those demonstrators, you would say, wouldn’t you, ‘Well, when Martin Lee and his people fought for democracy, always in a peaceful way, nobody listened to them. The government completely ignored them because it was love and peace.’”
Clearly ambivalent, Lee said he didn’t believe their tactics were right. “So, how can they continue to fight for democracy in a peaceful manner anymore? How can I blame them? I still do not agree with them. I still think that you should do it the Martin Luther King Jr. way or the Gandhi way. That is the most powerful way.”
“As long as there are elections, there is room for you to remind people that there are people who are still fighting,” Ho told WIRED in mid-July, days after she won the informal primary. “The movement is not over.”
A few weeks later, the news of the first disqualified candidate emerged on social media, followed by another and another and another. By the end of the evening, a dozen had been barred from running by election officials, including Ho. In rejecting Ho, the officer overseeing the election wrote that she was not convinced Ho’s answers to questions regarding upholding the Basic Law were “genuine.” The response at times bordered on attempts at telepathy. “I am of the view that the candidate has all along maintained a stance to object in principle the enactment of the National Security Law,” the officer wrote, adding that Ho’s statements to the contrary were an “obvious sham.”
Even a mild-mannered accountant, elected for two terms by a group of his peers to represent the industry, was barred from running again. His offense? He traveled last year to the US to learn about possible American sanctions on Hong Kong. While he opposed the sanctions, an official said, the accountant was not vocal enough in his criticisms of the US policy. Thus, he played a “supporting or assistive role” in calling for the punitive measures, which were imposed personally on Lam and 10 other leaders last month.
Chow and Wong had yet to turn in their nomination forms, so they were spared from the culling, but ultimately that wouldn’t matter. On July 31, Lam made her way to a media briefing room in the government complex. The reporters gathered for the briefing—and many members of the general public watching and listening—knew what was coming. Pro-Beijing media outlets had been reporting that Lam would postpone the elections, citing the pandemic.
After a lengthy introduction, Lam explained that pushing the polls back by two week intervals might be seen as an abuse of power. Instead they would not be held for a full year, despite the city’s deft handling of the pandemic. (The city of 7.5 million has had only about 5,000 cases and 102 deaths.) Lam admitted she had not consulted with health experts in coming to her conclusion. To pull off the postponement, she enacted a colonial-era emergency ordinance. In announcing the delay, Lam said it was the “hardest decision” she had made in the past seven months.
According to Ho, the government’s calculus was simple. The turnout at the primary foreshadowed massive, embarrassing losses for the pro-Beijing camp at the elections. Even the disqualifications had little prospect of stopping the momentum of the pro-democracy camp, as stand-ins for candidates likely would have garnered equal support as those they replaced.
The only way for the government to save itself was to call off the elections. In doing so, Ho said over a plate of mushroom risotto at a café wedged between budget hotels and massage parlors, the city’s pseudo-democracy had been badly exposed. The government’s move, Ho said, had proved what protesters have been saying for nearly a year and a half. “This game that Hong Kong has played,” Ho said “has been totally ripped apart.”
Last week, on what would have been election day, hundreds of people responded to online posts calling for a march to mark the day. Participants melded with Sunday shopping crowds, everyone partially disguised by the now mandatory masks. It was difficult to tell who had arrived specifically to take part, who decided to join in because they were there, and those who had no interest. People walked the sidewalks, sporadically breaking into protest chants and spilling into the streets.
The momentum, collective energy, and macabre humor of past protests—one man dressed himself as a voting booth—was resurgent. Police, apparently struggling with the camouflaged dissidents, cordoned off entire blocks, kettling dozens of people who were searched. Officers unleashed torrents of pepper balls into crowds seemingly at random, appearing frustrated, like boxers flailing at a quicker, craftier opponent. Undercover cops tackled people, dragging them across the pavement as they doused onlookers with pepper spray. A rangy 12-year-old girl who was frightened by police and attempted to dash away was bull-rushed by officers, body checked, and pinned to the ground. Police arrested nearly 300 people by the end of the day. Ho was stopped and searched but allowed to leave.
A few days later, after news broke that a dozen Hong Kongers had been detained by mainland officials trying to flee to Taiwan by boat, Ho thought about the question regarding the future of Hong Kong. Was it finished? “We have heard the sentence, ‘This is the death of Hong Kong,’ every three days for the past 10 years,” she said mockingly. Then, after a few beats, she added, “I agree Hong Kong is dead, but we are not at the very bottom of hell yet. There is still a long way to go.”
I have wondered at times what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the US Congress.