News2Share digital correspondent and photojournalist Alejandro Alvarez spent eight days reporting on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, leading up to the People’s Republic of China’s 70th anniversary on Oct. 1. Read reflections on his trip below.
I don’t remember exactly when it dawned on me that the movement I’d been sent to cover in Hong Kong felt less like your run-of-the-mill protest and more like an aspiring rebellion. But between generations of Hongkongers young and old chanting “revolution our times,” it certainly felt like something that was years in the making, with repercussions that are sure to reverberate for decades to come.
I was a college sophomore when the 2014 pro-democracy protests first kicked off in Central, one of Hong Kong’s bustling business districts and home to many of its government offices. Thousands of people appropriated umbrellas as makeshift shields against pepper spray and tear gas, maintaining enough of a foothold to paralyze one of Asia’s glimmering financial hubs for months.
The organization, optics and implications of Hong Kong as a persistent collision point between liberal democracy and authoritarianism captivated me long after the end of the Umbrella Revolution, as some had taken to calling it, abruptly ended after mass arrests of its leaders and one final push by police.
Fast forward three years, and I don’t think anybody who lives in Hong Kong or closely follows Chinese politics were blindsided when protests reignited to combat chief executive Carrie Lam’s proposed extradition bill, which many saw as an erosion of the so-called “one country, two systems” principle meant to safeguard Hong Kong’s autonomy after the end of British colonial rule.
They were back, just like they promised — and if what I witnessed over the last week is any indication, they’re here to stay for a long time.
What I saw on the streets felt very different from virtually anything I’ve covered in the four years I’ve been reporting on political activism in the United States. There is a palpable sense of urgency and desperation to the Hong Kong protests, as if the people involved in them realize that if push comes to shove, they are vastly outnumbered — perhaps even outgunned — but choose to press forward anyway, because they are convinced that losing would mean the obliteration of their free speech and self-determination.
Some Hongkongers even view their struggle as a final stand in preventing Chinese President Xi Jinping from letting the Communist Party’s hard-line approach to governance go global. An anti-totalitarianism march I photographed featured thousands holding a version of the Chinese flag with its stars rearranged in the form of a swastika, and the not-so-subtle phrase “anti-Chinazi.”
One of the first things you notice as a journalist about Hong Kong’s protest movement is how readily they embrace media coverage and welcome reporters to their front lines.
Though I admit my experience as a visiting American journalist might have been different in that regard than a veteran local reporter, it’s a sense of camaraderie and mutual respect I can’t say I’ve often seen back in the states, at least to this degree. After all, police there have earned a bad name tear gassing journalists and ruining photography with flashlights, to the point where journalists have started showing up to news conferences dressed in their protective gear as a form of protest. Hong Kong’s reporters have their stake in this, too.
On the first march I covered, a young man in all black tapped me on the shoulder. He passed me a canned coffee drink, asked me where I was from, thanked me for being there, then warned me that the police have garnered a chilling reputation for targeting reporters and that he expected things to get worse — a day before an Indonesian journalist was permanently blinded during a close-quarters scuffle on a footbridge, much like the ones I’d taken a liking to for crowd shots.
But my single biggest take-away from what I witnessed in Hong Kong was the sheer extent of street-level organizing, with many of the behemoth marches you see on television being organized with short notice on the encrypted messaging service Telegram or the Reddit-like forum LIHKG. Hong Kong’s protests have developed a subculture of their own, with a vibrant art scene and their own would-be national anthem, whose rousing (if somewhat generically patriotic) lyrics I heard memorized by throngs of people — despite it being less than a month old.
I witnessed shocking scenes of violence in by eight-day stay, mainly at the hands of Hong Kong’s police department, but by-and-large the images that I still find myself mulling over a week since my departure are the ones you’re not as likely to see on the news: Business owners handing out water to pedestrians overcome by residual tear gas, apartment building receptionists wearing gas masks watching police charge by as if it’s just another day in the life, or riot cops storming a park and cornering dozens of civilians for random, warrantless searches.
Going forward, there’s one suggestion I’d like to make for anybody reading this, or interested in following this story — don’t cut out the bystanders. What’s happening in Hong Kong is as much a tale of rampant police violence and increasingly furious front-line protesters as it is one of a city where millions live, caught in the fray.