Beneath their face masks, students in Hong Kong wore expressions of anger and fear. By 3pm on June 12, they filled the main street between Wan Chai and Admiralty, and were demanding the withdrawal of the controversial Extradition Law Amendment Bill (ELAB), as well as the resignation of the city’s leader, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. Those at the front were motioning for more helmets and umbrellas to be sent up. No one knew what would happen next, but the tense atmosphere hinted that things might not end peacefully.
Less than 20 metres away from the protesters were heavily armed police and special tactical squads, holding guns and cans of tear gas.
At 3.47pm, they fired tear gas at the intersection between Tim Wa Avenue and Harcourt Road. Protesters immediately began to disperse, screaming. As the gas spread, everything became a blur. When the students could finally open their eyes again, they saw a different world.
“The government has turned an entire generation of ordinary students into dissidents,” Joshua Wong Chi-fung tells Young Post eight days after the “612” protest, and just three days after being released from Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre prison, where he served a two-month sentence for his involvement in the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
The 22-year-old pro-democracy activist, who became the poster boy of the 2014 protests, believes that the ideals of today’s young Hongkongers have been permanently moulded by the events of the past month. After being tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets, this generation will never be the same.
“If the first political event that students encounter is so extreme as to involve being shot by the police, tear-gassed and besieged at Civic Tower … they will have an entirely different world view from those who have not experienced all that,” Wong says. “It’s something that cannot be reversed or undone.”
Wong watched from prison as the 612 event unfolded on live TV. He says that after the 2014 protests, the pro-democracy movement seemed to lose momentum. He and other participants vowed to return, but feared they might have to wait 10 or even 20 years for an opportunity.
“I never thought that when I was imprisoned, I would see people slowly filling up the street and occupying Harcourt Road again. I almost thought TVB was using old footage from 2014. I was shocked … We said we’d be back and now, we are really back with even greater determination.”
Wong first became involved in politics at the age of 14. At 18, he played a key role in the historic Umbrella Movement, which saw thousands of Hongkongers block roads in the city centre for 79 days to protest against restrictive electoral reforms. He founded his own political party, and has been sent to prison twice. Yet despite all this, he says his sacrifices are nothing compared to those made by these protesters.
“I don’t know what it feels like to be tear-gassed. Five years ago, I was arrested for occupying Civic Square just one night before the Umbrella Movement broke out … I returned to jail last month [to complete my sentence], and five weeks later, the police were firing tear gas, and I wasn’t there again,” Wong says.
He adds that he’s now seeing 15-year-olds facing police attacks head-on.
“Adults have misconceptions about [generation Z]; that they’re always on their phones, and are apathetic about politics. And yet many of them were the first to step onto the vehicle lanes at the anti-extradition bill protests.”
Wong also says that Instagram, once thought of as a vice of the smartphone generation, has become a tool with which to mobilise teens – in their tens of thousands – to join the political movement.
“People once used Instagram for fun, but this generation has come up with a more versatile use for it.”
Wong says it’s moving to see teens who were still in primary school during the 2014 protests now taking part in the anti-extradition protests. “It’s like passing on the torch to the next generation,” he says.
Given the huge turnout of some of the recent marches – two million Hongkongers are believed to have come out on June 16 – Wong feels increasingly that Hongkongers have realised their political power. And with the extradition bill still on the table, Wong believes more gatherings are on the way.
“I know there are some who did not believe in protesting before. But now, after seeing the effects, they feel empowered by this movement, by the act of speaking up.”